“We use 30 per cent of all the energy … That isn’t bad; that is good. That means we are the richest, strongest people in the world and that we have the highest standard of living in the world. That is why we need so much energy, and may it always be that way.”

—U.S. president Richard Nixon,

November 1973.

Things have changed since Nixon proudly proclaimed America the world’s biggest energy guzzler. Or have they?

Since then, the world has woken up to the stark reality of climate change and the role played by human energy consumption.

But this has had surprisingly little impact. Today, George W. Bush — and Stephen Harper — pay lip service to energy conservation, while doing little to actually reduce U.S. and Canadian energy consumption, which remain among the highest per capita in the world.

This is often chalked up to government reluctance to force unpopular changes on the public. We’re told that while Canadians are concerned about global warming, they’ll balk at paying carbon taxes, as advocated earlier this month by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

This sounds plausible, but is it really the case? Would carbon taxes be any more unpopular than the GST, which an earlier Conservative government insisted on ramming through, despite overwhelming opposition from Canadians?

Similarly, the Liberals implemented extremely unpopular cuts to social spending in the 1990s. Today, the Harper government seems determined to continue fighting in Afghanistan — with the support of only 17 per cent of Canadians, according to a Strategic Counsel poll released last week.

Ironically, in the case of climate change, there’s little evidence the public would even be resistant. Unlike the GST, cuts to social spending or fighting in Afghanistan — all truly unpopular policies — Canadians actually support the goal of tackling climate change.

It’s not even clear that the changes would have to impact the public that negatively.

Auto manufacturers say that tough fuel efficiency requirements would force them to spend more, pushing up car prices by thousands of dollars.

In fact, auto manufacturers are constantly spending large sums on improving engine technology. The question is where they apply these technological advances.

As David Friedman of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, unless the law demands more fuel efficient cars, manufacturers will squander these technological gains, applying them toward producing ever more powerful engines for ever larger vehicles. “We’ll be seeing 18-wheelers that accelerate like racing cars.”

Yet Ottawa seems ready to follow the foot-dragging of the Bush administration, which won’t require tougher fuel economy until 2020, resisting the more stringent deadlines set by California.

The real resistance seems to be coming not from the public but from powerful interests that have much riding on the maintenance of the energy status quo — most notably oil companies and auto manufacturers.

The public — particularly young people — seems to have grasped that the kind of global piggery celebrated by Richard Nixon is not only inherently ugly but carries the seeds of our own destruction.

But this ultimately involves letting go of a goal that is the very centrepiece of modern capitalism — ever-increasing consumption.

Like the band on the Titanic, some in our political and corporate elites seem determined to go on pumping out the old tunes, even as sea waters rise all around us.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...