Transitioning off of oil and federal impotence

If there’s one lesson which the healthcare legislative battle taught the American public, it’s that even with huge Democratic majorities, the federal government (in its current power structure) is very inefficient and ineffective at doing good things. As always, this is in large part due to our political complacency and visceral disengagement (feedback loop anyone?) partly manufactured by corporate advertising misdirecting our attention toward Snuggies or Glee or Shrek. If we put more pressure on Congress and the Administration, we will get better results. But that sort of pressure is not comfortable. It involves frequent and repeated calls and letters, marching in the streets, and getting the attention of the glassy-eyed television news media. It requires an informed and engaged citizenry.

Needless to say, if that sort of pressure didn’t happen with healthcare, it’s tough to imagine it happening for climate legislation. Amidst my anguish at the loss of life and livelihood and habitat related to the BP oil spill, I was hopeful that the associated public anger would transform into political pressure on our “leaders” to effect some worthwhile legislation.

That said, many populist approaches to transitioning off fossil fuels are already going. David Roberts has a recent article in Scientific American on the potential scaling up of distributed energy and efficiency measures. The Transition Town movement of community-driven initiatives seeking independence from oil is gathering steam across the country. And there are also more hopeful chances for change going on in government as well. Peter Lehner of the NRDC points at the transportation funding capability of congress as an area in which a lot of progress can be made. Because that budgetary area is affected by about 5% of the lobbying money that was present in the healthcare fight, maybe there’s some hope there. Also, a proposal like Ezra Klein’s, to include externalities in the price of oil (which would apparently increase the price of oil by $1.65 per gallon), seems like it might be a good way to harness popular despair about the oil spill. Of course, conventional wisdom holds that such an increase would be unpalatable for the American people, but who knows.

These are just a few ideas and movements already under way. We should all do our best to further efforts like these to bypass the primary governmental artery of legislative change, because it has become congested by the toxic pollution of corporate money. Perhaps something world-changing will come out of the US Social Forum this week. But we all need to step it up. That whole American innovation thing? Let’s show how it’s done.

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