By S. David Freeman

We keep staring in frustration and anger at the giant flow of oil spilling into the water in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a disaster.

But what is even a greater disaster is what we would see if we looked up, rather than down, and opened our eyes to the millions of deadly toxic “spills” into the air we breathe from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, ships, oil refineries, etc. They spill deadly poisons into the air we breathe every day.

We are more endangered than the birds and the fish in the Gulf. While we are rightfully concerned about the wildlife, let’s wake up to what we are breathing every day of our lives. And there is ample scientific evidence to prove that the “spills” of pollution in the air are just as deadly to human beings.

We need to remind ourselves that what we call smog is a witch’s brew of toxic stuff far more deadly than crude oil. No matter what we burn, whether its gasoline, coal, “clean diesel,” natural gas or biodiesel, it creates tiny particles invisible to the eye that become part of the air we breathe. They go past your nasal passages into the deep recesses of your lungs and into your bloodstream.

Study after study has proven that air pollution is the cause of epidemics of asthma among kids, and heart disease and premature cancer deaths among adults. The tragedy in the Gulf should be a wakeup call to remind Americans that we need to get off oil, not just to save wildlife in the Gulf, but to save our own lives.

It is time to recognize that forms of energy that are inherently dangerous (atomic power, deepwater drilling, and burning coal and petroleum) must be phased out. The truth is that—as we have seen—technology is not perfect and humans do make errors, as the BP oil spill and Three Mile Island reveal.

Remember, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. So, let’s stop going for the poisons, and commit our future to clean energy. The convenient truth is that a serious effort to bring on a renewable energy future, in addition to stopping large future oil spills, would:

  1. Clean the air we breathe
  2. Reduce the risks of climate change
  3. Reduce our dependence on oil imports
  4. Stop the flow of billions of dollars each year to foreign oil-producing nations
  5. Create a large number of new green jobs for Americans

I have just returned from a visit to China. The leadership in clean tech is now being captured by the Chinese. But it is not too late for America to at least be a major player. But if the tragedy in the Gulf is not a wakeup call, America will lose out. What is needed is leadership that calls for green action now.

There are vast publicly owned lands where solar and wind projects can be built by private companies if the government will grant speedy permission and financing. And the auto industry can be told by the government that, in a few short years, all your cars must be plug-in hybrids or all-electric.

We must make a firm national decision to say no to poisons: crude oil and coal and inherently dangerous radioactive atomic power. The future must be all renewable. Only then can we preserve our way of life.

Wake up, America. Stop talking, and start building green power—and no more fossil fuels or nuclear. Only then will America’s best days be ahead of us.

S. David Freeman is the former chairman of the board of Tennessee Valley Authority and headed the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and other large public power agencies. He is the author of Winning Our Energy Independence and a principal in the Renewable Energy Accountability Project, a nonprofit renewable energy watchdog agency.