Energy: How Human Beings Can Always Keep the Lights On

In a recent article in USA Today, a number of Germans commented on the world's energy problems.

All said essentially the same thing: Blame the United States.

“We are having these difficulties because the Americans are buying all the oil and wasting like crazy,” said Christa Keim, 53, interviewed as she washed her Alfa Romeo 146, a small sedan, in downtown Berlin. “All the world has to be careful about it now, because these resources won't be here forever.”

This position, in essence, maintains that we are running out of resources; therefore, their use has to be controlled; therefore, governments must be empowered to force guzzlers and Americans who “waste energy like crazy” into line. Rolling blackouts in California and ever-higher gas prices across the nation serve to focus our attention on energy. Where does the energy problem lie? Is it mainly a problem of consumption? Do we live in a niggardly world?

Not long ago, I saw a report of the latest scientific theory seeking to replace the “big bang,” itself a theory that replaced the wave theory, as the explanation for the origins of the universe. Now, it seems, the hypothesis argues that the so-called big bang was itself not out of nothing, but the result of two or more previous cosmiclike collisions of previous worlds. The world, in other words, is full of energy, so full we can hardly imagine its extent or range. The real question is not whether we will run out of energy, but whether we will allow our theories about energy supply to convince us not to do what is necessary to make use of the infinite supplies available in various forms.

Already we know that there are practically unlimited amounts of hydrogen that can be harnessed in various types of controlled environments. Nuclear power is also practically unlimited and, in fact, if we do not imitate the Russian neglect, safe. Even coal is available in enormous supplies and can now be used in a relatively smokeless way. Wind and sea have something to add, although we are not quite sure what. Moreover, ways of making oil and gas directly from plants are within sight. Indeed, we already do this; crops grown for fuel will probably become a regular part of the agricultural scene. The need is to perfect the processes in a careful, human way.

The major incentive to develop these things, besides curiosity, is, like most things, need and cost. The major disincentive to our having enough energy is in the order of theory, usually ecological of some sort. Various forms of ecological and stew-ardship theories seem to imply that we should sharply limit our energy use for the good of the planet down through the ages.

This might be fine, were the theory on which it is based true. What we have here is a sort of universal, common-good speculation that presumes to take into account not only those living in the present century, but also those living in the year, say, 5000—and beyond. On this basis, having deftly assumed that nothing in the order of knowledge will change in the oncoming centuries, “experts” seek to deal with present energy policies as if supply were and even ought to be a static, indeed diminishing, item of calculation.

The only trouble with this sort of thinking, which often borders on a new religion, is that it does not take into account the human brain, the ultimate source of knowledge and indeed of available energy. Thus, what is emphasized is not energy development and growth, but energy restriction. The German lady cited above is a typical example of this thinking; her anger is directed not at those who impede production and development, but at consumers.

In the end, it would be ironic if the human race were to convince itself that it must limit its technology to that of 100 years ago, or to today, and then slowly see the race deplete all its known energy sources as if nothing could be done about it. Never mind that there is an infinite amount of energy available, energy many refuse either to use or to study. This is part of the perennial Luddite temptation that cannot imagine how what is new can be also made into what is human.

No doubt, an argument can be made for simpler technologies. But that argument has little to do with whether or not energy supplies are available if we would but develop them. And here I do not just mean coal, gas and oil. We can pretty much count on the fact that, if left free to do so, we will easily meet every energy crisis with the development of energy sources and ways to use them far beyond anything we had previously known. The energy shortage, in other words, is not a natural-resource problem. It is a political problem.

When it comes to what we need to exist, the human race has not been short-changed by the collision of universes, the “big bang,” the wave theory, or the living God. The current problem is, in large part, due to governmental restrictions on the development of nuclear, coal and oil supplies—restrictions generally put into place through lobbies with a specific agenda about the limited nature of the universe and man's place in it. But I suspect that these present resources will ultimately themselves be bypassed by newer technologies and capacities made possible by human intelligence.

Does this mean that with this abundance of energy all our moral and spiritual problems will be solved? By no means. They will continue and be pretty much the same whether we have much or little energy. Not to realize this is to fail to locate the real source of human problems: our wills. But we still can and should will to use our intelligence, one of the greatest natural resources in the universe, to keep the lights on.

Jesuit Father James V. Schall teaches political science at Georgetown University.