Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Energy Crisis: Just What We Need

Necessity is a mother, all right ...

I'm in denial about the oil shortage. I've put myself on a budget where I'm only allowed to put $30 worth of gas in my tank each week and then I try to make it last by planning my travel and using public transit sometimes. That way I can ignore the fact that filling up would cost me over $60, though I remember filling my 1960 VW for about $4.50.

Seems like nationally we have really short memories. On the news the current prices are being compared to those "much lower ones" of a year or two ago, back when it was below $3.00 a gallon, as if that's as far back as the records go. But you don't have to be very old to remember when it was way less than that. On the famous date of 9/11/2001 we were paying about $1.50 a gallon on average. And just a few months later, around New Year's Day 2002, I visited my family in Central Florida where the prices are somewhat lower and seized the opportunity to fill my tank for only 99.9 cents per gallon, just so I could tell people back home that I had done it. But the joke was on me -- if I'd waited till I was a few miles down the road I could have had it for 97.9 cents!

An interesting footnote to this is that while I was at the gas station I picked up a bottle of water for the trip and paid $1.29 for a liter -- approximately $4.96 per gallon. For water! Well, at least it was chilled. Personally I'd rather pay 5.00 for the gas and 1.00 for the water. Maybe we'll get there someday when world economics have sorted this mess into something more sensible.

Of course, us old timers can remember prices that make even 97 cents seem outrageous. When I was a kid in the early 1950's competing stations sometimes had "gas wars," driving the prices down to unbelievable levels. We're talking less than 20 cents per gallon at a time when a loaf of bread was about 15 cents. Maybe that's a measure of what the price should be: 1 gallon = 1.33 loaves of bread.

Once my father asked the station owner how he could make any money with the price so low. The guy just grinned and confessed that he and his "competitor" on the opposite corner had worked a deal where they would take turns having the lowest price. The "Gas War!" signs that they both displayed were a great way to bring in customers for both of them. At last, an honest man!

There have certainly been times when the situation was lots worse than it is now. How about gas rationing during World War II, when you couldn't get gas at all without your coupon? Or the shortage during the Iran crisis in 1978-9 with gas lines and limits on how much you could buy?

But we seem to sense that the situation now is something new and different. It's pretty clear that prices will remain high and the supply will continue to shrink as we approach the final end of what we can pump out of the ground. With both China and India rapidly catching up to our own flagrant consumption levels, the situation can only get worse from here on out.

Which brings us to why this crisis is exactly what we need. Let's face it, we don't do anything in this country until it becomes a crisis. But when we do, we often surprise ourselves with what is possible. During that shortage in 1979 I read an interesting magazine article called "The Great Energy Crisis of 1550." The author's point was that back then the problem was that Europe was out of wood, and wood was everything -- both the principle fuel and building material of the age. It was one of the main reasons for colonization, to insure a supply of fresh forests once Europe was denuded of them. The tallest and straightest trees in North America were soon marked as reserved for the masts of the Royal Navy.

The unforeseen development of course was that technology was about to move into a new age of coal and iron and steam and mass production. And after only a century of that it was time to start burning oil instead, and then driving everything with electricity. Meanwhile Europe reforested to the extent that there are more trees in it now than there were 400 years ago. If history is any gauge then we are due for another and even larger shift into using the raw energy of the sun itself, as well as other resources that cannot be depleted, such wind and waves and tidal forces which also derive from the sun. Beyond that may lie even more incredible options -- maybe creating our own suns with water and nuclear fusion.

So cheer up, fellow travelers -- the worse it gets, the faster we'll have to invent our way out the mess, and the sooner we can get on with the next stage of civilization. Meanwhile, keep this card ... you may need it.

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