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March 20, 2005

The Return of Conservation

I've been hearing that word again, and not just from the usual suspects. Conservation is what is on my mind. It is only conservative to conserve, and what chastens us all is a brush with defeat. I wonder what it will take for the word to become deed.

It has been said enough times: ANWR isn't the answer. And yet the very idea that we can pull a billion acres out of our hat suggests that there is a huge amount that conservation could give us. The problem with conservation is that I'm not certain that we can be priced into it. I wish an economist could help me out a little, but I think the term is elasticity. Europeans are chugging along only slightly less extravagantly than we, and yet they are paying $5 a gallon for gasoline. If Americans were to put up with the same, and I have no doubt that we would, what is going to change the nature of the business model of oil companies? They'll be laughing all the way to the bank for another decade. Will that be necessary to bankroll investment in energy diversification? Duke Power may be looking at next generation nuclear, but who will actually make the guarantees?

Somewhere hidden is an energy budget for the United States. I know it's out there because several years ago, I built a database for a big northeastern power company. They had 20 year oil price hedges. Enron wasn't the only company trading in energy futures. There is money to be followed, and things we might consider to be outrageous have most certainly already been planned around. The trick is not to let the very phrase 'peak oil' mislead us into believing that these same energy companies will go broke and suddenly become insignificant.

Michael Powell likes to talk about his son's XBox which is '17,000 times more powerful than the mission computer that went to the moon. And we paid $140 for it.' I think Powell plays the game himself, although he won't admit it. If the world's oil supply can be cut in half in 30 years and the world's supply of digital broadband and computing power can be increased 1000-fold in the same period of time, how can the collapse of our economies be imminent? All we need is a dislocation. There is a massive capacity for us to pull economies out of our digital hat, we simply need to price the bits right.

There are so many efficiencies we already know. It's just a matter of changing priorities. Sadly, Americans will need a wake up call, but once we wake up it will be easy. Just open up the conversation, and stop talking about a 'carbon tax'. Environmental architects are talking about using mirrors and fiber optics to cut down the daytime energy costs of electric lighting in buildings. I like that, but even if we just focused on transportation we could make strides.

We could dump the second car and make videoconferencing real. We could stop delivering pizza. We could lighten packaging in order to increase fuel efficiency in the shipping business. What about 55 gallon steel drums? If they were plastic instead, how much oil could be saved, given the extra spent making plastic? Has there been an energy efficient lighter weight advance in rail car design in the past 30 years? I know car rental agencies have no compunction whatsoever in charging you double the retail pump price for gasoline when you return the tank empty. You could really whomp them on energy inefficient fleets. Frequent fliers will pay the premiums, for a while.

Speaking of premiums. I'd bet that any offroader or watersporto would pay 10 bucks a gallon for two stroke mix, if they had to. Cheap gas is not necessary at the docks. Or, going the other way, make 'em run gasohol. OK, I'm sounding rather Hobbesian, I know, but I think I'm right on that elasticity thing.

As much as I hate the Prius and can't stand the self-congratulatory air of people who hate Hummers, I do believe that thinking our way forward is the way to go. Good ideas, efficient ideas are the way to go, yes. But at some point certain habits are going to have to die, and if it comes down to it, maybe the second car is one of them. But we're going to have to endure a crisis of the sort we had here in California four years ago. We're going to have to see the lights go out and told we don't have a choice. Because as long as we do, we're going to take the easy way out.

How can I be so sure? Because Americans have a choice to eat more tasty fatty food at the expense of our very lives, and we choose poorly. We've had Segways on the market for years, and nobody is buying. There will always be another diet, another dip in the price of gas, another wildlife preserve to sacrifice.

Posted by mbowen at March 20, 2005 08:56 AM

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COBB COMMENTARY: The Return of Conservation from Booker Rising
The moderate-conservative Republican is hearing the C word again, and not just from the usual suspects. He wonders when it'll become deed in USA: “The problem with conservation is that I'm not certain that we can be priced into it. I wish an ec... [Read More]

Tracked on March 22, 2005 02:18 PM