Waste Not, Depend Not

The New York Times

Roaring Brook Road, normally a quiet country thoroughfare in Westchester County, becomes a frustratingly long line of cars, minivans and S.U.V.'s on school mornings, as hundreds of cars snake down a steep hill on their way to the local high school, which has barely 1,000 students.

The bright yellow school buses, meanwhile, arrive practically empty, carrying mostly ninth-graders. No older student would be caught dead in the "loser cruiser."

Anyone who wants to understand America's urgent energy challenge should watch this morning ritual, repeated in hundreds of suburban and rural communities across the country. With only limited public transportation, scarce sidewalks, few bike lanes, and "uncool" school buses, it's all about cars.

Of course, the problem extends far beyond high school. Parents idle their car engines while they wait for the buses carrying their grade-school children. And the traveling sports teams seldom take seriously the idea of team buses or car-pooling. Instead, players travel with their parents as far as hundreds of miles to the games, often in large family vehicles.

One concerned parent told me she approached a local school official and suggested a student-led energy conservation initiative in response to the events of Sept. 11. The official said he wouldn't touch the idea with a 10-foot pole. Cars, clearly, are sacrosanct there.

Unfortunately, energy conservation never has been a popular subject in the United States. We all remember the ridicule President Jimmy Carter endured when he announced that he was turning down the thermostat at the White House and wearing a sweater to compensate.

But President Carter was reacting to the traumatic events of the 1970s - first, the Arab oil embargo of 1973, followed by the steep rise in oil prices led by OPEC. He understood that America's Achilles' heel was our dependence on foreign, especially Middle East, oil, and we needed to break it.

Nearly 30 years later our vulnerability is greater than it was then. In 1973, America imported 28 percent of its crude oil. Today, the figure is 52 percent, and, according to the Department of Energy's Web site, 29 percent of it comes from the Persian Gulf, principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and, believe it or not, Iraq.

Americans constitute less than five percent of the world's population, yet one of every seven barrels of oil in the world is used on our roadways. In 1975, light trucks accounted for only 19 percent of all automotive sales. Today, that figure is 50 percent. It includes S.U.V.'s, which are subject to laxer mileage standards than cars. According to The Toronto Star, "The amount of extra gas they use on average in one year, compared with cars, equals the amount of energy you'd waste if you left your refrigerator door open for six years."

Meanwhile, my family's recent yearlong stay in Europe revealed some significant differences from the American appetite for energy.

Cars are most assuredly an important feature of the Continental landscape, but there are at least two major distinctions.

First, Europe has invested very heavily in energy-efficient railroads, and, with few exceptions, the networks are comprehensive, efficient and fast, providing a highly competitive rival for the car.

Second, S.U.V.'s are still a relative rarity on European streets, while small cars, motorcycles and motor scooters are more the rule. Of course, buyers are not necessarily motivated by environmental concerns. Gasoline is heavily taxed, making it two to three times as expensive as in the United States.

Europeans are also more stinting in their use of electricity. Each time I travel to Berlin, I am struck by the scant use of lighting in government offices, even those of senior officials. In Paris, apartment buildings boast wall buttons that light up darkened stairwells for barely enough time to reach the desired floor. And, I don't remember removing my sweater much during years spent studying in London.

Sept. 11 was a wake-up call and as much of an alarm as was the 1973 oil embargo. It is imperative that we respond this time by making sure America will not be caught off guard and held hostage by unfriendly and unstable oil suppliers.

There are no simple and neat formulas for developing a national energy policy. Elected officials, foreign governments, the energy industry, truck manufacturers and environmental groups have a big stake in the debate and will fight hard to defend their respective interests. But the high stakes should jolt us into national consensus.

At our suburban train station, there are now 10 choice parking spots for electric cars, each fitted with a recharging unit. The wave of the future or ephemeral environmental chic? Only time will tell.

Perhaps one true test of success will be measured mornings on Roaring Brook Road and its environs. Maybe it's simple a question of spin: Now if the "loser cruiser" could be recast, say, as the "schmoozer cruiser," maybe more students would get out of their cars and back on the bus.

David A. Harris, who lives in Chappaqua, is national executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC