We’ve had discussions recently on the amount of subsidies that the fossil fuel industries receive from the federal government here in the U.S. To be sure, there is a great deal of hanky-panky played with these numbers. Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that the accounting method and total number that one chooses is often a function of the case one’s trying to make.
Normally, I simply say that it doesn’t matter; any amount is too much. After all, why on Earth would we want to provide incentive to promote damage to our ecosystems, weaknesses to our national security, lung disease, etc., especially when the subject industry is already the most profitable one on the planet?
But when I read a comment from “Pierre” earlier today: “How much is the ‘polluter not paying’ subsidy worth?” it started me thinking about this. This is a brilliant point, in that there are a ton of subsidies that this whole discussion normally sidesteps:
• The cost of the wars fought to maintain access to oil
• The cost of the roads that encourage the consumption of more gasoline (versus, say, railroads and trolleys)
• (The one he noted) The forbearance from the cost of cleaning up after themselves, i.e., absorbing the costs of the long-term environmental damage and lung disease they’re causing.
But let’s take a step back and clarify something. I presume by “the polluter,” Pierre is referring to the fossil fuel industries. But it’s not quite that simple. The energy companies find and sell energy resources. We buy them and burn them. In a very real sense, we’re both “the polluter.”
When my kids were little, I remember some of the words I chose in my attempts to teach personal responsibility. “Be the bigger person,” I recall telling my six-year-old son Jake when he was infuriated at the antics of his four-year-old sister, who had masterfully figured out how to “press his buttons.” I can’t tell you how proud I was many years later when I overheard him tell a teenage friend who had been insulted, “Dude, just chill. Be the bigger person.”
My point is that the energy industry, for all its faults, has provided us with what we wanted, and, in fact, demanded: mobility, convenience, and comfort. And some of the major (and minor) players in this industry did so at considerable risk. Without them, we’d be colder, lonelier, sicker, and far less worldly. Maybe it’s a mistake to be too steadfast in our condemnation now that we’ve (very recently) become tuned in to the issues of greenhouse gasses, climate change, etc.
Can we, as consumers, take some responsibility for the condition in which we find ourselves? I’ll speak first: I can. Obviously, I’d love the industry to knock off the deceit, and honestly get with a program of providing clean, safe, affordable energy. But if we’re going to turn this around, it’s up to us to change the demands we’re putting on them.