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Monday, April 15, 2024

In praise of oil

President Bush said in his State of the Union address this week that we Americans are "addicted to oil." He thinks oil "dependency" is a problem. Apparently he believes we should be burning wood chips or something instead.

President Bush said in his State of the Union address this week
that we Americans are “addicted to oil.” He thinks oil “dependency” is
a problem. Apparently he believes we should be burning wood chips or
something instead.

No, thanks. I love my oil. For starters, I love my minivan. I love
being in the minivan with the kids and using oil. (Actually, I prefer
to be in the minivan without the kids.) I would probably drive to the
bathroom if I could.

When I decided to move my family from the
East Coast back to the Chicago area over a year ago, one of my criteria
for a new neighborhood was that I had to be able to walk to town. I
have actually walked there precisely … one time. I didn’t care for it

But, I do love that, here, I can get places fast.

It’s all about time for me. Yes, I can walk to Starbucks in 10 to12
minutes, but I can drive there in one minute. The library is about a
45-second drive, and the school 30. I’m not opposed to walking; I’m
opposed to wasting time. I know, I know, exercise isn’t a “waste of
time,” blah, blah. But if I’m going to exercise, I want it in a gym
with a trainer bearing down on me. I’m not going to waste time just

I also like a warm house in the winter and, for the
record, an air conditioner set to “stun” in the summer, and lots of
lights on in my home all the time. Apparently Bush now has a problem
with such living.

But, there is no reason, except for price, for
me to cut back on any of this. (I’m not even going to deal with the
“greenhouse gas” argument here.) News flash: We have plenty of oil
(and, of course, coal for electricity). Bigger news flash: We’ll come
up with more when we have to.

In particular, I could catalog
just the known, recoverable oil reserves that will last us centuries.
America is twice as energy-efficient as it was 50 years ago, and those
gas lines at the pumps in 1973 were caused by our government rationing
oil, not an oil embargo, which the Saudis lifted almost as soon as they
imposed it.

But far more important is the understanding that oil
is (ital) not (end ital) a natural resource. For most of man’s history,
it was pretty much just black gunk in the ground. Occasionally it saw
the light of day. The ancient Egyptians used it in mummification, and
the eighth-century streets of Baghdad were actually paved with tar,
derived from petroleum. But then it was pretty much … nothing _ until
an enterprising fellow figured out how to distill petroleum in 1853.
And then wow.

In other words, the natural resource is not the
“stuff” _ it’s the mind of man who is capable of turning “stuff” into
something incredibly useful and valuable. Julian Simon was a brilliant
economist who made just this point in his book, “The Ultimate Resource”
(paperback, 1983). He took on the 1970s doom-and-gloomers, who said we
were running out of everything except people. Instead, Simon showed
that when we looked at man’s amazing mind as the “ultimate” resource,
then we could understand that natural resources were essentially
limitless. As long as that mind is free, it will come up with answers.

So, hundreds if not thousands of years from now, if oil becomes too
scarce and/or too expensive to extract, man’s mind will come up with
something else instead.

In fact, some of the greatest oil or
oil-extraction discoveries in the last 50 years have happened when
prices spiked, producing a need and an economic incentive to “dig
deeper,” so to speak.

That makes sense. The one thing that will
cause me to cut back on my energy use is price. High prices are the
most efficient way for the market to ration and produce viable
alternatives to anything, which is why high prices shouldn’t be
artificially avoided (or imposed, for that matter), especially when it
comes to energy.

But I will never cut back just because I’m
worried about “using up a natural resource.” The real resource is man’s
amazing mind. And I’m confident that when we need to, when it makes
economic sense to, we’ll come up with something a whole lot better than
burning wood chips.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It
Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our
Kids _ and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at