Just breathe

Call it the year of living anxiously. We’ve been gripped by a succession of calamitous events that threaten to undermine our accustomed standard of living. Globally, we’re engaged in a war on terrorism that has already inflicted significant damage to services we once took for granted, such as mail and air travel. Nationally, we’re mired in an economic slump that has no end in sight. In California, we’ve suddenly discovered that the production of electricity hasn’t kept pace with population growth.

Those millennial doomsayers are beginning to look more like prophets than paranoids. The works of Nostradamus are selling like hotcakes. Our reaction to these various crises has been predictable: widespread panic. The world has been dangerously polarized—you’re either with us or against us in the war on terrorism. The stock market has taken more turns than an amusement park ride.

Closer to home, the state Energy Commission recently decided to exempt quick-to-build electrical generators—constructed as a stopgap measure to meet the state’s immediate energy needs—from the Legislature’s requirement that they shut down or convert to a cleaner burning system after three years.

The commission’s decision allows simple-cycle gas turbine generators, which are quicker and cheaper to build but cause more air pollution than more expensive complex-cycle turbines, to operate for up to 30 years. Companies that submit license applications to the state by December 19 can qualify for the exemption. Critics charge that the commission’s action will lead to the construction of dirtier-burning simple turbines up and down the state, including several sites already proposed in the Sacramento area.

The commission, composed of five political appointees, has sacrificed long-term goals for short-term needs—in this case, the goal of cleaner air mandated by the will of the people for an immediate increase in electrical output. A host of similar snap decisions are currently being made at the local, state, national and international levels. Hard-earned freedoms are being eroded in the name of national security. Massive corporate tax cuts have been proposed to aid the flagging economy. Perhaps some of these solutions will pan out. Make the right decision in a panic, and you’re a hero.

The problem is, the right decision is rarely made in a panic, particularly when it comes to the slow-moving process we call government. As we’ve discovered with the state’s energy crisis, increased electrical generation isn’t the only solution to the problem. The Energy Commission was scheduled to reconsider the exemption as this issue was going to press. We hope they’ve changed their mind, because by choosing the instant gratification of more energy now over cleaner air in the future, the commission is hindering the one thing all of us are advised to do in times of panic.