Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fossil Fuel

Thu, Aug. 24, 2006, LAGOS, Nigeria - Kidnappers freed six foreigners, including an American boat captain, who had been abducted in a nightclub raid in Nigeria's southern oil region, the government said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer on ran this AP story, barely noticed among the top stories, of the kidnapping in Nigeria of some Americans. Three days later a lead business story told of efforts to make a gasoline substitute from plants. Both stories are about our obscene addiction to oil.

The circumstances of the kidnapping might be obscure to most readers, but they are perfectly predicted in a multi-part Chicago Tribune story by Paul Salopek about oil, and how the same problems of the Mid-East are playing out around the globe, wherever we buy oil. In Nigeria, where the people live on pennies, the inequity is rapidly feeding social upheaval.

Although alternative fuels will be a component in solving the long-term dilemma, focusing on them really misses the point. For both the short term and long term we need to eliminate the excessive need for fuels, particularly fossil fuels. First of all, fossil fuels are so valuable that we need to stop burning them. Never mind that burning them destroys the only home we have, they are much more important for producing goods that can only be made from petroleum.

For the short term, we need a strategy that offers the potential to reduce oil consumption by an order of magnitude. Our greatest proportionate use of gasoline, in a single category against which we can strategize, is commuter travel. This is an immense problem that we’ve spent 50 years creating, leaving public transportation to decay and commercial suburbs to proliferate.

Carpooling is nice, but individual efforts won’t forestall a problem this serious; only leadership and creativity can. Only by solving the commuting problem, not by hoping for some miraculous oil substitute, can we wage a decent battle.

Then we can worry about the longer term war.

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