Let us sit upon the ground, friends, and, if we are not terminally interrupted by the crash upon us of a piece of Skylab, talk of the energy crisis and its effect on our once confident Can-Do society. It may simplify matters to think of not one but two energy crises.
One is the electricity dilemma—the problem of generating the power to light our streets and homes, turn the factory wheels, operate the Cuisinarts, and transmit the utterances of all those cute Evening News telecasters and the Geritol commercials. The second is the oil dilemma—the problem of keeping the cars, campers, and trucks rolling on all those roads built under the federal highway program (which has all but destroyed mass transit and is still going strong) and heating the homes of those so unfortunate as to depend on fuel oil.
Solutions to the first crisis are readily at hand. We confront only choices. The United States has enough coal in the ground to provide power for several hundred years: enough for all the electricity we need for a long time to come, with plenty left over to convert into gaseous or liquid fuel as well. The cost in terms of human life will, of course, be enormous, especially when we consider that the all-out mining and burning of coal, in addition to the deaths it induces by cancer and respiratory diseases, may throw into the atmosphere sufficient carbon dioxide to alter the climate irreparably, melt the polar caps, raise the oceans by twenty-five or thirty feet, and otherwise derange the planet. There are long-range alternatives, such as solar energy and perhaps some Band-Aid resort to wind power, but lacking serious government or industrial investment in their development, they are far off.
The more immediate alternative is nuclear power. Is it a viable alternative? A sane one?
An impressive argument that it can be is made by an article in the June issue of Commentary, “The Harrisburg Syndrome” by Samuel McCracken. Mr. McCracken’s disemboobilization of some (if not all) of the antinuclear argument and his discussion of nuclear hazards as against the hazards of doing without nuclear power are so cogent that I commit the heresy of inviting Atlantic readers to read a piece in another magazine.
But I digress. Having solved Crisis One, let us move to Crisis Two. The gasoline (and diesel) shortage is more interesting, partly because it is more exasperating. American oil refineries convert crude oil into many products. Until recently, gasoline was predominant (more than 54 percent).
A small but appreciable percentage is diverted into the manufacture of plastics (the petrochemical industry overall consumes a hefty 10 percent of the total American energy output). This confronts us with a neat irony: What good does it accomplish to produce all the plastic cups and cutlery, utterly wasteful items, with which to eat a family dinner at McDonald’s or Burger King, if the manufacture of those products leaves us no gas with which to drive to dinner? Or to make film for taking pictures of beautiful landscapes to which we are unable to drive?
Still, the experts say (and I won’t quarrel with them) that there simply is not enough oil to feed the fuel greed of all us American sybarites. We must either change our way of life (e.g. return from suburbia to the decaying cities), submit to rationing (it worked well during World War II), find a substitute for gasoline, re-invent the automobile, or accept a combination of all those remedies.
I hesitate to suggest that what we need is a Great Engineer in the White House, remembering what happened under the last one. But in fact we are graced again with an engineer in the presidency (Mr. Carter keeps reminding us that he too is one), so we might justifiably expect him to lead us in an engineering approach to the energy shortage.
First, he might send a commission to Brazil, a huge country struggling to be great, with many problems (see the two Reports on Brazil in this issue), and altogether dependent on foreign oil. That country is far ahead of the land of Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, and Thomas Alva Edison in a program to convert its vegetation (including sugarcane) into alcohol to fuel its automobiles.
Second, the President might determine that if the United States can plunge thirty to forty billion dollars into a scheme such as the MX-missile program (6000 miles of trenches in which 200 or more missiles with ten warheads each travel back and forth and confuse the Russians until the trenches cave in or the enemy sabotages the communication cables), it can invest at least a few billions in a program that does for energy breakthroughs what Oak Ridge in the World War II years did for the atomic breakthrough.
Third, he might helpfully fire all the people in Washington who were supposed to be controlling nuclear energy over the past several years, and making it safe, but who chose instead to promote its development without proper attention to the risks. If we could trust the people who are appointed to regulate the nuclear option, we could transfer our mystical fear of nuclear power plant radiation into a more forceful fear of growing nuclear armament. That wouldn’t be a setback for the human condition.