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LOS ANGELES - I am driving through the belly of the energy beast, the land of rolling hills and rolling blackouts, in a car that would get 20 miles to the $2.27 gallon if it could go 20 miles in this bumper-to-bumper lane.

We are on the Santa Monica freeway, SUV to the right, minivan to the left, in a city where the average citizen spends 55 extra hours a year stuck in traffic jams and where no one can rush in a rush hour that lasts all day. Ah yes, the American way of life, which White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described as "a blessed one."

Now the long drumroll up to the president's energy plan is complete and the proposal itself has been revealed. California's Gov. Gray Davis says that the president has had a "death-bed conversion to conservation." Indeed, the White House added some window dressing, some incentives for efficiency and some assurances about "clean" coal and "safe" nuclear plants.

But all in all, the plan plays to the big energy businesses in the audience with an old Bush theme song: This land is your land from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Arctic Refuge.

As the president tours the country there are no costumes, no sweaters or T-shirts, and no patriotic exhortations to lower or raise the thermostat. There are no calls to pull together and cut back. And there are no pleas to "personal virtue."

More than a week ago, Vice President Dick Cheney huffed that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue" but it had little value as an energy policy. "Personal Virtue" became one of those signature sneers, a perfect verbal illustration of the administration's animus to environmentalists.

This disparagement of green as the color of tree-hugging sissies produced a raft of cartoons, and slogans saying: Real Men Drill.

But in the argument over energy even those who oppose Bush, environmentalists and Democrats alike seem reluctant to talk about virtues. They are talking, rather, about efficiency and the economy, about green as the color of money.

At times, listening to this energy debate, it seems that virtue has become the third rail of environmental politics. There is the conviction that Jimmy Carter was done in by his call for the "moral equivalent of war." There is the further conviction that if you ask people to change a lifestyle of unrestrained energy use, they'll restrain your re-election.

For the most part, I agree that the argument for the environment is pragmatic, not just idealistic. Indeed there are times when disputes between two purists over who is the greener - vegetarian vs. vegan, paper diaper user vs. cloth - become tiresome. And I do not want to sit in the dark petit-pointing "Waste Not, Want Not."

But here, where traffic lights can go out without warning and my driver has begun to unplug her appliances at night, I wonder why we have given up the moral language.

There is something especially contradictory in the conservative silence on virtues. For 20 years, the William Bennett wing of the Republican Party has been pushing personal responsibility as public policy.

Going by the conservative book of virtues, they built a drug prevention policy based on just saying no. They favored pregnancy prevention based on abstinence. And this White House has promoted a social welfare program based on faith - in the power of belief to change individual behavior.

But the familiar sermon about how social change comes from individual choices stops at the SUV dealership. Why does a drug addict need tough love to quit, while the gas-guzzler needs a tax incentive to switch? How come we tell the Hollywood moguls to take responsibility for sex and violence while we say the oil companies should live according to the virtues of the free market?

Now, I'm not naive. I know about the business interests behind a build-and-drill energy policy. But in his speech, the president asked for a "new tone in discussing energy and the environment, one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous."

He means, I suspect, a silent opposition, civilly acquiescent. But I would like to hear a new tone in which we can talk freely about environmental values as well as kilowatts, about public virtues as well as public works.

In many ways, the environmental middle has been reluctant to use the language of morality, as if that belonged to the right. But at its heart, environmentalism is about protecting the future, and respecting our place in the world and leaving it better than the way we found it. It's about personal and collective moral decisions. And yes, it is about virtue.

Ellen Goodman column runs regularly in the Missoulian. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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