Since 1973, we have been grappling with the vagaries of a market we no longer control: oil. It’s an important market mainly because our country has become dependent upon it for our economy to work. The current financial crisis was a disaster waiting to happen, it seems, but one could argue that it was oil that pushed us over the edge as prices rose ever faster until it all crumbed. But now we’re getting payback: as demand crumples its price has fallen even faster than it rose (except that we’re not, since a failing economy isn’t good for anyone.)
Or is it?
We have an opportunity now to do just what we said was most important just six months ago: get off the stuff. But we now have a new problem: in a time when credit is flowing like molasses, we have great uncertainty, and we’re faced with numerous other problems like job losses and business failures, there will be a growing impatience with any solution that seems … indirect. When blood is pouring out of a vein, you put on a tourniquet. For the millions of people whose jobs are lost, the analogy is apt.
But we must avoid simplistic solutions, and we must be patient.
We saw examples of overly simplified thinking when gas prices were high last summer: “gas tax holidays” and “drill, baby, drill” epitomized the knee-jerk political response to what is a far, far more complex problem.
We’re still in a sort of grace period for patience. We’re still stunned by the magnitude and suddenness of the financial collapse — I am sure no one really knows how it’s going to be resolved. And while we have elected a new president, he has not yet taken office. Patience is not our strong suit, though, especially when there are so many problems that are so significant.
But we need to look back at the last oil crisis for guidance.
Ancient History (from the late 1900’s)
In 1973 the Arab Oil Embargo created a crisis that caused prices to spike. Long lines at the gas station, prices over $1.00/gallon for the first time and stagflation were the result. The economy tanked and we started looking to other world leaders, like Japan and Europe for guidance on how to do better. We reduced speed limits to 55 mph, we turned down our thermostats, we demanded better fuel economy for our cars, we insulated our houses and so on. We made sacrifices.
But the problem is, all of these thing worked. They worked well, and they worked quickly. Demand for oil plummeted, and prices rapidly fell so that those very “Arabs” who exerted their pricing power on us were, by 1980 or so, trying to keep their cartel together and set artificially high prices. Sound familiar? This is exactly what has happened recently. And here’s the lesson:
Shortly after prices fell, and there were no more lines for gas. We had increasingly efficient cars and an improving economy. People got tired of driving 55 mph, and tired of lowering their thermostats. We’re Americans, we said, and we don’t have to sacrifice!
So the President who gave us many of these solutions, Jimmy Carter, was run out of town on a rail, replaced by Ronald Reagan (who ripped the solar panels installed by Carter off the White House).
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
Today, we have similar circumstances. We have, in the last month alone, started taking many historic, and long overdue steps to deal with our dependence on oil, and perhaps even our issues with climate change. We are bailing out auto makers upon the condition that they build efficient new models. We are realizing that the millions of jobs that will be lost can be turned into new jobs building infrastructure to support a new energy delivery system. We have a new and enlightened leader. We’re off to a pretty good start, if you ask me.
The question is: once the bloom is off the rose will we maintain our resolve? Or perhaps the more important question is: what is it that we are resolved to do?
A New-Era’s Resolution
Are we resolved to get our economy back on track? Are we resolved to gain independence from the vagaries of turbulent and unpredictable markets for oil and gas? How about global warming? Jobs? World hunger? Drought? Food prices? Or, are you mostly resolved to eat a little less and get that damned credit card paid off? Or that you have health insurance. Or heat this winter? Or food? Oh, yeah, Iraq and Afghanistan wars?
We have many distinct resolutions, and depending on which are most important, each of us may personally have a different ordering of our priorities. Some of these resolutions may be in conflict — for example if you are resolute in your desire to gain independence from foreign oil, then you could reasonably conclude that coal, plus tar sands and oil shale and additional drilling for oil and gas combined are the most immediately available sources of energy. You would probably be right.
However others who think jobs are important might not agree with this strategy, as any investment in extending these fuel sources would provide only an incremental employment increase in a highly automated and mechanized industry. People concerned about climate change would have an equally strident objection to fossil fuels of any sort (and for that matter most bio-fuels) as they all result in rather significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions compared to renewable alternatives.
Is there a single solution that addresses everyone’s main priority? No, in truth every solution comes with a trade-off. If we follow the plan to make huge federal investments in renewable energy, coal and oil companies will lose, and there will be other impacts of significant social and economic adjustment. Of course we’re already suffering from social and economic impacts, so the question might be “can we possibly endure any more?” How we respond has to do with how strong our resolve is.
When we start asking all of these questions, we quickly get mired in trade-offs, all of which result in pain. Yet it is only when we’re truly at a critical moment in our history that we have made dramatic shifts, either for the better or worse. In the 1970’s era “oil crisis” we made a rather great start at solving an immediate problem — we made it so that, for the current time, the cost of oil was not threatening our way of life.
The prize is more than liberation from oil dependence
But then we took our eye off the prize, for then we did have the chance to take our process of change far further. Had we done that then, the world may have looked very different than it does today. So in the end it may be that the lesson of the 70’s may simply have been one whose outcome was the only likely one. We didn’t understand global warming then, and were more concerned about ecology and nuclear proliferation than we were about geopolitics and war.
Today, we have another critical moment. Of this, there is no doubt: we have a “perfect storm” of events whose outcomes seem to be leading towards a singular and positive outcome (I am hopeful indeed). Everyone seems to agree that wind and solar can play a big part in solving many of the problems we are facing as individuals, as a country, and as an entire planet in so many cases.
If we can learn from our “trial run” in the 70s, and now, having several other major new challenges, notably global warming, we need to accept that there’s really only one main path out of this mess we’re in. It has to be decisive, grand, bold, swift and huge. More important, we need to make the change so huge that once the implications and ramifications of this change begin to be felt, we have gotten far enough that we cannot turn back.
If we keep our eye on the prize, we can indeed emerge as the nation whose ingenuity, creativity, openness, fairness and might all came together to solve a world problem.