Lesson Not Learned

“This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation.”

The above statement is pretty strong. It’s powerful, but the power is not owed to the words so much as when they were spoken.

But who spoke them? And when?

Though I shouldn’t have to reassure you, it wasn’t President Bush, 41 or 43. It wasn’t Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. Not Hillary or Barak. Not even Ralph Nader. It wasn’t a college professor or an activist actress.

Some of you older folks out there might have recognized it right away and are feeling proud of yourselves right now, but you shouldn’t be. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.

You see, the great redeeming quality about making mistakes is that you can learn from them. In fact, my experience tells me mistakes are the greatest teacher, so long as those mistakes don’t take a devastating toll. The smartest among us are clever enough to learn from the mistakes of others before making their own, though any parent will tell you such children are few and far between.

But nowhere is it more important that we learn from mistakes than as a nation. Mistakes on the national level have such far-reaching and devastating consequences that it is imperative we need experience them only once, if at all.

In 1973 America experienced the Mideast Oil Crisis when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut off oil exports to the United States at a time when consumption levels were rising rapidly and domestic energy policy was nonexistent. Soon, Americans were waiting in line for gas and the economy took a shocking dive. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution sparked a similar crisis and the lines returned.

Which takes us back to the top, and the statement made by President Jimmy Carter in his infamous “malaise” speech of July 15, 1979. The ‘70s proved how vulnerable we are to the power of oil and the nations that control it. It was then we first realized the value of fuel-efficiency, natural resources, and energy conservation. In 1977 we finally created a cabinet-level Energy Department.

In his speech Carter asked the nation to make a collective effort to discover new energy resources the cheapest way possible – through conservation. He implored us to turn down our thermostats and pull on a sweater, to drive less, and he instituted initiatives in Washington to pursue solar and other renewable energies.

We didn’t listen. Reagan took down the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House when he took office, a symbolic kick-off to an era of worry-free economic growth that disguised a burgeoning problem beneath the surface of success. As we grew, our ever-increasing reliance on foreign oil to fuel our economy embroiled us deeper in conflicts in a Middle East we’ve never understood.

The other day a collective gasp rippled through Sister Bay as the numbers on the sign at Bhirdo’s gas station were rearranged to raise the price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline to $3.43. The oil, it seems, is finally running out, and quicker than we thought.

The effect is being felt again. We don’t have gas lines, but we’re spending our future on a war in Iraq. Middle class and poor families are being squeezed by rising gas and heating costs piggybacked on skyrocketing health care expenses and stagnant real wages.

So those of you who recognized the quote at the top, you must have lived through the ‘70s crisis. You must have experienced the lines, the uncertainty, the fear.

But in the years since you’ve put into office representatives and presidents who pretended this day would never come. With your dollars you bought gas-guzzlers and bigger homes.

And you spent three decades designing life around the automobile with separated use developments, wide streets, and vast parking lots.

You had your Jimmy Stewart “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment. The future effects of your lifestyle were shown to you in a brief snippet, and when it was over and you were given your choice of paths to follow, you chose the status quo.

As gas prices rise and the era of cheap oil comes to a close, my generation is left to ponder, “What do we do with the world you’ve left us?”

I struggle to comprehend how a problem that slapped our country so hard in the face for a decade could simply be swept under the rug for two decades. How such a valuable lesson could be ignored.

Of all the problems baby boomers and the like might have with the youth of today, is any as galling as their failure to be better stewards of the world those younger generations will inherit?

Carter asked a question then that still applies today. “Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?”

Then he presented a challenge.

“Energy,” Carter said, “will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our Nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.”

The generations before me failed that test once. In their middle and old age, they have a chance to take it again with the rest of us. The question is, will we all learn from their mistakes? Or some might ask, will we even get the chance?