Driving to the End of America’s
In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact
length of time these reserves will last is important…. [T]he longer they
last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or
substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes
which we can expect from such a shift.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, “Energy Resources and Our Future” (1957)
In a 1957 speech, the legendary and controversial scientist and submariner Admiral Hyman G. Rickover noted, “Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels.”1 Rickover understood that the United States was producing and using as much oil in the 1950s as we had in all our previous history and worried, “What assurance do we … have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is—in the long run—none.” Rickover also warned that failing to conserve our oil wealth could leave us destitute. The United States doubled oil production and consumption again in the 1960s, and again in the 1970s—ignoring Rickover’s appeal “to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendents—those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age.”
Unrestrained fossil fuel consumption has propelled the United States to a level of affluence previously unknown in human history. Fossil fuels, petroleum (oil and natural gas), and coal, represent the “stored sunlight of millions and millions of years deposited in an energy bank account in the Earth by geological processes.” Since the early twentieth century, the whole world has been using up this inheritance “in a geological instant.”2 Cars and other transportation consume the major proportion of the world’s oil, but petroleum also is the raw material for a wide variety of industrial products, fabrics, and medicines (see appendix 3). Without it, every facet of modern life would be less convenient, less comfortable, and far less mobile.
Massive energy consumption has addicted Americans to cheap fossil fuels. Energy addicts overheat the house and wear T-shirts all winter, tend to own two or more refrigerators, and maintain a vehicular fleet. Many believe that having and driving cars is a more important American liberty than voting (see chapter 5). Along with U.S. Senator Trent Lott, they feel that “the American people have a right to drive a great big road-hog SUV if they want to.”3
Exercising our “right to drive” has a high price. By the 1970s, when petroleum prices first rose sharply, Americans knew that smokestacks belch unhealthy soot and