Wednesday, August 20, 2008

$4 Gas

During a recent business trip to Savannah, I had a very interesting conversation with a member of that unique social scientist group ---- my cab driver. I always find these conversations insightful, given their exposure and conversations with such a diverse audience of riders. (A few weeks earlier in Houston, my driver from the Philippines gave me a long and refreshing discourse on his excitement in almost becoming a new U.S. citizen.)

In this case, my driver was highly motivated to discuss the issues of $4/gallon gasoline. Certainly highly pertinent and of direct consequence to this small business entrepreneur. After we each concurred with the seriousness of this economic grenade thrown at our economy, the question was “so how do we fix it?”

His main point was that our people can no longer avoid the reality of our excessive oil consumption. Even forgetting all of the political overtones of this issue, the need to realign our power needs with smart sources of supply has to become our major priority. My driver argued a strong case that, once we break the unholy alliance of Detroit automakers with Houston oil companies and create space for American scientists and entrepreneurs, solutions are there waiting to be had. Whether it be better mpg optimization of the gasoline we do use, or the use of non-gasoline fuels, or the use of simplified economical cars appropriate to their functional use (versus driving Hummers to the local grocery store), the answer is NOT continuing in the same old directions. We do not need more oil; we need a whole new thinking about our transportation needs --- and the lifestyles we live that demand such transportation.

Given the extreme difficulty in getting us to make changes in our lifestyles, family, and work mentalities, my driver’s belief was that $4/gallon was the best thing that could happen to us. (Notwithstanding the obscenely excess profits retained by the oil companies.) That appears to be the level of pain necessary to finally move us into action.

When he also made a pitch for more off-shore drilling, my response was “but if we need to move to a fundamental change, isn’t chasing more oil simply a fool’s mission that continues to divert us from the hard job we need to focus on?” He switched gears and went to my argument: partly the strength of my unarguable logic, partly his adroit reading and accommodating of his backseat client!

He also related a story about passengers from Brazil that he had driven. That country’s focused and coordinated effort to switch to domestically-created bio-fuel is a standard for “what can be done” to aspire to. His passengers confirmed that @48% of Brazil’s fuel is bio-fuel. But they said the equally important news is that they are using sugar cane residue as their bio-source, which has no impact on the food supply (unlike the corn that we are unwisely diverting into fuel). Further, most of the remaining fuel consumption is coming from natural gas, not oil-based gasoline. All of this has reduced their import of oil/gasoline to almost nil --- and gotten them off the world petroleum market merry-go-round.

The bottom line is that Jimmy Carter’s energy warning 35 years ago, ridiculed at the time, was right. And we are all responsible for doing nothing about it. The blame belongs to all of us, but it is counter-productive to spend much time on that. It is not about America wasting our time talking about summer gas tax holidays, off-shore or Alaska drilling, or diverting corn into ethanol at a net financial and carbon loss. It is not about stupid ideas and nonsensical political slogans.

It is about designing new function-appropriate cars. It is about new fuels that are replenishible and harvestable from stable political environments. It is about relocating homes / work / neighborhoods / to eliminate bumper-to-bumper cars on our “expressways.” It is about redesigning the workplace for telecommuting, or distributing corporate operations to the rural communities that need them. It takes big picture, integrated thinking coupled with a national plan. John Kennedy sent the nation to the moon. George Bush didn’t even know gas had reached $4.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Support Our Troops

In my driving, I frequently pass vehicles with bumper stickers proclaiming “Support Our Troops.” The good news is that this is one instance in which we have actually learned something from our Viet Nam experience: the separation of the duty of military personnel to observe the directives of its civilian policy-maker leaders, versus those policies and directives themselves. (Unfortunately, the moral dilemma illustrated at Nuremburg from WWII and My Lai from Viet Nam of taking “just following orders” to the absolute is still being painfully worked out.) Notwithstanding, continually reaffirming to our young men and women that their sacrificial efforts in many various forms on our behalf is important to do.

The other day, a truck passed me with a billboard of a bumper sticker that read “My USA supports our troops. NO aid or comfort to our enemies. No way.”

That person’s passion on the subject was clear. The danger in this passion is that proper and needed debate on the policy and direction questions is so often quickly dismissed under the “support our troops = support our policy” umbrella. Weak policy hides under fake calls of patriotism; outdated policies survive under the demagoguery that “a change of direction increases the vulnerability of our troops.” Such statements reveal the rhetoric of a fool.

“Supporting our troops” does not preclude arguing with our political leaders about the missions we give to those troops. These troops are an important investment for our nation; they are critically needed at certain moments in our nation’s life. But they are an instrument of human lives. Their use requires our greatest wisdom that we can possibly bring to bear, wisdom that arises from open debate and cautious judgment. Being clear about their objective, keeping them from being used stupidly, and ensuring the full complement of their toolkit, is collectively the true best possible support we can give to them.