In 1977, President Jimmy Carter wore a sweater and urged...

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter wore a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat. Credit: AP

In a shocking and unprecedented development, Middle Eastern unrest has led to rising energy prices on Long Island. Whoever thought such a thing was possible?

The truth, of course, is that nothing could be less surprising. What's really surprising is that, despite decades of experience suggesting we should wean ourselves from our heavy dependence on fossil fuels, we're in the same vulnerable position all over again.

That courageous people all over the Arab world are throwing off the yoke of tyranny is magnificent. That these upheavals might produce higher oil prices is utterly predictable - and a good pretext for undertaking at last what we should have been doing all along, which is cutting oil consumption.

Since the energy crises of the 1970s - and Jimmy Carter's admonitions to turn down the thermostat - we've made real progress, halving the energy we use to produce a dollar of economic output.

But all of our efficiency gains have been gobbled up by bigger houses, more driving and more energy-draining gadgets.

The latest round of oil price hikes comes at a particularly bad time, posing a threat to our fragile economic recovery. And prices may rise a lot more in the near term. Food prices are already soaring, and more expensive oil will only drive them higher.

Yet prices are also signals, and if they are loud enough, people respond. Costlier oil usually prompts more conservation, which is a good thing if only because fossil fuel consumption probably accounts for harmful climate change. Higher oil prices can also encourage the development of more domestic energy sources, making us less dependent on volatile nations for our lifeblood.

Costlier oil should also encourage research into such alternative technologies as solar and wind power, to say nothing of better batteries, and hasten the switch to electric cars. Too bad we need foreigners to charge us more for oil to make these good things happen.

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