If you’re worried about the nation’s energy future, you can take heart in the positions of both major parties’ presidential candidates. A tweak here, an incentive there, they contend, and everything will be fine.

The candidates espouse such views because they know that the electorate wants cheap gas, clean air, unspoiled wilderness and world peace – all at the same time. In other words, we want to drive our Ford Explorers to No Nukes concerts without coming across any ugly refineries that spoil the scenery.

But imagine if, at the first debate, someone slipped truth serum into the water glasses in front of each candidate. President Bush would have to acknowledge that his own policies – basically, more of the same – are hopeless. And Senator John Kerry would have to say that his prescriptions – feel-good nostrums, mostly – would accomplish little more.

“My fellow Americans, the truth is that we’ve been in the grip of an energy crisis for 30 years,” either of these candidates would say. (Both, after all, drank the serum.) “Again and again, we’ve seen that we depend for our lifeblood on a volatile part of the world whose tyrannical rulers are supported by our hard-earned dollars. By now we also know that our love of fossil fuels is altering the earth’s climate, with consequences far beyond the deaths caused each year by air pollution and auto accidents.”

Emboldened by another sip, the candidate continues: “The truth, my fellow Americans, is that a few windmill experiments and biomass demonstrations won’t cut it. O.K.? Drilling a thousand new wells, covering the landscape with new refineries, seeking oil in more far-flung locales: none of this will solve our problem, which is that all this oil is killing us. Let’s face it, we’re addicts. And, I say, no more enabling from the White House.”

By now you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Even the television commentators are too stunned to speak.

“What I have to say will displease conservatives and liberals alike, but I’ve got to give it to you straight,” the candidate continues. “First, we’ll need to allocate the true costs of all this oil guzzling to the guzzlers. To do this, we’ll impose hefty new taxes on energy; that’s the only way to get our addiction under control. We’ll use the money for a crash program of energy research and transition planning to get us off of fossil fuels, period. That’s right, cold turkey. Trust me, it’s the only way to lick something like this.”

An uneasy murmur arises from the audience, but the candidate just takes another sip.

“We’ll also need to be like the French,” he says, “and start a national nuclear power program!” At this point, stunned by his own words, the candidate looks suspiciously into his glass, then pours himself a refill. “France gets three-quarters of its electricity from nukes, thanks to standardized construction, strong centralized oversight and – are you ready for this? – American technology. It works great.”

By now there is an ominous hubbub in the room.

“Oh, grow up!” the candidate says. “Global energy demand is insatiable. It’s tied to the growth that is hauling China and India out of poverty. Fossil fuels kill more people in about five minutes from coal-mining accidents, air pollution, wars and whatnot than have ever died from nuclear power. Nobody in their right mind would build a plant like Chernobyl today, so don’t worry about that. We’ll even recycle spent fuel.

“There’ll be other changes, of course. Zoning laws, building codes, automobile registration fees – we’ll change all of it to encourage patterns of development and behavior that save energy.”

THE coup de grâce comes just as the audience is about to rush the stage.

“And you know what? You’ll love it – every last bit of it. Because our air will be cleaner, and our land won’t be covered with sprawl. Some of your very own loved ones will be alive because we’ll drive less, sparing some of the 40,000 Americans killed annually in auto accidents. You’ll even lose weight, because you’ll walk more. And just think what fun it will be to thumb our noses at OPEC.”

“Time’s up,” the moderator says, turning to the other candidate – who only shrugs.

“Vote for him,” the second candidate says. “The truth is, he’d make a better president.”

Daniel Akst is a journalist and novelist who writes often about business.

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