Thursday, September 15, 2005

Here We Go Again?

For someone who grew up in the 1970s, I have little nostalgia for that decade. Aside from comprising the sartorial nadir of western civilization, those years were marked by such wonderful things as Watergate, the Arab Oil Embargo, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Three Mile Island, inflation, stagflation, gas lines, and "malaise". Isn't it strange to wake up after a terrible natural disaster and discover that some of the problems we'd thought were safely relegated to the past are rising up again, like zombies? As if the reappearance of gas lines and government intervention in the retail gasoline market (price caps and tax holidays) weren't bad enough, it now seems that some enterprising thieves have rediscovered the art of siphoning gas from your car, and that locking gas caps are making a comeback.

Worse yet, from an energy perspective, it must seem to many as if, in the short term, we have few options that we didn't have in 1979. We can drive less, carpool, make sure our tires are properly inflated, switch to a lower-octane grade, and turn off our engines at long stoplights. Not very comforting, with gas over $3.00/gal.

But before we succumb to the post-Katrina malaise, it's worth remembering that in the mid-to-long term, we have some strikingly different choices than we did 25 years ago. Consider:
  • Hybrid cars are a reality. If we can convince Detroit and Yokohama that fuel economy will be a primary driver of consumer preferences for the next decade, they will offer us a wide range of cars and SUVs that are comfortable, safe, and get 35-50 miles per gallon.
  • Alternative fuel technologies have become economical or nearly so at current oil prices. This includes the production of liquid transportation fuels--our biggest need and the largest hurdle in the 1970s--from natural gas, coal, crops and crop waste.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells have moved out of the laboratory and into prototype cars and production buses. Despite infrastructure obstacles, fuel cells hold out the promise of using existing energy sources much more efficiently in the future.
  • Clever exploitation of the Internet is constantly providing new means for substituting the movement of information for the movement of people and goods. This is one reason that the ratio of energy inputs to GDP output continues to fall.

As I've suggested before in this blog, we have learned an awful lot in the last couple decades, even if it doesn't always seem that way. Thinking that we are back in the 1970s is only going to lead to the unnecessary repetition of failed strategies for solving our energy problems. We need to treat the Oughts (has anyone heard of a better name for this decade?) as unique and approach our current problems with the benefit of historical insight, but led by a fresh perspective.

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