Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Time to replace oil

Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads and no one knows what's going to happen. This has much of the Muslim world on edge, but here in the U.S. our thoughts rather naturally center on oil.

Is there a better time to push hard to end our dependence on oil?

Hillary Clinton has called for a "Manhattan-like project" to break encryption. This is a dopey idea, to put it kindly. (I've touched on why in other posts; search for "encryption".) If Clinton is serious about a grand national endeavor, she should instead push for a massive effort to come up with a sustainable and environmentally friendly replacement for oil.

Curing a life-threatening disease is a worthy goal. So is exploring space. I don't want us to give up on big dreams. But we won't be able to pursue any dreams if our civilization grinds to a halt, and alongside climate change, the biggest systemic threat to civilization as we know it is the loss of oil for transportation. As I explained almost two years ago. we can generate electricity, heat people's homes and make plastics using non-fossil fuel-based technologies that are fairly mature right now (though not always at a competitive cost without government subsidies), but we don't know how to move vehicles, particularly big ones like trucks, planes and cargo ships, without burning fuel. Since our global economy relies on moving stuff around (and changing that is something we haven't begun to figure out), our civilization's immediate future depends on finding a fuel that can be produced sustainably and whose use doesn't generate dangerous byproducts like greenhouse gases or soot.

We know oil will run out. We know burning oil and other fossil fuels is contributing to climate change. We therefore must find a different way of supporting our industrial economy. We don't have a choice.

Secretary Clinton, you clearly don't grasp computer security, so how about you spend your political capital pushing for something useful?

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will be happy if the U.S. manages to wean itself off oil (assuming we don't become dependent on something else only these countries can provide). We have to look out for our best interests, though, and if the past century has taught us anything, it's that our thirst for oil is a frightening vulnerability. To compensate, we've spent billions of dollars to secure our oil supply. That quest has distorted our economy and our foreign policy. Even if the hoped-for oil replacement doesn't end our involvement with the woes of the Middle East, at least it will remove a huge complication from our strategic calculations.

Humanity faces huge challenges to its survival as a species (climate change, overpopulation, etc., etc., etc.), but we can't meet those challenges unless we first make the leap from nonrenewable, polluting fuels to renewable, nonpolluting ones. Only then will we have the time, and the sustainable industrial economy, to address everything else.

It's time — way past time — to replace oil.

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