The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher

Mideast Oil Forever?

Backlogs of History

Dmitri Tymoczko, in "The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher" (May Atlantic), at times qualifies the religious beliefs of William James as "potentially" false. However, the conclusion of the article, where Tymoczko seems to be speaking for himself, is less tentative. There he speaks of "the pleasing illusions of the religious visionary," and "the pleasing illusions of religious belief."

As James cautioned in The Will to Believe, "If we are to discuss the question at all, it must involve a living option. If for any of you religion be a hypothesis that cannot, by any living possibility be true, then you need go no farther." Confirmed pragmatist that he was, James did not conceive of truth in absolute terms, but he concluded in the final lecture of The Varieties of Religious Experience that "that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal." Without such openness and respect, any consideration of religion risks taking on a condescending tone, even when it has the meritorious object of protecting religion's free expression. I am afraid that this is the way Tymoczko's argument strikes me when he reduces the Native American's peyote-induced religious experience, along with the non-drug-induced experiences of great mystics throughout the centuries, to "pleasing illusions."

Rose Hoover

Dmitri Tymoczko is wrong when he states flatly that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in effect reinstated the Native American Church's right to use drugs in its religious rituals. The RFRA does no such thing. It simply restores the requirement that the government demonstrate a "compelling state interest" to legitimize any action that inhibits a religious practice. States wishing to ban ritual drug use may still argue that such a compelling interest--control of dangerous drugs--does exist and validates prohibition.

Contrary to the author's assumption, Justice Antonin Scalia and other signers of his majority opinion in the Oregon case (Employment Division v. Smith) were not much concerned about the issue of drug use and the "double standard." Scalia even hinted in his opinion that he favored states' legalizing Native American ritual drug use--as Oregon has now done after winning the right not to tolerate it. Scalia was more concerned over the general problem of order, which he thought arises if any government action that incidentally restricts a religious practice must be considered presumptively invalid pending a showing of a compelling state interest. Rochester, Minn.

Thomas Robbins

It is disturbing to think that religious belief might be useful and yet false--even William James, in his later years, backed away from this unsettling possibility. Religious believers (and people sympathetic to religion) naturally want to believe that religion is at least potentially true; atheists naturally do not like imagining that it contributes substantially to human welfare. Yet the disturbing nature of this thought should not prevent us from considering it carefully. If we do face a set of difficult choices between pleasing illusions and disappointing truth, we should confront the problem, not avoid it for fear of upsetting people.

Judging that states had failed to meet the "compelling interest" standard, several courts (notably the California Supreme Court, in People v. Woody [1964]) have upheld Native Americans' right to use peyote in their religious rituals. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act effectively restored this route to legalized drug use. The RFRA has also been used (in an Eighth Circuit court decision last February) to overturn Rastafarians' marijuana-possession convictions. Furthermore, in 1994 Congress extended the RFRA's protection of religious freedom, legalizing Native American peyote use in all fifty states.

Speculating about judicial motivations is a tricky and potentially unrewarding business. Suffice it to say that the "double standard" should be an issue of real concern to all of us, Justice Scalia included. Having recognized religious drug use as legitimate in one particular case, we should think about extending this recognition to others whose claims are similarly strong.

Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis assert that fuel-cell technology has the best chance of replacing petroleum in transportation ("Mideast Oil Forever?" April Atlantic). It is a point well taken, but it deserves some amplification. First, it could well be that the long-term (whatever that is supposed to mean) context in which they are placing their hopes may shrink considerably. Romm and Curtis presumably didn't know it when they wrote their piece, but the German car maker Daimler-Benz subsequently announced that it would present its first fuel-cell passenger car, developed in collaboration with the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems, at a press conference in Berlin on May 14. By comparison, under the Department of Energy's timetable the first American prototype is not expected to be unveiled until some time around the turn of the century and maybe even later.

The Daimler-Benz announcement caught many people by surprise and is regarded as a major milestone in the field. Although many people believed that Daimler-Benz and Ballard were generally ahead of those American and Japanese car makers that are working on fuel-cell projects, nobody expected that Daimler would go public that soon.

Ballard rolled out prototype fuel-cell-powered buses a couple of years ago. Chicago, Vancouver, and possibly Chula Vista, California, each will put three of them on the road in real-life operations for paying passengers either late this or early next year.

Also relevant in the fuel-cell context is that one American company, ONSI, of South Windsor, Connecticut, a subsidiary of United Technologies by way of International Fuel Cells, is already selling commercial--albeit still expensive on a per-kilowatt basis--small 200-kilowatt fuel-cell power plants for office buildings, hospitals, and similar stationary uses. Other designs by other manufacturers are well under development. Some are small and unobtrusive, and all are quiet and cleaner and more efficient than conventional power plants. ONSI has placed about sixty-seven of its designs in various installations around the world, and in April the company reported that the entire fleet had accumulated more than a million operating hours, with availability averaging 95 percent.

Finally, it is important to note that fuel cells represent the technological gateway to an intrinsically clean, by definition environmentally benign, zero-emission energy system ultimately independent of any fossil fuel. Making hydrogen for fuel cells from natural gas or other fossil fuels, as Romm and Curtis state, is really only a transitional step, albeit one that may last several decades. The ultimate goal is to produce hydrogen by splitting water into its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen, by the well-known process of electrolysis, with electricity derived from renewable solar energy in all its variants--hydropower, wind, photovoltaics, for example--or other biological and chemical processes now under development in many laboratories around the world.

Peter Hoffmann

Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter Rhinecliff, N.Y.

Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis are to be congratulated on a superb article detailing the ill-advised and potentially disastrous cuts in federal funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Unfortunately, a similar precipitous decline in energy-conservation spending in the private sector promises to exacerbate the problems of environmental damage and energy resource depletion. Specifically, I am referring to the demise of utility-company energy-conservation programs.

Beginning with the Reagan Administration's cuts in DOE spending in the early 1980s, responsibility for providing actual energy-conservation programs (as opposed to R&D) was largely shifted to the nation's utility companies. Until very recently this strategy worked quite well, as utility "demand-side management" programs experienced dramatic growth (to more than $3 billion a year by 1994). This strategy appeared so successful that in 1993 President Bill Clinton projected utility-company programs to be the single greatest contributor to carbon-dioxide reductions in his Climate Change Action Plan.

Unfortunately, concurrent with the philosophical shift in Congress in 1994, the electric industry and most of the state agencies regulating that industry embarked on a path toward deregulation. Among its other effects, this change has brought utility-sponsored energy-conservation programs--a booming industry in the early 1990s--to a virtual standstill this year. In fact, staff members formerly responsible for energy conservation at many utilities have been reassigned to energy sales promotion, in an effort to expand profits in the new "competitive" market. If the telephone industry is any indication, electricity consumption in the United States is likely to increase substantially if electric deregulation proceeds.

Martin Kushler

We share Peter Hoffmann's enthusiasm for fuel cells. They will be one of the key technologies of the twenty-first century, because of their very high energy efficiency and extraordinarily low emissions. They are already being used to power buildings and electric utilities, primarily with hydrogen converted from natural gas. In June the Department of Energy dedicated a two-megawatt fuel cell at a municipal electrical station in Santa Clara, California. Daimler-Benz has now demonstrated that fuel cells can fit the space requirements of a car. However, many additional technical and cost hurdles remain.

The Department of Energy has made major advances in automotive fuel cells. Sadly, the President's budget request of $42 million for transportation fuel cells in fiscal year 1996 was cut in half by Congress and may be cut again this year. While our trading competitors demonstrate their commitment to this seminal American technology, Congress rejects this investment in our nation's energy, environmental, and economic future.

Martin Kushler is correct that there are many ominous trends in the funding of energy-efficiency efforts. The cuts in utility conservation programs he writes about are just one example. Another is the reduction by many states, including New York and Pennsylvania, in their state energy offices. Congress itself has cut not only research and development for energy-saving technologies but also federal investments to help get those technologies into the marketplace, such as programs to weatherize low-income homes and to help reduce the federal deficit by retrofitting government buildings. If these trends continue, not only will we abandon technological leadership in the rapidly growing world market for clean technologies but also we will be condemning ourselves to inefficiency, with negative economic and environmental consequences.

In the May, 1996, issue of The Atlantic, Cullen Murphy took his parents to task for sending him the medical bill for his hospital delivery ("Backlogs of History"). Was this all that was worthy of note? he wondered.

He has since received in the mail:

1) A sketchbook, circa 1965, of a trip to Rome. No tapes survived, alas, of his oration atop the Forum plinths.

2) A 1966 manual of the "Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland" concerning the duties of a RABBIT KEEPER--"skin and dress rabbit for market."

3) A set of spurs that belonged to his grandfather during the 1916 Mexican Border campaign, dog tags included. Should Cullen Murphy decide to write an addendum, additional artifacts may come his way--or may not. As he notes, judicious losses lessen the burden of future historians.

Mr. and Mrs. John Cullen Murphy

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; Letters; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 8-12.