Hooray for the Red, White, Blue and Green

Let’s direct war fever in more productive ways

Arlie Hochschild is a sociologist and author of The Second Shift and The Time Bind. Her son, David Hochschild, coordinated the successful campaign for San Francisco’s recent solar revenue bond.

In 1942, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Americans began to understand that in order to win the war and to live again in a world at peace, they would have to make great personal sacrifices on the “home front.”

America began producing tanks and planes, and reduced or stopped producing many household items such as toasters and waffle irons made with materials needed for the war.

The government was specific in what it asked citizens to give up, and it spelled out what their altruism would mean to the war effort. In his book Don’t You Know There’s a War On? Richard R. Lingeman describes the kinds of trade-offs put before the American public. “If every family in America would forgo buying one [tin] can a week, this would save 2,500 tons of tin and 190,000 tons of steel—the equivalent of 5,000 tanks or 38 Liberty ships. Thirty thousand razor blades contained enough steel to make fifty 30-caliber machine guns.”

Bernard Baruch, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get Americans to conserve essential resources, rationed gas and lowered speed limits to 35 miles per hour on national highways. People didn’t just do without; they did things differently. Victory gardens—20,000,000 of them in parks, vacant plots and back yards—produced 40 percent of all the vegetables grown in the country.

People also changed their tastes. Because rubber was scarce, companies stopped making women’s rubber girdles, and fashion designers created new dress styles in response. In essence, during World War II, Americans saved, substituted, recycled and proudly did with less. They invented the idea of “green”—before they had the term—and put it together with red, white and blue.

The September 11 attacks have launched us into a very different kind of war. And it may be time now to take a leaf from our history and respond in the same spirit. Many Americans would like to help out—if they only knew how.

They also need to know why. The main reason is this: we’re in a war started by Osama bin Laden but linked—profoundly and more lastingly—to oil. Since the 1970s, both our consumption of oil and our dependence on foreign oil have risen.

Today, more than half of the oil consumed in the United States comes from overseas, much of it from the Persian Gulf.

We consume 25 percent of the oil produced in the world each year, yet have only 2 percent of the world’s known reserves. This oil dependency enmeshes us with repressive regimes and countries locked in struggles between harsh oligarchies and fundamentalist rebels. Our involvement with such a regime in Iran ended disastrously, and a similar story may lie ahead in Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, our oil dependence may lead us to more unwanted conflicts in Central Asia. The next big source of oil is Central Asia, where the regimes are, if anything, harsher, and where our presence may create even more unrest. U.S. oil companies are already there, cutting deals and planning pipelines—aligning us with unsavory regimes in ways that make ordinary people hate us.

In the end, our entanglements may make costly military interventions inevitable. In 1998, Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton Co.—which during his watch landed $2.3 billion in U.S. government contracts or taxpayer guaranteed loans to drill oil—said, “I can’t think of a time when we’ve had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” The major way to get Caspian oil and gas out to where it can be loaded on ocean-going tankers is through Afghanistan.

So, while many factors led up to September 11, oil is one of them. And if oil remains our primary energy source of choice, we can look forward to future hot spots in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

A shift toward renewable energy and conservation can also help reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Thank God, people are saying, that the hijacked planes didn’t hit one of America’s 109 nuclear power plants. But next time they could. Oil pipelines can be sabotaged and tankers sunk as well.

Given all this, perhaps the most meaningful and lasting contribution Americans can make to the anti-terrorism efforts is to break the oil habit. We cannot drill our way to an oil-based energy independence even if we try. All the oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would only yield enough to supply the nation for six months. Holland, Denmark and Norway have all set themselves the goal of achieving energy independence based on renewable energy, and we could do the same. We could declare it our “home front.”

It will be a tough job. We will have to break some habits, but we won’t have to change our values. Americans already believe in conservation, in green technology and in living within the globe’s means. According to a recent ABC poll, 78 percent of Americans would like to see more energy conservation. Some 80 percent support more solar and wind power. We believe in conservation and renewable energy; we just don’t yet act on our beliefs.

In a similar way 40 years ago, most Americans believed smoking led to cancer, emphysema and heart disease. Still, many of us kept smoking in restaurants, airplanes, workplaces and homes. In the last 40 years, Americans have cut their tobacco consumption in half, and lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema death rates have plummeted. It wasn’t easy. It took education, legislation and litigation. We went up against a big industry. But we did it—and are doing it still.

In the same spirit, we can “green” our way to energy independence—by conserving energy and by generating the energy we need from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. The Bush administration will not lead on this; both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have made huge fortunes in oil. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice not only served on Chevron’s board of directors; in 1993 the company actually named an oil tanker after her.

But one of the beauties of patriotic action on the home front is that we don’t need to wait for leadership from on high: We can all lead. We can commit to personal acts of conservation like replacing gas-guzzling cars with fuel-efficient ones, taking public transportation or insulating our houses.

Legislators can travel by public transportation. Movie stars can dismount at premieres from hybrid cars. Enlightened corporate CEOs can erect wind turbines on company property—with flags on top. School boards can order solar panels for school roofs and link environmental curricula to them.

State and local governments can pass new laws. San Francisco voters this month approved a $100-million revenue bond—the largest municipal energy bond measure in the country—to purchase solar panels and wind turbines to be placed on city property. Ultimately, the expenditures will be entirely offset by energy savings. Since 1980, the cost of solar energy has decreased by 71 percent and the cost of wind energy by 89 percent. The more people move to solar and wind power, the greater the economies of scale, and the less it will cost.

In recent weeks, Americans have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the victims of September 11 and lined up for hours to donate blood. We’re a good people. By using our most precious resources—our can-do spirits, our good will—we can achieve energy independence through clean and renewable energy.

The seeds of today’s victory gardens are already in our hands, but this time the “gardens” may be on our roofs.