Sacrifice for a Better Future?

By Robert Bernstein   |   March 22, 2022

With Putin’s attack on Ukraine, many of us wrote to President Biden to ask him to cut off Russian oil imports, even if it meant a rise in prices and/or rationing. In my message I called on him to speak to the American people to sacrifice for a greater good. I talked of how my parents grew up with gasoline rationing during WWII. I was pleased to see that he did exactly what I suggested.

When is sacrifice justified? In many religions, sacrifice is seen as a positive end in itself. Animals and even people are killed as an offering to a sky god in the belief this will make that god do something nice in return. Perhaps in an afterlife. Buddhists talk of non-attachment and call for reducing ownership of material things. Some Christians think if you are suffering it brings you closer to their god. 

None of this makes sense to a secular Humanist like me. But I still believe in the value of sacrifice for real world progress.

In 1973 and 1979 we had the first shocks that sent oil prices soaring. Both were due to Middle East suppliers cutting supplies for political and economic reasons. But this also led many of us to realize that oil is a finite resource that needs to be replaced.

Geologist M. King Hubbert predicted “U.S. peak oil” would occur between 1965 – 1971 in a 1956 paper. The date is squishy because extraction technology has changed. Fracking gave a temporary reprieve to U.S. oil. But Hubbert’s basic facts still hold. Oil is running out in the foreseeable future.

In 1981, I first started talking about Global Warming. It was clear that the Fossil Fuel Age needed to end even before oil was gone.

Every time this realization hits, we are faced with the prospect of rising prices of fossil fuels. Instead of leveling with the public, our elected officials pander and assure us that they will keep gas prices low. Presidents of both parties have released Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil to lower prices during times of rising prices.

I recently posted a graphic, “When You Drive a Car You Drive with Putin.” Based on a book by Bill Maher, When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden. Based on a WWII poster, “When You Ride Alone You Ride with Hitler.” I got hit with attacks that I was saying this from a position of “privilege.” That people need more time to transition to sustainable transportation. Really? Fifty years of warning shots and you need more time?

When I was graduating college in 1980 the U.S. was poised to kill abroad to keep oil flowing. I refused to own a car for many years. When I did finally buy a fuel-efficient car, I reserved it for trips that could not easily be made another way. Was this a “privileged” position?

Even if you think you need to drive a vehicle for every single trip, does it really have to be a gas-guzzling behemoth? In recent decades, sales of these piggy vehicles have exceeded sales of traditional cars.

How will we ever build a good system of high-speed public transit and safe bike network if everyone keeps driving? And how will behavior ever change if we keep demanding our elected officials pander to keeping driving artificially cheap? Driving is heavily subsidized in the U.S. Far more than public transit. When will it ever be the correct time for motorists to pay their way?

How will we ever invest in sustainable energy if fossil fuel prices continue to be artificially low due to subsidies?

Progress occurs because we are willing to sacrifice in the short term to invest in a better future. Democracy can only function if we are willing to elect leaders who have the vision to see a better future and honestly lay out the temporary sacrifices needed to get there.

In my ideal world, people would educate themselves and call for such change from the bottom up.

I am reminded of the empty “thoughts and prayers” offered after each mass shooting in the U.S. Progress happens when we demand real change. Real change means giving up something we are used to. If we do this in the right way, it doesn’t have to feel like sacrifice. It will feel like we are gaining something in the long run as we invest in a brighter future.  


You might also be interested in...