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Who's got the power?

As Americans become more detached from their power sources, sacrificing for an invisible grid holds less and less appeal. But the stakes are high.

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It came as a nasty shock to many Americans this month that there's a grid behind our bulbs.

A century ago, and more, we knew where our power came from. Burning logs in a wood stove, burning coal in a steam engine: They were smoky, filthy, parts of our daily lives.

Now, the closest most Americans get to the sources of their light, heat, and locomotion are three-pronged plugs and self-serve gasoline.

"That's one of the hallmarks of a wealthy society - we don't have to see how our basic needs are being met," says author Dan Rottenberg. Though that's a welcome sign of prosperity, it's also a danger, he says: When people get too far removed from the sources of their power, or water, or food, they're far less likely to sacrifice to preserve them.

A stormy debate over who will make such sacrifices is raging in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound.

Last week, a federal judge struck a blow to opponents of a proposed $700 million offshore wind farm there, who fear the consequences of such an installation for ocean views and local wildlife.

But the problem is broader than Cape Cod, and deeper. According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans - 56 percent - believes the United States is likely to face a critical energy shortage within five years. Energy forecasters agree.

The question, then, is: Who will shoulder the burden of solving this projected shortage, and what do they have to lose?

Sacrifice for beginners

Americans, says environmental policy expert Sterling Burnett, do not like the idea of sacrifice. Sure, "The Puritan Dilemma" is still in print, fad diets are selling well, and every year a certain number of high school juniors head off to the woods because they want to live deliberately. But for most of this affluent society's SUV and suburban tract-home owners, the concept of self-denial for some greater good has absolutely no resonance, says Mr. Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.


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