Chang­ing global ap­petites . . .

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

April 22 was Earth Day, and it re­minded us how en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism has helped to pre­serve the nat­u­ral habi­tat of the United States — re­duc­ing the man­made pol­lu­tion of our soils, air and wa­ter that is a byprod­uct of com­fort­able mod­ern in­dus­trial life.

But now we are in a new phase of global en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, as bil­lions of peo­ple across an in­ter­con­nected and re­sourcescarce world seek an af­flu­ent lifestyle once con­fined to Europe and the United States.

No longer are the old en­vi­ron­men­tal ques­tions of pol­lu­tion ver­sus con­ser­va­tion so sim­ply framed. In­stead, the choices fac­ing us, at least for the next few decades, are not be­tween bad and good, but be­tween bad and far worse — and in­volve wider ques­tions of global se­cu­rity, fair­ness and grow­ing scarcity.

One ex­am­ple of where th­ese di­verse and of­ten com­plex con­cerns meet is the de­bate over trans­porta­tion. Un­til hy­dro­gen fuel cells or elec­tric bat­ter­ies can power cars eco­nom­i­cally and safely, we will con­tinue re­ly­ing on gaso­line or sim­i­lar com­bustible fu­els. But none of our cur­rent ways of ad­dress­ing the prob­lem of trans­porta­tion fuel are with­out some sort of dan­ger.

We can, for ex­am­ple, keep im­port­ing a grow­ing share of our pe­tro­leum needs. That will en­sure the global oil sup­ply re­mains tight and ex­pen­sive. Less-de­vel­oped, au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries like Rus­sia, Su­dan and Venezuela will wel­come the fi­nan­cial wind­fall, and keep pol­lut­ing their tundra, coasts, deserts and lakes to pump as much as they can.

Ris­ing world oil prices en­sure that Vladimir Putin, or his hand­picked suc­ces­sor, can con­tinue to bully Europe; that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez can in­tim­i­date his neigh­bors; that Iran’s Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad can prom­ise Is­rael’s de­struc­tion; and that al Qaeda and its af­fil­i­ates can be funded by sym­pa­thetic Mid­dle East sheiks. Such re­gional strong­men and ter­ror­ists cease be­ing mere thugs and evolve into strate­gic threats once they have bil­lions of petrodol­lars.

The United States, in tak­ing ad­van­tage of a cheap dol­lar, may set records in ex­port­ing Amer­i­can goods and ser­vices this year. But we will still end up with mas­sive trade deficits, given that we im­port ev­ery day more than 12 mil­lion bar­rels of oil, now at a cost of over $100 each on the world mar­ket. It takes a lot of Amer­i­can wheat, ma­chin­ery and com­puter soft­ware to pay a nearly half-tril­lion-dol­lar an­nual tab for im­ported oil.

An al­ter­na­tive is to con­cen­trate more on bio­fu­els. Amer­i­can farm­ers now are plant­ing the largest acreage of corn in more than 60 years. But the re­sult is that fuel now com­petes with food pro­duc­tion — and not just here, as Europe and South Amer­ica like­wise turn to ethanols.

One re­sult is higher corn prices, which means climb­ing food bills for cat­tle, pigs and poul­try, and thus sky­rock­et­ing meat, pork, chicken and turkey prices. Plus, with more acreage de­voted to corn, there is less for other crops like cot­ton, wheat, rice and soy — and the prices of those com­modi­ties are soar­ing as well.

Amer­i­cans’ in­creas­ing use of home­grown ethanol seems to be rais­ing the price of food for the world’s poor, just as our im­por­ta­tion of oil en­riches the world’s al­ready wealthy and dan­ger­ous.

What, then, is the least per­ni­cious al­ter­na­tive — and the most en­vi­ron­men­tally, fi­nan­cially and eth­i­cally sound?

Un­for­tu­nately, for a while longer it is not just to trust in promis­ing new tech­nolo­gies like wind and so­lar power. For decades to come, th­ese will only pro­vide a frac­tion of our en­ergy needs.

In­stead, aside from greater con­ser­va­tion, we must de­velop more tra­di­tional en­ergy re­sources at home. That would mean build­ing more nu­clear power plants, in­ten­si­fy­ing ef­forts at min­ing and burn­ing coal more cleanly — and de­vel­op­ing more do­mes­tic oil, while re­tool­ing our ve­hi­cles to be even lighter and more fuel-ef­fi­cient.

Nu­clear power poses risks of proper dis­posal of ra­dioac­tive wastes. Coal heats the at­mos­phere. But both can also cut our need to im­port fos­sil fu­els to run our gen­er­a­tors, while of­fer­ing elec­tri­cal en­ergy to charge ef­fi­cient and clean cars of the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.

No one wants a nu­clear plant in his county. But, then, no one wants to leave the coun­try bank­rupt pay­ing for im­ported fuel, or vul­ner­a­ble by em­pow­er­ing hos­tile for­eign oil pro­duc­ers, or in­sen­si­tive to the price of food for the poor.

It is also time to re-eval­u­ate do­mes­tic oil pro­duc­tion in en­vi­ron­men­tal — and moral — terms. The ques­tion is no longer sim­ply whether we want to drill in the Alaskan wilder­ness or off the Florida or Cal­i­for­nia coasts. Rather, the dilemma is whether by do­ing so, we can mit­i­gate the world’s eco­log­i­cal risks be­yond our shores, deny dic­ta­tors fi­nan­cial clout, get Amer­ica out of debt and help the poor af­ford food.

We may not like oil plat­forms off the beach or mega-tankers in Arc­tic wa­ters, but the al­ter­na­tives for now are far worse — in both en­vi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal terms.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist, a se­nior fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and a re­cip­i­ent of the 2007 Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal.

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