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The Way of Politics, Chapter Four

This column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

In this next installment of The Tao of Politics, I intend to use the arrival of Earth Day (on April 22) as an opportunity to apply Lao Tse's wisdom to one of the critical issues of our time. That issue is the urgent need for the development of environmentally friendly, renewable sources of energy.

In the Fourth Chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the sage invites his reader to contemplate a cosmos of infinite possibilities.

The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

In contrast, Petroleum is a diminishing resource. In response to skyrocketing demand in China and India, the cost of a gallon of gasoline is expected to exceed $3.00 in the United States this summer. That may not amount to much by European standards, or even an inflation adjusted yardstick for the American market; but in comparison to prices during the Clinton years, it represents a dramatic increase.

Our nation's continuing addiction to petroleum dictates its stance towards tyrannical states like Saudi Arabia - which despite the Royal Family's largely friendly demeanor, and ties to the Bush clan, remains a breeding ground for the toxic ideology that inspired the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and much of the terrorism elsewhere in the world. Some argue that bringing Iraq's vast oil reserves online sans Saddam Hussein was a primary motivation behind the neo-conservatives' obsession with invading that country. And Congress recently voted to authorize drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - even though no one believes that the new capacity that these fields add will make much of a dent in our long-term supply and demand imbalance.

Even if the demand for petroleum were stable, and the price of gasoline low, the environmental impact of our reliance on current technologies - including other dirty fuels such as coal and nuclear fission - is dire.

In time, as population growth, industrialization, and demand increase, the poisonous environmental impact of these technologies may well present a threat to the survival of humanity. Only a species bent on self-destruction - or perhaps expecting it - would continue along this path, putting off until tomorrow the kinds of initiatives that if begun today might ameliorate tremendous suffering and death in the years to come.

America fancies itself the global leader. If this nation could launch a Manhattan Project, and build a weapon of amazing destructive power in a few years, why couldn't it launch a similar initiative to make America energy independent within the next decade?

Why hasn't it chosen to lead the planet back on the road to energy and environmental salvation? Three reasons strike me as self-evident: greed, the elevation of private interests over the common good, and the far right's embrace of a veritable culture of death.

Consider the primary thrust of Bush Administration economic policy - across-the-board tax cuts. This approach led to the disbursement of a substantial percentage of the Federal Government's available economic resources. I'd argue that these resources were expended in a fashion that, in comparison, makes a circa 1962 gas-guzzling automobile seem positively energy efficient. Economists had long predicted that the business cycle, aided by the FED's lowering of interest rates, would turn up its own by late 2002-early 2003. Democrats and prudent Republicans had argued that, at most, a modest stimulus package might have been in order.

Instead, the Bush Administration pushed through a series of "faith-based" tax cuts that were never likely to generate anything close to the kind of revenue that would be required to justify their creation.

Now, imagine if some significant percentage of the near trillion dollars that have already been sacrificed to the god of voodoo economics had instead been redirected towards creating meaningful incentives for businesses willing to dramatically accelerate research and development on technologies for clean, renewable energy.

Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, President Bush saw this kind of bold initiative as a vital component of America's long-term national security.

Imagine if he had embraced the Kyoto Protocol, instead of walking away from it.

Imagine if Bush had decided to make America the unassailable leader in environmentally friendly energy technology - fuel that is "used but never used up", and "hidden but always present" - like solar and wind, and other renewable technologies.

Imagine if Congress had stipulated that every company enjoying these generous tax incentives were required to hire Americans in order to retain them - as opposed to current tax provisions that reward companies that outsource jobs.

Imagine what the long-term implications of energy self-sufficiency, and the establishment of a robust renewable energy industry would be on the nation's hemorrhaging trade deficit. Of course, to even consider that type of strategy, you have to first be courageous enough to put the needs of both nation and planet front and center, and not be a captive to the myopic thinking of cronies in the oil patch - or worry about how their interests might suffer once America began to travel this bold new course.

You have to be able to imagine a future of "infinite possibilities" - as opposed to one of scarcity, of inevitable winners and losers (where the winners somehow imagine themselves as being among "God's elect").

You can't share the mindset of advisors and supporters who evidently spend much of their time meditating on the Book of Revelation and doomsday scenarios - and surmise that Jesus' long awaited return will magically cure whatever ails us.

Ultimately, before adopting this kind of strategy, you have to understand that embracing a "culture of life" means embracing life itself, and preserving its "infinite possibilities", in all its biological manifestations and permutations - and has little, if anything, to do with curtailing reproductive freedom, or a pathological fear of human sexuality divorced from procreation. You have to understand that while protection of the environment is every nation's duty, it must be a paramount concern of the global leader. As many of us were taught, to those to whom more is given, more is also expected. You have to understand that, in the end, each and every one of us is necessarily a custodian of the future - of all the generations of humanity that will follow in our footsteps on this planet.

These strike me as the signatures of an authentic "culture of life", and authentic twenty-first century spirituality - in contrast to the ravings of the apocalyptic death cults in Islam and Christianity that have commanded so much of the world's attention in recent years.

The time to begin a massive push for the development of cheap, renewable, environmentally friendly sources of energy was yesterday. But better a day late than not at all. The earth may not last forever. An act of God may someday bring sentient life on this planet to an end. But if life is to end, let it be God's doing, not ours. Let it not be a result of our refusal to embrace the "infinite possibilities" implicit in an authentic "culture of life".

Note: This translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988. It is available in paperpack editions from Harper Perennial Classics (ISBN: 0060812451) and Harper Perennial Persona (ISBN: 0060812451).

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 17, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.