By CAROL TOWARNICKY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Richard Nixon had the right idea.
During the 1973 oil embargo, the president pushed the country into a series of steps to reduce oil consumption.
In short order, you could buy gas only every other day -- and never on Sunday. The speed limit was lowered to the more efficient 55 mph, and daylight-saving time was extended into winter. Congress required car companies to increase fuel efficiency.
Not only did these actions reduce consumption, they raised awareness that oil is a finite resource. That awareness has all but disappeared just when we need it most.
In wild contrast to President Nixon, George W. Bush is responding to the current spike in gas prices -- and the earthshaking reality behind that spike -- with a comedy routine.
"The Daily Show" recently aired a clip of a Bush speech in which he said the nation had to move away from reliance on "fossil fuels," followed by a clip later in the speech of Bush announcing a new energy initiative focused on ... COAL.
The absurdity was so apparent that Jon Stewart's double-take wasn't needed.
Yet too few Americans are aware of the real absurdity: The way we're living as if cheap energy will last forever, when reserves could already be half gone.
The two major oil crises in the '70s were due to foreign countries withholding oil from our markets. When that changed, prices dropped and Americans binged.
Maybe Americans believe that prices will go down again. Maybe that's why so many continue to say they won't give up their gas-guzzling cars or make other lifestyle adjustments to save energy.
Maybe that's why Congress continues to support the fiction that SUVs are trucks, exempting them from the fuel efficiency standards required of ordinary cars -- and why we stand idly by while public transportation is starved to death.
Even though politicians who promise "energy independence" get applause, they never seem to get to the point of convincing the public that it's time to actually change.
The latest oil crisis is different from the ones we faced in the 1970s. It's due in large part to the fact that demand for energy -- from America, but also from China and India -- is outstripping supply. The world's oil wells are pumping as fast as they can.
So oil prices won't go down much ever again - at least we can hope not.
Higher oil prices are the only way Americans will understand that the party's over.
Ever heard of "Hubbert's oil peak"?
Pay attention: M. King Hubbert, a geologist for Shell Oil, predicted 50 years ago that, right around now, the world would reach the peak of possible oil production, after which it would go down sharply. When that happens, prices will climb and the entire edifice built on cheap energy will start to topple.
Some geologists say the peak will come in 10 to 20 years; others say it's happening right now.
Charles T. Maxwell, an veteran energy analyst, wrote last fall that the markedly higher oil prices that we face as we head down from "Hubbert's peak" will unleash "both destruction and creativity" in industry and finance, just like in the 1970s oil crisis.
He foresees the need to redesign cars, trucks, ships, planes and trains, as well as commercial buildings and homes, and most machinery.
We'll have to overhaul our tax systems, removing incentives for energy waste. We'll be forced to modify residential patterns (likely abandoning the far suburbs).
We'll have to "change clothes instead of thermostats," Mitchell wrote, and accept smaller and lighter cars. We'll walk, bicycle and use public transportation.
If higher prices are the only way to wake us up, I say let's go for them now.
Whether the oil peak is now or in two decades, we're already far behind in preparing for it - and that puts us and future generations in danger of a fatal collision with the future.
X Carol Towarnicky is chief editorial writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.