Let's Use Wisely the 'Medicine' of Conservation and Alternative Energy

Is Thomas Friedman's 'geo-green' option the remedy for what ails the Middle East or a prescription for disaster?

Published: 02-Feb-2005

You either love Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, or you hate him. From my perspective, he comes to agonizingly close to the heart of the troubles in the Middle East and then ... again from my perspective ... bungles it; sort of like the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

His latest banana peel comes in the form of today's editorial, Cut Oil Prices, Dethrone Tyrants in which he proposes a third alternative to dealing with oil tyrants and terrorists by cutting the price of oil to $18 a barrel. How would he accomplish this?

"You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. All these regimes have huge population bubbles and too few jobs. They make up the gap with oil revenues. Shrink the oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It is that simple."

Oh really?

Since when does inciting economic chaos and even greater poverty bring about all these marvelous reforms, needed as they are? I thought it was the lack of jobs and the resultant poverty and hopelessness that pushes destitute people into radical movements like Islamic fundamentalism in the first place.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. Because of a number of factors, including population growth and government mismanagement, the average per capita income in the desert Kingdom has slipped from a very comfortable $30,000 annually to around $7,000. How'd you like to take that kind of hit in your family budget? Is it any wonder most of the alleged 9/11 hijackers came from that troubled Kingdom?

So, how would Friedman's scheme work? By implementing serious energy conservation and renewable energy measures -- and resuming nuclear power plant construction -- to reduce the world's dependence on oil; what he calls his "geo-greens" option.

Okay, here I sort of agree with him, though I continue to question the true economic viability of nuclear power. Unlike George W. Bush, I don't believe it is a "renewable" energy source. Like oil, coal and natural gas, there is only so much uranium in the world and getting to it and concentrating it creates huge environmental problems -- waste from the refining process often ends up in depleted uranium warheads -- to say nothing the problems associated with its inevitable "disposal" and containment for incomprehensible periods of time. What language will we carve into the side of Yucca Flats to warn whoever is around fifty thousand years from now that what's inside this mountain is hazardous to their health?

To read more about the non-renewable nature of nuclear power and its CO2 problems read Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance

As for the conservation, renewable and alternative energy part of his proposal, what he advocates -- lowering of oil prices -- has only served in the past to stifle research and production of the very solutions he is proposing. I think a strong case could be made tying gradual decrease in US automotive fuel efficiency since the 1980's with falling oil prices. Those $12-20 a barrel prices signaled to consumers that fuel economy wasn't all that important consideration when buying a new vehicle. Detroit naturally responded with more horsepower and bigger vehicles.

Meanwhile research into the very technologies Friedman is now espousing languished in favor of buying relatively cheap oil from the Saudis where it costs maybe $2 a barrel to extract from below the ground.

OPEC's announcement this weekend that it favors oil in the $50 a barrel range -- and wouldn't you, if you were an oil producing nation? -- is not only going to send cold shivers through Western economies, it is also going to up the ante on research into alternatives. The higher the price OPEC demands -- and the world seems willing to pay it for now -- the more people are going to begin clamoring for alternatives, including more fuel efficient vehicles, be they sedans, SUVs, mini-vans or pickups. Sooner or later, Detroit will get the picture and respond.

And if being geo-green helps reform repressed societies in the Middle East and elsewhere, so much the better, but let's not expect them to be transformed into models of Western values and bastions of capitalism. Surely, the world might be a bit better place for the poor and destitute with a few more Hugo Chavez's than Prince Abdullahs.

Bill Moore is the publisher and editor-in-chief of EVWorld.Com

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