The vast, uncontrollable and potentially catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlights not just the riskiness of current American energy policy — the virtual impossibility of containing it is also an awful lot like what our country faces in enacting essential but apparently unattainable energy policy reform. 

It is slippery, involves multiple government jurisdictions and countries, is bound to supranational corporations, comes at incalculable cost, and affects the livelihood of millions of people, entire economies and ecosystems. Those who would dare to address it know something of the helpless frustration these past few weeks of the small flotilla of Coast Guard vessels and other boats trying to keep hundreds of thousands of gallons of gushing oil from reaching land. 

Consider just a few of the challenges: Our country’s infrastructure in the last century has been built around fossil fuels; we commute long distances to work, our suburbs are sprawling, we drive many miles, our agriculture uses petroleum-based fertilizers, and countless products we use every day are oil-based. So a different approach to energy would entail vastly different urban planning, as well as that of industrial and agricultural operations. 

And then there’s this: Say the United States changes, at considerable effort and cost. Who’s going to make the rest of the world follow suit? Does it really make any difference globally to oil prices or environmental consequences if we’re the only ones to make the effort? 

Consider the consequences, though, if we do nothing. Unchecked, our country’s appetite for cheap energy will drive greater and greater risks to harvest it, with greater and greater consequences. One economist is even warning that the costs of this Gulf of Mexico blowout could sink the world into a second Great Recession, just as the economy seems to be on the rebound. 

A bleak outlook. But Catholics have something to bring to the table, as Pope Benedict XVI notes in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). 

First, he notes that the problem has to be seen against the background of solidarity. That means not just gasping at what we have to pay at the gas pump, but making an effort also to consider the needs of others around the world. 

“Everyone,” the pope writes, “must responsibly recognize the impact they will have on future generations, particularly on the many young people in the poorer nations, who ask to assume their active part in the construction of a better world.” 

Second, the pope calls on those of us in more technologically advanced societies to reduce wasteful consumption and to finance research and development in renewable energy sources. 

According to World Bank statistics, the United States is one of the biggest energy consumers in the world (although its per capita consumption is dwarfed by Persian Gulf states and even by countries like Luxembourg and Iceland). 

“The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption,” the pope says, “either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens.” 

Catholics know that the solution to the world’s toughest problems is not just more legislation, regulation or policies, although they’ll certainly be needed. 

The Catholic vision, the pope notes, encompasses an entire lifestyle shift, in which our choices as consumers, savers and investors are determined by pursuit of “communion with others for the sake of common growth.” It may be countercultural, but it is both essential and attainable.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor