If a global warming calamity is as close as Al Gore says it is, can changing light bulbs and taking shorter showers save the planet?
The baby steps approach around a crisis seemed to be a predominant message from the Live Earth concerts last week. Do a little bit for the cause. If that message sticks, could it squander any cultural or political momentum Gore and his allies have marshaled behind evidence that human activity is warming the planet to dangerous levels? But Americans have become familiar with the doctrine of low- or no-pain sacrifice.
A few Americans – those in the military and their loved ones – have been asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in what George W. Bush constantly argues is a titanic struggle for civilization. The rest of us – not so much. Beyond removing our shoes at airports, or fuming about encroachment on civil liberties, or dealing with the psychological effects of terrorist threats, there is not much that binds us.
We are told that living normal lives is the greatest answer to terrorism. Then we are told these are not normal times.
The United States is in a war but not at war.
If the threats of terrorism and warming are what leaders say they are, is it necessary to challenge Americans to do much more than flip off a light switch or buy a hybrid car when the gas burner wears out? How would Americans react if they were told that to emancipate their children from the political entanglements of the oil kingdoms, they would quickly and irrevocably have to live under far tougher mileage and pollution standards?
If energy independence on this continent were given a date-certain goal, like reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, would American businesses and consumers rise to the challenge? If more shame were brought down on ostentatious consumption, would it make a difference? (We could start by asking actresses who tell the rest of us to turn off the shower while we shave our legs to work as earnestly on closing the Lear jet skyway from Hollywood to New York).
If national goals were set to retrofit homes for maximum energy efficiency or streamline information technology for better energy use, would Americans join the cause, help their fellow citizens find a way? If nuclear power were part of the road to energy independence, would we have the will to make storage and protection of nuclear waste a national security issue of the first order?
Do we need national service, military and nonmilitary, to mobilize young Americans against what could be their generation’s lifelong struggle against terrorism and religious fanaticism?
We don’t know, because no one is asking.
In 2003, as Bush was gearing up for re-election, adviser Karl Rove came to a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. It was before the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the sectarian and terrorist violence that besets Iraq today. Rove was asked if the American people were being asked to make sacrifices to help win the war on terrorism.
Rove, a student of history, had perused original government documents on rationing and other World War II sacrifices.
“I suspect there are some people in this room that, as small children, were asked to participate in the scrap drive or the tin drive or the paper drive, or to grow a vegetable garden,” Rove said. “Well guess what? We are not fighting the same kind of war that requires the same kind of sacrifices by the American people. We have got enough tin and paper and rubber to equip our military forces.”
He was right as far as it goes, and a robust defense industry in the United States proves it so. But what the president does not have now is far more serious: the support of a majority of the American people for a war he says must be won.
“Of course I am concerned about whether or not the American people are in this fight,” Bush said during a news conference Thursday, acknowledging that “war fatigue” is “affecting our psychology.” But the “ugly war,” he said, must be won as part of a struggle that will go far beyond his presidency.
Leaning forward, the president said that when he retires to Texas in 18 months, “I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based on principle, not based on politics, and that is important to me.”
But will he be able to ask: “Did I ask enough of the American people?”
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