frank_talk (2006-33)

Self Sufficiency

Why haven’t we done more on our energy front?

by Frank Cagle

What happened?

In the 1970s we had a song that started life as a Coke commercial, before it became a best selling pop song. We were all going to grow apple trees, and honeybees and snow-white turtledoves—after we taught the world to sing, of course. We shortly arrived at a Middle East oil embargo, long gasoline lines and skyrocketing electricity rates. We resolved never to be at the mercy of oil sheiks in an interdependent global economy but to instead become more self-sufficient.

What happened?

We discovered that homegrown apples have worms, the mites killed the honeybees and snow-white turtledoves tend to crap on everything. We also discovered that $1 a gallon gasoline was bearable, cutting wood hurts your back and an SUV is a nice way to get back and forth to work on the interstate.

Thinking back to the way we were—our alleged idealism tempered with fear of OPEC and another group of insane TVA board members—there are a few things I find it almost impossible to believe.

Why haven’t I been able to go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and have their people show me how to install a solar panel kit that provides substantial power for my house? Where is the workshop at one of these places demonstrating how to install an ethanol plant to power my car? How did the boomers get into the situation where we are still “on the grid” and totally dependent on the macro-economy for all our needs? Where’s my windmill kit? Why haven’t we reached the stage of mass production of alternative energy sources at the household level? We have discovered mass production to make emergency generators, chain saws and pressure washers affordable. Where is the mass production of energy producing technologies?

We were lulled into a false sense of security by decades of stable energy prices, causing the market for solar energy to tank. The pitiful ethanol industry is a joke kept alive by presidential candidates having to campaign in Iowa. Necessity breeds invention, and there has been no necessity. From another song of the era, “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

After 10 years in a West Knox County suburb I moved back to a farm, still clinging to the ideas of my youth. I tried for awhile. But it was more fun to ride horses than weed the garden. When I had the heat pump put in, TVA made me take my wood burning stove out of the basement. I spent hours peeling apples from my orchard and wrapping them in cloth to dry on the tin roof of the barn. Then the ants came. I haven’t cut wood in a half-dozen years. I’m ashamed of myself.

Our economy and our way of life require large-scale energy producing and consuming enterprises. We have to have power plants, oil refineries and big trucking companies to move our goods. But couldn’t we all do our part to reduce energy demand and reduce the stress on the system? Can we really trust oil companies, big utilities and the Congress to look out for us? Did we decide not to build any refineries in the last 25 years? Did we decide not to build any additional power plants? Did we decide to continue to put our economy and our way of life in the hands of Middle Eastern jihadists?

By not demanding change, I suppose we did.

Perhaps we need to take some responsibility here. Instead of asking Congress or the president to do something about our energy problems let’s just ask them to get out of the way. Let’s let American retailers know there is pent-up demand for energy solutions at the micro level.

After the oil shocks of the 1970s we got new building regulations requiring insulation. Heat pumps were installed. Congress set fuel economy standards for automobiles. We got more efficient water heaters, refrigerators and stoves. We reduced demand, and one shudders to think what our energy requirements would be today if we hadn’t. But we got complacent.

It’s time to lose the complacency. We need to take responsibility for our own energy usage. We are going to have to take the matter into our own hands, however. It is obvious that our government isn’t going to do anything.

It’s also a national security issue. Can we really do anything about Middle-Eastern madmen building nuclear weapons when they control oil production and thus hold our economy hostage?

Teenagers were once urged to yell, “I want my MTV.” Perhaps we will have to start gathering in groups in front of Home Depot and yelling: “I want my solar panels.”

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .