Is No Progress Possible?


Dear Earthlovers,

The news is not good.  Not only are we facing a shortage of petroleum that is sending gas prices soaring, but also, as the The New York Times reported today, a shortage of fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

You’d think that we’d use this moment of scarcity to seek out better, cleaner alternatives.  Sadly, America is led by ingenious types who spend their day trying to move us back to yesterday.  We have Hillary Clinton and John McCain promising to suspend the federal gas tax. And we have chemical fertilizer companies working their fingers to the bone, trying to build new plants.

As for the rest of us who’d prefer not to have their air, soil, and water poisoned for other people’s profit–I believe we’re out of luck. We have no vote whatsoever.

Let 100 dead zones of algae bloom! Let the people drive SUVs! Anything to avoid change for the better! I think we were once a different kind of country.




  1. We can all choose by our choices, though. I, for one, think my Prius is the best car I’ve ever had and my garden looks great all summer without any weedkillers or chemicals at all. Of course I spent a lot of time in it, weeding; and I realize not everyone can do that. I agree that suspending the federal gas tax is a dreadful idea. Maybe when prices get to 7 or eight dollars a gallon (as they are in parts of Europe) we will change our habits and invest in public transportation? We can hope.

  2. I think people are very price sensitive – but it’s up to the government (through taxes and incentives) to establish the necessary conditions under which most people will start moving in the right direction. That being said, you can’t jack up gas taxes without providing transportation alternatives, which local governments are notoriously bad about doing…

  3. We need leadership, not pandering! Countries innovate and solve the energy problem because either the financial incentives are put in place to reward it, or the financial incentives for continuing to use oil are removed. Or better yet, both.

  4. I am beginning to become a conspiracy theorist! Price of food goes up because corn is now being used for ethanol, the price of gas goes up, now the price of fertilizer is going up…follow the money. Check out this link that says the nutritional value of food grown with fertilizer is less than organically grown food – as if we couldn’t have guessed that.

  5. I, too, was depressed when I read the Times this morning. The fertilizer story, Freidman’s op-ed…it does all seem so hopeless.

    But, I can’t say we have no vote whatsoever. How did they manage to get Home Depot to ban fertilizers in Canada? There must be a way for people to fight back. Forty years ago, who could have imagined that smoking would be as frowned upon as it is now…can we fight for a day when the use of lawn chemicals – and the overuse of resources – is equally frowned upon?

    Just as importantly, I think we need to be careful about being self-righteous. Is someone who drives an SUV creating making more of a footprint than a Prius-driving family who flys off on family vacations each year? Are parents who let their kids play on travel teams or who drive to downhill ski centers every Sunday more of a “problem” than those who only allow kids to participate in neighborhood activities? We all make our mark; our challenge is to keep resource scarcity in the news, to press people think about their actions, and to make “simple” living the new trend.

  6. I’ve believed for a long time the gas ought to be five dollars a gallon. It forces us to make sensible decisions. When fuel is cheap, it’s easy for a country to export the exact same amount of milk it imports. When fuel goes up, suddenly people are forced to figure out better options.

    Half of our waste stream can be consumed by earthworms and turned into fertilizer. There are solutions to these problems, but we’re not going to work them out unless we’re forced to.

  7. Yes, Amy, I agree. Necessity is the mother of invention. Competition for fuel, food, etc. from an increasingly rich India and China are making alternatives necessary.

    But it’s this factor that pandering politicians are trying to remove. They want to ensure that we suffer nothing as a people now–no matter what our failure to change costs us down the road.

  8. There’s a couple of problems with using the price of gasoline to get people to change their driving habits.

    1) It is disproportionately hard on the poor, who often live in places where there is no alternative to driving to get to work.

    2) It presupposes that everyone lives in urban areas dense enough to make public transportation possible, let alone reasonable.

    What we need is a combination of strategies —

    For the urban areas, public transportation that works well enough to compete with automobiles even when the price of fuel is reasonable, and, for everyone else, a reasonably-priced, renewable form of energy for individually-run vehicles. It would be nice if it was environmentally friendly, too, but if we can make the urban transit cover that, it may be a small enough percentage of the total that it wouldn’t matter so much.

    Until we have both, nothing’s really ever going to change. Raising gas prices alone just wreaks havoc with the economy in a disproportionate measure to whatever little good it does.

  9. We can vote with our wallets. Thanks to concerns raised by Michael Pollan, Al Gore, and others, we have a nation suddenly interested in all things “green.” I’m seeing a wide array of organic foods all over the grocery store instead of being tucked away in a dark little “natural foods” section. Most stores in our area are offering reusable shopping bags for a very low price and are encouraging people to buy them. I can actually find eggs from free-range chickens without having to roam the country roads looking for a hand-lettered cardboard sign that says “EGG’S” (making me want to say, “Egg’s WHAT?”).

    It’s true that as a nation, we want change so long as it doesn’t require us to do anything different. Yes, we agree that conserving gas is good in principle, but we still have a hard time shaking our driving habits and GM still thinks we should all want giant pickups and SUVs. We agree that “green” is a kinda nice thing for the earth and all, but we still want our clean, packaged foods. Fluorescent lights and low-flow shower heads let us keep the lights on late or linger in the shower as long as we always have while still conserving, but that sort of “don’t make me change too much” conservation is only going to go so far.

    Still… finding free-range meats and locally-grown produce at the supermarket is a change in the right direction.

  10. I guess I’m having one of my rare glass-is-half-full moments because while I acknowledge all the serious problems that Michele and commenters are talking about here, I’m really getting the feeling that serious change for the better is afoot. People who never did before are now growing vegetables. I volunteered this weekend at an edible garden here in Alameda in the Bay-Friendly Garden Tour, and we had almost 300 people come by to see it. The interest in healthy gardening does seem to be increasing. I read that egg prices are up 35%, but so is the interest in raising backyard chickens. And if there’s a shortage of petroleum-based fertilizers, that should drive more people (and corporations) to organics. The changes we’re going through are going to be painful, but there’s a chance we could end up in a better place. As for the gas tax holiday, I think McCain and Clinton need a holiday. Vote Obama.

  11. I’m always disturbed by phrases like “we can vote with our wallets”. More evidence of how we define ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. And as long as we are consumers, instead of producers, we will be manipulated by people trying to sell us something.

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