Thursday, October 28, 2004

Texas Tea

I had an interesting conversation this past weekend with my friend Clarity (not his real name) concerning oil, China, India, industrialization, and energy. By now most everyone knows that oil prices are climbing only in small measure due to political instability in the Middle East (read: Iraq). The real story is that oil is a finite resource, and the means of extracting it are reaching capacity. In fact, there is some speculation in the minority that Saudi Arabia's oil fields may not possess the vast reserves they're purported to have. Be that as it may, the world is rapidly closing in on the maximum capacity of practical oil extraction and refinement while the curve of growing demand from India and China is starting to resemble the profile of a ski-jump. Commodities 101 tells you that price hikes -- permanent, structural price hikes -- in oil are here to stay.

Or are they? Certainly, if the classic path toward industrialization is taken by the world's poorer, more populous nations. But, unlike Western nations, other areas of the globe do not have a heavy investment in the energy infrastructure racing to become obsolete. Cell phones spread rapidly in Africa because a wireless network is easier to deploy than a network of poles and cables. Similarly, what if the United States were to aid poorer nations in creating the next generation of energy infrastructure (hydrogen? wind? solar? geothermal? tidal?), experimenting in laboratories the size of nations to perfect the techniques for a world with no need to burn fossil fuels for energy?

The Bush administration, hamstrung by its short-sighted crony capitalism, can't see past the next quarter's profits for their friends in the oil business, and are running down the clock for America's energy needs. If America attempts to gain control of a considerable portion of the world's oil, the endeavor may help extend the life of the local oil-based economy, but the sequestering of this world resource may force other nations to leapfrog the United States into new, renewable, efficient energy technologies, leaving the United States to scrabble in the oil-soaked dust of a clean future's passage.

The time for a new Manhattan project for energy is now. A world with no overwhelming need for oil is a world where United States foreign policy isn't hijacked into deserts to battle with thugs to install friendlier thugs. The world abounds in unharnessed energy. It's time to figure out how to grab hold of it, and help 2 billion people industrialize on the basis of cleaner, sustainable energy sources before their investment in yesterday's resources becomes a drag on the world economy.

We harnessed a continent. We went to the Moon. We have among us the smartest, most capable, most creative people on Earth. We're Americans. Let's bring a better future to the less fortunate that surround us, and in so doing, secure our own.


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