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Turning the Corner on Oil Dependence

As Jon Stewart hilariously noted on the Daily Show, President Obama’s speech last week was not the first time a U.S. president has pledged to get the nation off oil. The last eight U.S. presidents have, at one time or another, pledged to reduce or end the nation’s dependence on imported oil or other fossil fuels.

There’s a strain of thinking – exemplified by this recent post from TIME’s Bryan Walsh – that the problem isn’t with “them” (the politicians) but with “us,” the people, for failing to make the hard choices, either in our personal behavior or our embrace of policy solutions, that are needed to break the back of oil dependence.

All of this – the track record of previous failure, the questioning of Americans’ resolve – leads, I’m afraid, to a certain fatalism in the approach to the issue by the media, the public, and decision makers, which makes the task of rousing the American people to action all the more difficult.

The fact is that America will get off oil one way or another. We will either do it the “easy” way – by making gradual changes in behavior and policy that lead to the development of technological and lifestyle alternatives that reduce our use of oil and move us toward cleaner alternatives – or we will do it the hard way, by being priced out of the game in a decade or two when the cheap and easy oil is finally gone. We got a taste of what the hard way looks like – individually and economically – when gasoline hit $4 a gallon a couple of years ago. And we’re getting a taste of what it looks like environmentally with the Gulf oil spill.

So, amid the current atmosphere of doom and gloom, it’s worth it to highlight a few places where things are going right – where we are making progress, if slow and halting, in the battle to curb our dependence on oil.

  • America’s consumption of oil is down by roughly 10 percent from our peak in 2005.
  • The number of miles driven on America’s highways has plateaued at a level below the peak around 2007.
  • Alternatives to driving are slowly taking root. The Brookings Institution has found that the share of Americans taking transit to work has increased for the first time in 40 years, and, as a recent report (PDF) shows, the share of walking and biking commuters has experienced a small uptick during the 2000s.
  • There appears to be a trend toward increasing demand for housing in compact neighborhoods with multiple transportation options.
  • Technologically, the 2000s saw the mass introduction of hybrid-electric vehicles (a development that was definitely not seen as a given at the time, especially by American automakers such as GM), and the nation is now on the cusp of the broad-scale introduction of fully electric and plug-in electric vehicles by Nissan, GM and other automakers.
  • There is a greater appreciation of the importance of energy efficiency, several states have made major commitments toward energy-efficient homes and businesses, and federal policy is beginning to follow suit.

This list of partial successes – which have gotten virtually no notice in the national media – shows that there are really two ways of thinking about the project of getting America off oil. One is as the focal point of a major national commitment – the equivalent of an Apollo mission or the industrial effort around World War II – complete with examples of patriotic self-sacrifice and stirring presidential speeches from the Oval Office. Or it could be the result of quiet changes of habit, technology and policy that manifest themselves in many ways in many places – more bicycling here, new zoning laws that encourage compact development there, incremental improvements in energy efficiency everywhere, and a gradual shift in technology toward cleaner modes of transportation.

I’d prefer the former approach, both because the scale of the challenge is great and because Americans have shown that with the requisite will we can achieve great things in impossibly short periods of time. But if, as Stewart’s demonstration of the futility of the presidential “bully pulpit” suggests, a new Apollo-style national drive for oil independence isn’t in the cards, we may have to settle for the latter. And if that’s the case, it’s up to all of us to do our darnedest to make it work.