Technology Can't Perform Miracles
Reprinted from 29 March 2010 edition of Peak Oil Review
When Stewart Lee Udall died on March 20th at age 90, we lost a giant of a gentleman and a passionate former public servant. The Arizona native was perhaps the most influential U.S. Secretary of the Interior ever. He served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1969, and played a major role in some of the nation's landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Said former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, “his passion and informed leadership persuaded both Presidents and the Congress to designate four new national parks: Canyon Lands in Utah, North Cascades in Washington State, Redwoods in California, and Guadalupe in Texas. He prompted the nation's first National Seashores, eight of them. He asked for and received the designation of six National Monuments and fifty Wildlife Refuges.” And Stewart knew energy. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he lunched numerous times with geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Shortly after the turn of the century, Stewart and his wife Lee penned this letter to their grandchildren…and yours.
My dear ones, your generation will face a series of environmental challenges that will dwarf anything any previous generation has confronted. I'm hoping to add some insights of my own based on things I learned as a policymaker in the 1950s and '60s, when I observed and participated in some monumental achievements and profound misjudgments. As a freshman congressman in 1955, I regrettably voted with my unanimous colleagues for the Interstate Highway Program. All of us acted on the shortsighted assumption that cheap oil was super-abundant and would always be available.
This illusion began to unravel in the 1970s, and it haunts Americans today. Oil lies at the epicenter of a critical energy crisis. Petroleum is a finite resource and is the most precious, versatile resource on the planet. Cheap oil played a crucial role in the development of American power and prosperity, and sustains the military machine that dominates the world today. Oil is now nearing a historic transition that will alter the civilization Americans have come to take for granted. As world oil production reaches its apex and begins its inevitable decline, it will have a radical impact on everyday American life. It will take bold political leadership and awareness on the part of individual citizens to craft a full-scale, creative response. I watched with admiration in 1974 as my friend, President Gerald Ford, persuaded Congress to adopt a 55 mph speed limit to reduce our reliance on imported oil. He also got a law passed which mandated production of more fuel-efficient automobiles.
I am convinced that the American people will tighten their belts if a president forges a national strategy to stretch the life of our oil reserves and to adjust to a long-range plan of energy conservation. Energy efficiency must be the rallying cry. Higher oil prices are already serving as a wake-up call. Despite an utter lack of leadership from the White House, a few progressive states and cities are building light-rail systems to serve urban residents and commuter trains to connect their communities. I urge you to be stalwart supporters of any projects that promote fuel efficiency and conservation for all citizens.
You also must contend with the carbon dioxide problem. Once it is released into the atmosphere, this gas has a long life (approximately 100 years), spreads over the entire globe, and acts as a blanket that warms all parts of the earth. The United States and China are responsible for producing over 40 percent of the CO2 that is altering the earth's atmosphere. Consequently, these two nations
have a moral responsibility to be in the forefront of any global campaign to develop new technologies to cut the emissions of this damaging pollutant. I have recently proposed that these two countries join together in a 50/50 research venture, and assemble teams of engineers and scientists to work together to develop technologies to capture carbon as it emerges from coal power plants. These teams would perfect technologies to isolate the carbon and transport it through pipelines to storage sites in the deep ocean or in depleted oil and natural gas fields. The success of such international cooperation would set an example that could spur development of new supplies of renewable energy. All climates would benefit from advances produced by such an enterprise. Today, China has the most polluted air in the world and suffers the most premature deaths from gross air pollution. These same teams of scientists could also devise technologies to capture the deadly pollutants that shorten the lives of millions of people in all parts of the world.
Even though scientists can solve many technological problems, a word of caution is in order. I learned during my government service that even the most gifted researchers couldn't perform technical miracles. The skilled engineers at the Interior Department built the first direct current line to transmit huge blocks of electricity from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River to Los Angeles by simply flipping a switch. But the same engineers couldn't develop a cheap technique to desalinate seawater. One further example will dramatize my point. In the summer of 1969, after our astronauts completed their round trip to the moon (a brilliant but narrow feat), most Americans were overwhelmed by the promises that became the mantra of that exciting moment. The slogan, "This proves we can do whatever we want to do," influenced the mindset of Americans and generated a vision of a future with no restraints or limits. President Richard Nixon, quickly rebuked for his wild rhetoric by the Rev. Billy Graham, characterized the accomplishment as "the greatest week since the creation of the earth." A gusher of extravagant prophecies followed, predicting that a new planet of superabundant resources had magically come into existence followed. Though scientists regarded such predictions as Alice in Wonderland speculation, they were generally ignored; dissent was not welcome during this moment of triumph.
Meanwhile, Americans' vision of the future was warped; they believed, falsely, that technologists could perform miracles that would solve any future energy problems. Ignored was the nation's ever-increasing dependence on oil produced by other countries. Worse yet, this new vision offered assurances that our own oil wells would never run dry, and it has persuaded many of the current leaders of our nation that global warming is a myth. Having said that, technology may yet help solve our current problems. Some of the world's best architects and designers are already working on changes in the design of buildings and cities, which will reduce requirements for electricity by as much as 50 percent by 2050. Such advances won't be enough, however. Americans must finally cast aside our notion that we can continue the wasteful consumption patterns of our past. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly efficient mode of living. In closing, I leave you with these thoughts, and hope you will hold to these ideals throughout your lives: Foster a consciousness that puts a premium on the common good and the protection of the environment. Give your unstinting support to all lasting, fruitful technological innovations. Be steadfast enemies of waste. The lifetime crusade of your days must be to develop a new energy ethic to sustain life on earth.
In the 1960s, when the carbon problem and the exhaustion of the world's petroleum were still beyond our gaze, I advocated a new ethic to guide our nation's stewardship of its resources. I realize now this approach was too narrow, too nationalistic. To sustain life on our small planet, we will need a wider, all-encompassing planetary resource ethic based on values implemented by mutual cooperation. This ethic must be rooted in the most intrinsic values of all: Caring, sharing, and mutual efforts that reach beyond all obstacles and boundaries. Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth. Carry our love in your hearts....
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