"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"
Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night
"Lord what fools these mortals be!"
Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream
"Energy is eternal delight."
Last month I did a post on obesity in which I argued that the "heroic" ideal, according to which we expect the average obese person to shed (and keep shed!) the pounds through sheer willpower, is unrealistic. Rather, systemic incentives must compensate for human frailty. I would submit that the same is true of our now daily vilified "addiction" to fossil fuels, now blamed for both climate change and the kind of reckless quest for oil dominating the airwaves.
In a recent column Thomas Friedman suggested that maybe now, in the wake of the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, we will decide to take drastic action as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint. His article was entitled "This Time It's Different." No, it's not, at least so far as individual, existential, by-the-bootstraps decision-making is concerned.
Human beings on average are wired to appreciate threats and crises that affect them or their kin or close neighbors in a direct and concrete way. Climate change and, notwithstanding ubiquitous images of oiled wildlife, oil spills are too remote and abstract to change daily behavior. Human beings crave energy, whether in the form of culinary calories or fossil fuel horsepower, and we seek to enjoy this energy without its deleterious drawbacks. Like the true addict, we wish not to decrease or cease our use, but to use without consequences.
Fossil fuel consumption will not diminish until its cost to the individual consumer increases drastically, period. The overriding convenience of cheap and abundant energy is like cocaine. Of course, one point of government is to enable us, collectively, to compensate for individual short-sightedness by enacting laws that reflect our wisdom and our better nature. We need innovative energy policy, not holding out hope for individual abstinence from fossil fuels. The argument from individual virtue is the argument for inaction.