As the personal tragedies and economic ripples flowed from New Orleans last week, a friend called from Eureka in Northern California to alert me that the price of gasoline had risen another 30 cents per gallon. Maybe this is a message that will get through, I thought.

I live near Eureka in the tiny town of Petrolia, which was named for an 1860s oil boom whose liquid bounty was shipped out by mule train. Unfortunately, the wells soon ran dry. Our cars now run on fuel from oilfields thousands of miles away, at prices that respond to events from Biloxi and New Orleans to Baghdad.

That’s a paradox, in a rural valley where home-grown energy is highly esteemed. At the private high school outside Petrolia, where I used to teach, rooftop solar panels provided ample electricity in spring and early fall. A hydro-electric system – built in one of the classes – tapped into a seasonal stream above the school. We piped the water down the hillside, shot it at a waterwheel the size of a lawnmower tire, and kept our lights on through the rainy coastal winters when sunshine was scarce.

Local firewood warmed the classrooms and dormitory cabins, and even heated our boarders’ showers. We went to these lengths, even though we could have easily plugged into the grid. It made visible what it took to supply the heat and light that kept us comfortable. We identified what educators call a teachable moment and seized it.

For all our efforts to unplug from the web of pipelines and transmission wires that power America, however, one aspect of our energy use was conventional: Our school bus drank petroleum-based gas by the barrelful.

Our dependence on oil made us a microcosm of the American economy. In the quarter-century since the 1979 oil shock, the U.S. economy has weaned itself from petroleum in almost all areas except transportation. As a result, the country has less breathing room to cut back on oil when refineries flood and prices skyrocket.

At home, heating oil has given way to natural gas, better insulation and double-paned windows. The story is even more dramatic for electric utilities. In 1978, oil generated 17 percent of the nation’s power. Today, that share is under 3 percent.

It’s transportation, plain and simple, that has kept America addicted to oil. As we’ve found substitutes for petroleum elsewhere, the share of U.S. oil consumption dedicated to transportation has grown from half to more than two-thirds, totaling 14 million barrels a day. Imagine a 5-gallon bucket of crude delivered daily to each household in America: That’s what it takes to keep us on the road.

Substitute fuels such as biodiesel — made from vegetable oil — are a nifty addition to the mix. But even if America’s entire soybean crop were converted to biodiesel, it would supply less than a quarter of a million barrels per day, under 2 percent of America’s appetite for fill-ups. That’s a drop in the bucket.

The answer is easy in concept but challenging in practice: Use less fuel. U.S. policy has sought that goal by demanding that each automaker achieve a minimum average fuel economy for the entire fleet it produces. Those standards have stagnated for 20 years.

If the government had continued raising the standards in the 1980s, the results would already be felt, as older autos were retired and new ones took their place.

The second-best time is now, as it becomes increasingly obvious that building our lives around cheap, abundant petroleum is a chancy proposition. As a country, we have arrived at a teachable moment of our own.

It is painful to see the Bush administration squandering this opportunity. Under its fuel economy plan for SUVs and light trucks, marginally better gas-guzzlers would begin rolling off the assembly lines in about five years. Truly gargantuan SUVs would be exempt entirely. Others wouldn’t even be expected to attain the same gas mileage that comparable models are already achieving.

With 20 years’ hindsight, it’s clear that the previous generation should have mandated more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can’t turn back that clock, but we can learn a lesson. If we don’t take steps today to improve the efficiency of tomorrow’s auto fleet, the next generation will wonder why even a Category 4 hurricane and its terrible aftermath couldn’t kick us into gear.

Seth Zuckerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an environmental writer who lives in Petrolia, California.