On the way to my daughter's school this morning, I encountered the usual L.A. rush-hour road rally of elephantine sports utility vehicles, many flying American flags. Taking the cake was a massive SUV proudly sporting half a dozen -- one on each window and two on the bumper. My first thought was, how patriotic! My second was, how much more patriotic it would be to trade in the gas guzzling leviathan for something that sips, rather than chugs, at the gas pump.
Which, thinking globally and acting locally, is precisely what I've decided to do with mine.
Though I don't consider myself an automotive fashionista, I must admit I followed the thundering herd of protective parents unable to resist the allure of what is basically a comfy Sherman tank. My SUV was a Lincoln Navigator -- the safest way, I was told, to transport my kids. And, as an added bonus, I could haul around a decent-sized Girl Scout troop.
But now we're at war, right? A New War. Everything has changed, hasn't it? Perhaps in rhetoric. In practice what are we being called to do for the war effort other than shop 'til we drop, eat out, and visit Disney World?
Given that our ability to play hardball with nations that harbor terrorists is going to be seriously compromised by our foreign oil habit, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to reduce that dependence -- starting, say, yesterday?
On Tuesday, the president ordered the government to boost its emergency stockpile of oil to "strengthen the long-term security of the United States." But nothing is being done to heed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's warning that "reducing our nation's dependence on imported oil is crucial to our national energy security, now more than ever before."
On average, SUVs consume over 6 miles per gallon more than a family station wagon. No small difference when you consider that an improvement of just 3 mpg in autos nationwide would save 1 million barrels of oil per day. On top of this, I have belatedly discovered that despite those TV ads showing them heroically scaling snow-capped mountains in a single bound, SUVs are actually risky to drive: four times more likely than cars to roll over in an accident and three times more likely to kill the occupants in a rollover.
Flag waving is great, but patriotic display is not a substitute for patriotic action. And the public is galvanized for action, just as it was during World War II. Back then, Americans answered their leaders' call for sacrifice in dozens of altruistic ways: they collected scrap metal to be refashioned as guns, planes and tanks, planted 20 million "victory gardens," which produced 40 percent of the nation's vegetables, wore worn-out shoes so leather could be used for soldiers' boots, saved cooking fat so the glycerin it contained could be used to make bombs, and made do with three gallons of gas a week. Just about what the average SUV devours on a few latte-hauling trips to Starbucks.
But when it comes to summoning the national resolve for shared sacrifice, W has been no FDR. There have been too many pep rallies and too few fireside chats. This president has the national ear, in a way few presidents ever have. The problem is, now that he's got our attention, he doesn't appear to have much to say.
His speech last week included a general call to serve your country by "mentoring a child, comforting the afflicted, housing those in need of shelter and a home." But his appeal lacked the kind of specificity that prods people out of their armchairs and into action. If the president had informed us, for instance, that 12 million children live in households where people have to skip meals to make ends meet, or that there are a million homeless children in this country on any given day, then Americans would be far more likely to become what he dubbed "a Sept. 11 volunteer." But if he had given us those figures, he would then have to veto the House's economic stimulus package that ignores their stark reality.
Of course, when it comes to acting on our patriotism, we don't have to wait for our leaders. If they won't lead, we can just step around them. And when it comes to the vital issue of energy policy, it appears that we'll have to.
As well as giving up our SUVs -- or, even better, switching to hybrid gas-and-electric cars that currently get up to 64 mpg -- we can all make simple adjustments to wean our country from the foreign oil teat, even if our leaders are too dazed by the energy and auto industry lobbies to guide us. We can, for example, make sure our tires are fully inflated, reducing gas consumption by 2 percent; we can slow down to 65 miles per hour, reducing highway gas consumption by 15 percent; and we can stop idling our cars at drive-thru windows and in school carpool lanes. And at home we can help conserve fuel by turning thermostats down, weather-stripping doors and windows, buying energy efficient light bulbs, and unplugging cellphone chargers and hair dryers.
We should also be on the lookout for a leader capable of envisioning and inspiring a massive Manhattan Project-style national commitment to reducing our dependence on oil. We can't go on consuming 25 percent of the world's oil while comprising only 5 percent of the global population. At least not if we want to get serious about putting the screws to any number of oil-rich and terrorist-friendly nations.
Laura Bush gave voice to a widely held sentiment when she said that Sept. 11 has made us "more determined and prepared, wiser and in many ways better." Not because of the number of flags attached to car windows or news anchors' lapels but because of the willingness the American people have shown to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to meet the challenge to our way of life.
Frankly, saying hasta la vista to my 13 mpg Navigator and hello to a 23 mpg Volvo V70 station wagon is hardly a sacrifice. But it's a start. Maybe I'll plant a victory garden in the backseat.