We all solemnly recognized the anniversary of 9/11 Thursday, as we should. It was a gut-wrenching day for Americans, and one that changed the course of modern history.
But what about 9/12?
Thomas Friedman, in his new book, Hot Flat and Crowded, about the intersection of global warming, population growth and information and energy technology, includes a passage, spoken by a truth-telling candidate as bold as (s)he is fictional, about how we could now be recognizing Sept. 12 as a day that also changed the course of modern history:
Think about this: The price of gasoline on the morning of September 11, 2001, was between $1.60 and $1.80 a gallon in America. Had President Bush imposed a $1-a-gallon 'Patriot Tax' the next day, gasoline would have been close to $3 a gallon. The U.S. government would have gotten the revenue boost, demand for gasoline would have fallen, and demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles would have soared. It would not be out of bounds to speculate that even with rising demand from China and India over the past seven years, gasoline at the pump in America today would be $3 to $4 a gallon, but we would already have been through the transition. Many more Americans would be driving much more fuel-efficient cars, like Europeans do, so their actual mileage per tank of gasoline would be dramatically better. And the U.S. Treasury rather than the Iranian Treasury would be getting the extra dollar in the gasoline price. But because we did not have the courage to make that transition on September 12, 2001, gasoline on September 12, 2008, was more than $4 a gallon [Friedman's book is published this month; the actual average price of gas today is $3.64], the fuel economy of American cars was still lousy, and the billions of dollars we've paid out due to the doubling of gasoline prices since September 11 has all gone to the oil producers, including governments that have drawn a bull's-eye on our backs.
If we continue to do nothing in a world that is hot, flat and crowded, we could easily see gasoline go to $5 or $6 a gallon in America. That will certainly stimulate a transition -- a real spur to innovation, a real change in consumer buying habits, and probably even more mass transit. But, precisely because we have waited so long to act, the cost of this transition to the average American will be wrenching -- it already is -- and politically destabilizing. Lord only knows what the impact will be in poor and developing countries. Every decade we look back and say, "If only ... If only we had done the right thing ten years ago." Well, my fellow Americans, all we need to do to guarantee that we slowly become a second-rate country is to once again keep postponing doing the right things for another decade. We baby boomers grew up in an age when all we had to do to maintain our way of life was leverage and exploit our intellectual resources through innovation and technology. And the only way to do that is to shape the market differently. I am convinced that most Americans will pay more for energy if they are convinced that doing so will give them cars, homes, and appliances that will dramatically lower their energy consumption -- and contribute to a real nation-building strategy.
Friedman (who, incidentally, supported the policy Bush ultimately did pursue: war in Iraq) lays out how such a technological revolution could be fostered by government policies that support market innovations. It's not the only provocative statement he makes in pursuit of an end goal that amounts to a Utopian vision he says is achievable: A world where we produce so much clean energy that not only have we stopped global warming, but preserved vast swaths of wilderness and lifted millions out of poverty.
A gas tax is one small piece of that, but in the framing of so many key issues today -- national security, global hegemony, the U.S. economy and global warming -- as being tied directly to energy innovation, the Friedman plan is worth a close read, and worth careful consideration. It's a prescription for a revolution, and considering how vehemently even a simple gas tax would be opposed, it's a revolution that will need a lot more support if it's to start, let alone succeed.
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