- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

There have been countless articles about chances for an economically devastating shortage of energy in the future, usually with suggestions for some technological solution.

But before settling on a solution, we must first confirm there is a problem — and that is problematic.

Many analysts say we will never run out of oil, and others say we will. This means that one bunch of analysts doesn’t know what it is talking about.

Conservatives usually say we have plenty of oil, while liberals say we don’t.

This suggests that they are deciding on ideological rather than scientific grounds. We need to find out.

India and China together have eight times our population. If they develop to the American level, they will need eight times our consumption of oil. Is that much out there?

If we agree there is a problem, or may be, what then is the solution? Much technology is suggested, but none of it is clearly workable.

Nuclear fusion promises endless free energy but shows no sign of working anytime soon. Nuclear power works fine but doesn’t fly well politically, at least in the United States.

It also doesn’t produce gasoline for cars. Oil can be extracted from oil shale and gasoline made from coal, but both are filthy and expensive. Nobody is seriously getting ready to do it.

People talk of a hydrogen economy, in which hydrogen would for example be burned in cars. It sounds nice as long as you don’t think about it.

Sure, you eliminate petrochemical pollutants and carbon dioxide because, when you burn hydrogen, you get water vapor. The thing is, you get hydrogen either from natural gas, which brings us back to fossil fuels, or by hydrolyzing water (breaking it into hydrogen and oxygen), which requires (sigh) energy.

Wind power? Nice for a ranch maybe, but not for New York. Solar power? It would help if widely adopted, but it can’t be more than part of a solution.

And so on. Every idea has its enthusiasts and its debunkers.

The problem, of course, is that we have too many people using too much energy. If we lived in a forest with one family per square mile, we could use firewood for energy and never run out. But we don’t live that way and the population grows.

If we lived in small towns we could bike to work, but in fact we live in remote suburbs and drive to work. And so on. None of this will change quickly.

Conservation? In principle, sure. We could live in far smaller, well-insulated houses, use fans instead of air conditioning, drive the sorts of glorified go-carts that one sees in Thailand, and spend our time reading and listening to music. In practice, people don’t behave this way.

Further, the entire economy is based on high production and high consumption. We can philosophize about it, but nothing short of catastrophe will change it.

The nature of a free-enterprise economy is that it adapts well to gradual changes, but cannot prepare for sudden ones. Any technical solution that would work seems to require wrenching social changes that aren’t going to be embraced voluntarily.

As long as foreign oil is cheap enough, we will burn it instead of moving to more expensive but more secure sources of energy. If that oil were suddenly shut off, it would be all-out war or all-out disaster. Can this happen? It isn’t obvious that it can’t.

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