We need an energy hero

With the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico and a local oil spill in Salt Lake County, America’s attention is again focused on the dependency and demand for oil. We have known for decades that our reliance on oil—particularly on foreign oil—is not a good thing. Yet instead of finding viable alternatives, our dependence has grown.

Many people blame President Obama for the handling of the current situation. Obama is blaming former presidents, the oil companies and anyone other than himself.

The reality is that no current or past president deserves the blame or the credit for our energy situation. No matter how this eventually plays out, my experience with politicians is that they tend to be self serving. That experience includes more than a decade as a journalist and many years in international business where I dealt with numerous politicians in multiple countries.

I don’t believe that any president (or congressman) worries for even a second about how much it costs to fill up his airplane or limousine. So I don’t think we can count a president to resolve this ongoing problem.

We need a hero.

Right now the future of America (and possibly the world) depends more on a hero than on a president. My definition of a hero is someone who rises up to meet a challenge presented by extraordinary circumstances.

A hero might be a national leader, such as Abraham Lincoln. Or heroes can be just normal folks, like Wilbur and Orville Wright. In addition to men like Winston Churchill or George Patton, my list of heroes includes Thomas Edison, Alexander Bell, Henry Ford and Albert Einstein.

Heroes can come from unexpected places. Philo T. Farnsworth was a 14-year-old Idaho farm boy cutting hay when he came up with the idea for a machine that about 10 years later would become the first television.

Heroes have the vision to realize a solution when others might still fail to recognize the problem.

In 1986, I was typing my master’s thesis on an electric typewriter. Each revision required a complete retyping. Although I had been using computers for writing for several years, they were all workstations attached to mainframes and there was no easy way to transport data from one computer to another. The idea of working on an independent computer on my own desk, saving the information to a disk, and then transporting it to another independent computer was fantasy.

Four years later I was working in Russia on a laptop computer. Mainframes had been replaced by personal computers. Virtually every computer was using a Microsoft operating system and a guy named Bill Gates was on his way to becoming the world’s richest person.

I was in Russia a week after tanks were driven into central Moscow to quell an uprising of people who were fed up with a Communist system that no longer functioned. But when the tanks reached the crowds Boris Yeltsin, the former city mayor and a political outcast, climbed on top of one and called for a change.

Yeltsin begged the soldiers not to fire on their own citizens and they complied. In that instant the Communist government lost power and democracy prevailed without any bloodshed. The entire world as we knew it changed virtually overnight.

By 1992 I was still in Russia and we were using this new thing called the Worldwide Web to instantly transmit information back and forth from the United States.

As a boy, I recall watching a 12-inch black and white television as Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon. The goal for sending a man to the moon had been outlined less than 10 years earlier by President Kennedy.

I remember listening as President Reagan proposed a plan called the Star Wars Missile Defense System that would use smaller missiles to shoot down Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles fired at the United States. Detractors said it was impossible, but the technology now exists and the U.S. has established missile defense sites in Eastern Europe.

In general, change makes people nervous. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of concern that people would lose jobs because of computers. Today the computer and software industry is enormous.

My great-grandfather was a blacksmith. I’m sure he worried about the shift from horses to automobiles. Today the transportation industry remains huge and robust. We have little need for blacksmiths, but the country has not suffered as a result.

Ronald Reagan said, “We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity and ultimately human fulfillment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down. Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free. Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development.”

So when people tell me that it will take decades if not generations to find a way to replace oil as an energy source, I get a little defensive and a little ticked off. Right now public buses in Iceland are running on hydrogen. Fleets of vehicles all over the U.S. are operating on natural gas. My neighbor generates electricity for his home with a windmill in his back yard.

Perhaps it will take decades to solve this energy dilemma, but just possibly some 16-year-old kid has already figured out the answer in his basement. And as long as some big oil company or automaker doesn’t find out about it and pay him a few million dollars to forget it, the energy and transportation world as we know it could transform in a few years rather than a few decades.

I don’t know whether 10 years from now we will all be riding electric scooters or cars that run on hydrogen. I do know that as soon as a viable option to oil is available, people will eagerly embrace it, a massive new industry will be born, and the world’s political climate will transform again.

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1 Response to We need an energy hero

  1. rmwarnick says:

    I think it’s disingenuous to say President Reagan’s vision of “Star Wars” antimissile defense technology “now exists.” The Pentagon has spent more than $100 billion on missile defense, and hasn’t been able to shoot down any ICBMs. The Eastern European sites proposed by the Bush administration were never built.

    Even if a missile defense was perfected, it could be easily overwhelmed by decoys. And if terrorists ever got a nuclear warhead, it wouldn’t stop them either.

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