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Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.
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The purpose of a U.S. energy policy

Question: Recent global crises are further highlighting the fault lines of America's shaky energy platform: The tragedy in Japan has brought U.S. nuclear power under scrutiny and the Middle East turmoil has seen oil prices soar, not to mention last year's BP spill tempered prospects for offshore drilling. What leadership will it take to successfully cut through the political barriers and unite the country around forging a real U.S. energy policy?

At the time of the Constitution, the only national energy policy allowed the free use of standing timber to heat stoves and fireplaces. In the 19th century, as Americans began to use coal for heating and natural gas and whale oil for lighting, there was no need for an energy policy. The market determined supply and demand. In the 20th century, as the expanding use of the automobile required petroleum, the purpose of energy policy was to break up the Standard Oil monopoly to establish a competitive market. Now, in the 21st century, the need for an energy policy has become much more urgent, complex and difficult to achieve.

The purpose of a U.S. energy policy should be:

· To gain independence from OPEC countries; our dependence on their oil is a major reason we are involved in wars, liable to terrorism and mired in debt.

· To protect the environment and wean the country from CO2 producing fossil fuels.

· To protect us from disasters that endanger life or cause extreme damage to the electrical grid.

An ideal policy would recognize that our current energy use, including rapidly burning down oil reserves, is unsustainable and dangerous. Any well-run corporation would be urgently developing a strategy including major efforts at energy efficiency, investments and incentives in renewable and clean energy, and large funding of R&D. But American corporations spend millions to debunk the threats and lobby for subsidies and tax benefits that increase the dangers.

This administration includes people who understand the problem, but the powerful interests have allowed them only to take baby steps forward. Perhaps the strongest initiatives are coming from the Department of Defense, where Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has supported military leaders who recognize that our current use of energy puts lives in danger and threatens national security.

No national leader alone can cut through the political battles and unite the country around forging the energy policy we need. As long as powerful interest groups fear change, they will find reasons to rationalize their opposition and fight to preserve their profits. This even happens within corporations when a product group is threatened by innovation. But a CEO has more power to change company policy than the president of the United States has to change national policy. Leadership is needed to create a movement from the ground up to challenge the interests and promote a policy of energy sustainability, safety and independence. There will be no progress without a struggle. The country will unite only when the battle is over and the American people realize they are better off.     

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Michael Maccoby  | Mar 22, 2011 6:48 PM

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