The president wrapped up his address Tuesday night by asking Americans to pray for the victims -- both human and environmental -- of the BP oil spill. I thought it was a strange way to end his first Oval Office address during a national emergency insofar as praying makes the situation appear too big for conventional solutions. As though all that remains between us and a sea of oil is the Hail Mary.
This morning it occurred to me that this was the only thing he could really ask Americans to do.
Why? Simply stated, it doesn't require any effort to silently invoke spirituality while stopped at a traffic signal or while chewing a gluttonous mouthful of Double Down. Actually, I take back that second part. I can't imagine doing anything other than suffering a massive infarction while eating a Double Down.
Instead of prayer, the president could have asked us all to make sacrifices towards the goal of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. Maybe he should have asked for sacrifice. It probably wouldn't have hurt. But it would have been mostly ignored.
Americans simply don't do "national sacrifice" anymore. During World War II, Americans were asked to ration everything from sugar to oil to cheese -- even shoes. Those days are long gone. Today, we're asked to go to Disneyland or the beach. Or we're asked to pray. (It's difficult to imagine the modern right-wing, for example, accepting the rationing of anything at the behest of the current president when most of them refuse to fill out a U.S. Census form. More on that presently.)
The BP oil spill has been a daily reminder of our toxic relationship with decomposed dinosaurs. On just about every blog and every cable news show, we've watched in shock-horror as 75,000,000 gallons of oil spew from the top of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer. We see it. We cringe. Some of us shout, "Why, oh, why?!" Others curse Tony Hayward and BP. Maybe some of us curse President Obama or former President Bush. A clear majority of Americans are pissed off, and they're taking it out on everyone except themselves: the ones actually buying the oil.
Once we're exhausted with blaming and yelling, we climb into our oversized cars, crank up the air conditioner, drive to Burger King and order a ammonia-washed beef sandwich the size of a baby -- while mindlessly idling at the drive-thru.
As the president pointed out last night, scientists, experts and politicians have been urging us to make the transition to clean energy and away from fossil fuels. In the last ten years alone, we've endured the largest terrorist attack on our soil and subsequently fought two wars, all prompted by American intrusions into the Middle East to satisfy our collective petro fix.
Despite all of the warnings and the death, money and mayhem, the only thing that seemed to have temporarily curtailed our fetish for gigantic penis-extending vehicles was the 2008 spike in gas prices. But even while gas prices topped $4 per gallon, there was only a four percent decrease in driving, according to the Department of Transportation. A big number for Americans, but not nearly big enough.
We know what we have to do. All of us. But we only really make these kinds of sacrifices when we have no other choice.
For most of us, our share of energy is burned as matter of lifestyle and habit. We might turn off an extra light or two, or slowly switch to CFL bulbs, but making sacrifices big enough to smash a dent in the volume of fossil fuels we burn and the carbon footprint we leave seems almost unheard of. Especially because Americans have been conditioned to participate in the consumer economy. Not only are politicians disinclined to demand less spending on burgers and cars due to the consequential negative economic impact, but the money spilling into their campaigns from the various Big Consumer corporations won't permit any such call to sacrifice that which Big Consumer corporations are selling.
President Obama wouldn't dare suggest we eat less beef or buy fewer cars. And definitely not when we're beginning to recover from an enormous recession. If we were to actually pay attention to a presidential call to personally scale back our energy habits, the abrupt change in consumer spending could create a backslide in economic recovery and, thus, the president's shot at reelection would be jeopardized, not to mention the reelection chances of any member of Congress who rides along.
The only thing he can do -- the only thing any political leader can do -- is to slowly phase out fossil fuels in such a way that it's barely noticed and that won't immediately force us to stop cramming our pie holes with more than our reasonable share of meat, or to stop getting off on vehicles that generate a contained earthquake beneath our fat asses.
Unless, that is, we all take the initiative on our own.
Aren't conservatives always talking about self-reliance and personal responsibility? It goes without saying that conservatives will be the last ones to make any changes. These are the same ignorant simpletons who deliberately cut down trees and burn tires on Earth Day. You know, just because. This week, when asked about the horrible mining process known as mountaintop removal, Rand Paul said, "I don't think anybody's going to be missing a hill or two here and there."
At the same time, if the president had called for sacrifice, Glenn Beck and the other screeching members of the Opposite Day Party (platform: the opposite of whatever the Democrats say) would insist that the president was trying to indoctrinate Americans. Imagine if the president had mentioned in his speech an initiative for citizens to volunteer in the Gulf or to organize car pools. AM radios all across the nation would have simultaneously exploded with the high-pitched wailing of a thousand talk show hosts screaming, "Huuusaaaaaine!" Remember, for example, when the president and the Senate passed the Serve America Act creating a volunteer corp? Beck called it the "National Enslavement Bill" and Michele Bachmann said it would include "re-education camps for children."
Ironically, these are the same people who are demanding the president show more "leadership" in this crisis. The anti-government intervention crowd.
Ultimately, the president would more easily be able dive to the bottom of the Gulf and plug the leak by tying the blowout preventer in a big knot than he would be able to convince enough Americans to even temporarily drink fewer milkshakes (in the vernacular of Daniel Plainview).
Instead, all he can really ask Americans to do is to pray. Anything more would be too disruptive.
If you're angry about the oil spill, organize a car pool, eat less beef, live closer to work and ride a bike. These aren't complicated things to do, but they do require a little effort. Maybe moving closer to work is a pain in neck, but, then again, so is 75,000,000 gallons of oil mixed with a dispersant forming a massive cocktail of poison in the Gulf of Mexico.
I think it's time to inconvenience ourselves for a change.