Prepare Now for the Post-Oil Era

The transition promises to be wrenching, but to delay the inevitable is a sure invitation to a global disaster

By James Andrew Cahill

The greatest challenge our society will face as it moves forward will be to manage energy wisely. The 20th century was powered by oil. It was an era that saw remarkable innovations and the development of new technologies that have greatly improved our quality of life. But we are rushing toward the end of the oil-driven era, and so the challenge before us today is to consolidate the gains achieved with fossil fuels while moving beyond this finite resource.

In order to do this, we must act now. But we must also be careful not to weaken our economy or stifle innovation unduly.

It is a difficult dilemma. Our current technology relies so heavily on fossil fuels that their use cannot be significantly curtailed without highly detrimental effects to the economy. Furthermore, we can assume with certainty that energy demands will only increase as the U.S. economy grows and people in other countries seek to better their living conditions. But the more oil that we use to meet these rising demands, the sooner we will exhaust this precious resource.


  Thus, immediate action is essential to develop new energy sources so that technology's advance can continue without impediment. Although action by both the public and private sectors would be more efficient, until there are greater profit potentials, the public sector must take the short-term lead. The government must formulate policies that provide strong incentives for private-sector investments.

With a concerted effort from all parties, it should be possible to curtail the growth in oil usage -- and ultimately end it -- by supplying future energy needs with other, more environmentally friendly sources. Developing alternative energy sources with less of an environmental impact than that from fossil fuels would address another long-term problem: global warming. The accumulation of greenhouse gases, if not counteracted, may eventually result in almost catastrophic costs of both an economic and human nature. Our civilization and, indeed, humanity's very well-being depend upon a stable climate.

In the current geopolitical situation, many of the leading oil-producing nations are controlled by authoritarian governments. To the extent that the world reduces its need for this commodity, it will weaken the ability of these governments to undermine the advance of democracy and human rights. It is only rational to believe that the people of these nations desire freedom and, if given the opportunity, will move toward representative government and greater self-determination.


  However, it is human nature to fear the unknown -- the end of cheap oil -- and to want to delay its arrival for as long as possible. In this case, though, procastination could be disasterous. The sooner we take intelligent and decisive action, the less traumatic will be the effects of the shift away from oil, and an ecological catastrophe will be that much less likely.

Every nation will decide its own particular approach to this historic transition, of course. But no nation can stand alone, aloof from stark reality -- not even the U.S. International cooperation to alleviate both the energy and environment issues will hasten the day when a new world economy emerges, bringing with it unprecedented benefits for all countries and peoples.

Cahill was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search

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