It always amazes me how a sudden flare-up of the obvious can create general astonishment, and even lead to something approaching panic.

And so, rising energy costs, obviously on the way all along to anyone who wanted to look, are now the cause of shock and bewilderment.

Having failed to prepare as we partied on, we stagger out in the morning light in a bad mood and ask the dazed question: How did this happen? Who’s to blame? What do we do now?

Those who stayed sober through it all can only bemoan the lost time and opportunities, and more or less haul out the advice that has been offered with limited effect for some 35 years now about conservation, alternatives, gearing the infrastructure to less wasteful ways, and so on.

As we contemplate the here and now — rising gasoline and electricity prices and, in particular, the approaching shock of home heating prices — let’s begin by making a distinction between short and long term.

In the short term, we’re right into it, unprepared. Here in Nova Scotia, both the provincial government and Nova Scotia Power are promising big energy policy revisions and consultations for this fall. It’s overdue, and it’s to be hoped they’ll bear fruit.

But an atmosphere of emergency makes the task all the harder.

The issue requires a sound look at the long term, but is likely to be sidetracked by pressure to drop energy taxes, subsidize prices, create emergency programs for this winter, and so forth — moves which may provide mild relief but which are always, by definition, patchwork affairs which don’t actually solve anything.

Indeed, an atmosphere of emergency may have already caused a political casualty — Premier John Hamm’s hopes for an autumn election in Nova Scotia.

The risk of being blamed for rising energy prices may be causing his rose to wilt even in the mere two weeks since he launched the idea. In addition, I suspect that Energy Minister Cecil Clarke’s recent dyspeptic snap at a report of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives which pointed out the shortcomings of Nova Scotia’s energy policy may be a symptom of political strategies coming unstuck.

The government would have rather gone to the polls before any of this came up, and the suspicion arises that its new energy policy may not measure up politically to the public’s suddenly foul mood.

Now the public is outraged, and a flustered government is back on its heels trying to put out the fire, while it should be planning for the long term.

But the long term is even more perverse, complicating the task.

That is, the upward spike of oil prices will start to dampen demand (it has apparently started already according to the latest U.S. reports) then the price will likely drop.

This is what happened in 1973 and again in 1980, when prices rose to today’s equivalent of $90 a barrel, then fell. And our wasteful habits resumed after a slight halt.

So while most people hope for prices to come down again, which they likely will at some uncertain point, the fact is that dropping prices are a worse problem than rising ones, since they discourage the necessary alternatives and sustainable habits that we’ll need in the long run.

And if prices do come down and once again encourage waste, the deception will be all the more dangerous since, unlike 1980, the end of cheap oil is in fact now in sight.

No big strikes have been made since the North Sea in the 1970s, and even the wildest optimists give the big Saudi oil fields that most influence the world price only 10 to 20 years before they start declining.

The less optimistic point to the fact that the Saudis are injecting more and more water into the fields to keep the pressure up, and say those fields are in decline now.

Never mind an election, the time to address this question — suddenly the big one on the agenda — is now.

A vision, as they say, must be produced that can influence the public in favour of conservation and alternatives, and hold its attention even when oil prices back off.

But even before that, a mechanism must be in place to produce that vision. It’s not clear to what degree the provincial government and NSP have their act together on that score. We’re waiting.