Our local ski area just held its annual season pass holders’ barbecue, where local skiers gathered to share burgers, drink beer, and enjoy the music of a local band in the bright sun of a beautiful autumn afternoon. Like most of the small ski areas scattered throughout Montana, this family area is not a destination resort and does not rely on out-of-state skiers for its existence. Instead, it is supported by local Montanans, many of whom have skied at this same area since they were children. This business, like many in Montana, does not rely on airlines to deliver its customers. What it does rely on, like most Montana businesses, is affordable electricity, which may or may not be available in our uncertain energy future.
I only bring up this small, homegrown, home-owned business because there is a great deal of discussion about “homeland security” these days. Shortly after the tragic attacks on the East Coast, President Bush established the cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security and appointed its first director. Much of the discussion about what that office will address has revolved around armed guards, electronic eavesdropping, more wiretaps, and various ways to prevent those with hostile intentions toward our country from inflicting further damage. But “homeland security” could have many meanings, and many ways of making our homeland safer and more resistant to disruption.
For instance, soon there will be a device measuring wind speed and direction sitting on the summit of that family ski area. The goal is to eventually place a wind energy turbine in this always-windy spot and generate the power the ski area needs to operate on a sustainable, non-polluting basis. As everyone knows, ski areas suck juice primarily during the winter, but the wind at the top of high mountain ridges blows regardless of snowpack. All spring, summer, and fall, the turbines will spin and electricity will be generated. The ski area’s electric meter will run backwards, storing up credits for winter. Meanwhile, this new, stable source of power will generate electricity to be used by businesses and irrigators who need it most during the summer months. The ski area wins by offsetting its power costs, but the state wins, too, by achieving a more stable, more secure energy future.
Which brings us to our new national Office of Homeland Security. Congress leaped to appropriate tens of billions of dollars for a variety of purposes following the East Coast attacks. Certainly there is a need to fund the ongoing activities at the site of the attacks and to help out those devastated by the disruption of their lives. But some of those billions are going to the same military and intelligence budgets that already get more than $300 billion annually, a staggering sum of money. For the moment, let’s lay aside the debate over whether or what military action the United States should take and think about what some of this money could do for “homeland security” if it were invested in less conventional “defense.”
What could we do with that money to increase security? First, and probably foremost, we could reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and eliminate the need to raze the last of our dwindling wildlands in the frenzy of exploration and development that seems headed our way. With a “homeland security” check that could only be spent on energy or conservation, every family could buy a new, energy efficient refrigerator or furnace. Every home could be insulated. Homes that are already insulated and have energy efficient appliances could put their “homeland security” money into solar panels that would produce ultra-clean energy into the foreseeable future. Such measures, spread across the mass of this nation’s population, would significantly reduce America’s dependence on oil sources that are highly vulnerable and hence, extremely expensive to defend.
If we took what is spent defending Middle East oil supplies annually, American families could receive a similar “homeland security” check every year, eventually upgrading our entire energy consumption profile and changing this country from the world’s top energy consumer to a shining example of a nation and people dedicated to a sustainable level of energy consumption and a healthier climate for all the world’s people. In and of itself, changing that global image of America would undoubtedly improve our chances of having people love this country instead of hating it. And, of course, such widespread implementation of conservation and alternative energy technologies would hasten mass production, lower costs, and make it possible to spread solar panels—instead of land mines, bombs, and cruise missiles—around the globe.
While direct investment in our citizens, their homes, their appliances, and their energy consumption habits would reap immediate and significant savings, there are additional benefits that even those who think in military terms would be hard-pressed to deny. Chief among those benefits is the enormous advantage a dispersed energy-production and consumption system would have over our present system, which relies primarily on specific, vulnerable, energy generation facilities. Already, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has announced that it stands ready to pass on the cost of increased security measures at dams, nuclear power plants and gas and oil pipelines to consumers. We, the consumers, will now get to pay to make nuke plants tough enough to withstand direct hits from aircraft.
Now ask yourself, what makes more sense? Should we all pay higher taxes and energy costs to “defend” the Persian Gulf and conventional energy facilities? Or should we invest the same amounts in a dispersed, clean, sustainable energy future? Should we drill, mine, and burn ever more fossil fuels as we ramp up our society for war? Or should we take a moment to reflect on the real meaning of “homeland security” and perhaps take this golden opportunity to turn our state and nation in a direction that promises a more stable future for us, our kids, and the world? The choice is ours to make ... and ours to pay for.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.