Monday, April 14, 2008

The New, Green American Century

I remember one day in 1995, talking informally to a counselor at my university and discussing the consumption of Earth's fossil fuels. When I told him I was glad that at then current-rates of consumption the oil would last just about as long as I would probably live, he said, "Yeah, but we're lucky the Chinese don't drive." Guess what.

My frustration as a conservative with the narrowness of the Bush administration's foreign policy goes far beyond the lack of 50 cents-a-gallon gasoline I'm seeing these days at my local Exxon. The execution of this war - or lack thereof - has left many Americans with the impression that the grounds for any war are suspect, that there are no real bad guys out there, just people that the hawks have unfairly distorted and villified.

The problem is that we do need resources, and there are real bad guys, and they need them too. Guess which one of them I'm most worried about? It starts with "C" and ends with "hina".

Mention Rebuilding America's Defenses from the Project for a New American Century, and liberals foam at the mouth, and conservatives (sometimes) cringe. That document was widely credited with being the inspiration for a whole range of Bush foreign policy moves.

Naive though it probably was to the logistical and budgetary realities of what it was suggesting, the report plainly lays out the realities of the twenty-first century energy outlook. Forget global warming, folks. We're coming into this century with a world economy dependent on oil, and whatever happens, we won't leave it that way.

Of course, this analysis from the Power and Interest News Report of 25 February 2005 shows that today, the Chinese do, in fact, drive, and their foreign policy is shifting to reflect that. Under the heading "Middle East: China Expands Relations While the U.S. Pulls Back", the report states: "China has also attempted to improve relations with its already-established oil suppliers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, by selling them military technology, investing in their industries and energy infrastructure and looking the other way with respect to their human rights records." No surprise, considering in that last respect, China is one enormous glass house.

So what can we do? If China wants to buy oil from Saudi Arabia and the other medieval theocracies of that happened to stake tents a century ago above an oil patch, those theocracies will sell it. Our conquest of one oil-rich nation hasn't exactly encouraged us that invasions of Iran and Nigeria are smart follow-up moves.

What we do have control over is our domestic energy policy, and we have to decide what interests are more important - those of national defense, or those of a few companies concentrated in one part of the country - because the two sets of interests are now in conflict. That's why we should be putting up nuclear plants right now hand-over-fist. Let the lawsuits come. That's why we should be directing farm subsidies into research for new types of batteries and biofuel; it seems like every biochemist I know who's recently changed jobs has gone to an energy start-up - let's incentivize those start-ups into the next GE or GM. (Conservatives, all this government incentivization making you nervous? Ever heard of small business grants and Federal loans for students and homebuyers? Those are okay with you? Me too.)

Diesel right now is $4/gallon, and it's killing truckers. Imagine when it's at $10. Yes, that day will come, and we can't stop it from coming. That's why we should be building trains so our transportation infrastructure isn't threatened by dwindling oil. When my (not yet born) teenaged kids visit my wife's parents in Japan, I want them to come back telling me about how old and slow the Japanese bullet trains are compared to ours.

And we should be subsidizing all-electric performance sports cars like the Tesla that Condi Rice test-drove. (Note: these cars are hella cool. Representin tha Bay Area yo). And we should be giving people and businesses more tax credits for putting up solar panels and getting juice back into the grid, and we should be doing it now now now now NOW. (But not supporting ethanol for crying out loud.)

These are all massive opportunities for American innovation and wealth creation, on par with the industrial engineering blitz of 1945-1970 that built this country's wealth and ultimately overwhelmed the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the Chinese are in no position to modernize their energy infrastructure. As it did in the Soviet Union, modernization in China consists of paving roads and giving rural areas running water. Ending our addiction to oil is already in John McCain's platform. I'm glad, because American military officers already view that "'either China or Iran, not the United States, is emerging as the strategic victor" in the Iraq war." (Original article here.)

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