Last week I had the opportunity to speak on energy matters to a local community group. Although the topic of my talk focused on uncertainties about future supply, I wanted to include some thoughts on the impact of Hurricane Katrina. My last bullet point, "What Can You Do?" prompted someone to ask whether that really should have been "What Can We Do?" My negative response clearly wasn't what he expected, but it was very much what I intended: While collective action must certainly play a role, it is up to each of us to manage our own use of energy. This country's enormous, surging demand for energy is simply the aggregation of the individual choices of 270 million consumers, and we are indeed the intended recipients of the countless little price signals we've been getting, including some rather urgent ones in recent weeks.
It seems that Ben Stein agrees. While probably best known these days as a quiz show host, Mr. Stein is a smart, savvy guy, and as a former official in the Nixon/Ford White House during the first energy crisis, he saw firsthand our efforts to deal with these problems before. His thoughts about the benefits of energy investments and the desirability of personal energy responsibility are timely, including his suggestion to cut your next car's engine size by two cylinders.
It makes you think twice about things we see have become accustomed to seeing. For example, on my way to the meeting where I was to speak, I was passed by someone driving his Mercedes Gelandewagen (EPA 13 city, 14 highway) like a Porsche, hardly what the EPA expects when it tests gas mileage on a vehicle weighing nearly 7,000 lbs. Now, he was certainly within his rights--speed limits and public safety notwithstanding--and if he can afford a G, he can handle $3.50 gasoline. That does not, however, make his behavior any less selfish or irresponsible at a time when we've lost 10% of our gasoline production. (I'm feeling better about my purchase of an Acura last year, having just netted 31 MPG over the weekend in mixed interstate and back-road driving.)
So to paraphrase Mr. Stein, if each of us assumes that energy will be more expensive and less reliable in the future, and if we all act and invest accordingly, then at worst things won't turn out to be that bad, and the benefits in other areas will far outweigh any regrets associated with our energy frugality. Status quo behavior, on the other hand, assuming that it is up to government, car companies, and the oil companies to solve the problem, will virtually guarantee that things will only get worse from here.