In late May, the Field Institute — a non-partisan polling organization — released the results of a consumer attitude survey regarding nuclear energy. Almost 60% of respondents supported building more nuclear energy plants.

With national attention focused so solidly these days on increasing energy consumption, decreasing energy supplies and increasing prices, this is an interesting but not a particularly surprising outcome. What makes that 60% figure rather jaw-dropping, however, is that the survey subjects were Californians.

These results lay in stark contrast to a similar Field Institute survey of Californians conducted in 1984. That survey found that 69% of respondents opposed nuclear energy.

Rolling blackouts and sky-high energy rates have apparently diluted the environmental zeal of California — a traditional hotbed of regulatory overkill.

Thanks to decades of quirky environmentalism, California finds itself today in a woeful energy shape. More than 50% of its power plants are more than 30 years old, and a new one hasn't been built in the last decade. Now, burgeoning demand for power has outstripped supply. Power, when it's available, is extremely expensive, and rolling blackouts are averaging 20 hours/week.

Folks forced to sit in the dark — dependent on batteries, candles and kerosene — must tend to grow a little more pragmatic and less idealistic: “Hey, maybe it's not so bad to factor in human needs as well as those of Mother Earth.”

With California long considered a bellwether for the U.S., such an epiphany in the Golden State is bad news for environmental extremists. But, with rolling blackouts predicted this summer for New York City and the New England area, is there any reason to think the trend won't have legs?

A Gallup poll, also released in late May, found that 21% of Americans listed energy concerns as the most important problem facing the nation. Just one month earlier, only 3% said that.

The longer that gas prices hover around $2/gallon, and power blackouts dominate the news, the more Americans will likely stop to consider the logic of an energy program balanced for both environmental and human needs.

Extremists Push The Attack

Yet, environmental extremists would have Americans believe that the Bush Administration's energy plan is out of step with mainstream thinking. While their shrill rhetoric purports to express a deep concern over the environmental effects of Bush's energy plan, their real concern is that as America wises up to the bigger picture, a tremendous well of political and financial support will dry up.

In fact, a CNN poll released on May 21, just after the unveiling of George Bush's energy policy, found that 70% of American adults placed the blame for America's current energy woes on environmental laws. It's enough to send a tree worshipper squealing for the comforting embrace of a strong oak.

In no way do these trends signify that Americans are becoming uncaring or calloused toward the environment. They do indicate that Americans, faced with tough choices and drastic changes in their lifestyles, are warming toward the idea of environmental balance.

For too long, extremists have dismissed proponents of balance as simply being “polluters.” With few Americans paying attention to the bigger and more complicated picture, this tactic has worked well. Reasoned discussion has essentially been shut down, and emotion has ruled environmental and energy policy.

A few years ago, I was following a 24-ft. truck when it fishtailed, flipped on to its side and slid about 100 yards down the icy freeway. After stopping my car and hustling to the truck, I arrived in time to see one of the occupants kick out the windshield so he and the driver could exit the mangled cab.

After they climbed out, we examined the wreck and the driver said to me: “I sure hope the boss has glass coverage.”

I recount the episode here because I think this trucker's joke about failing to see the bigger picture illustrates the way Americans have largely viewed the topics of environment and energy. The results of that myopia are on full display today in California. Let's hope the rest of the country steps back from the wreck to see the bigger picture.