Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias During my freshman year at SDSU, I let my advisor sucker me into taking chemistry and advanced algebra and a few other courses that frankly were way over my head.

My chemistry professor, I reasoned, had a brain three times the normal size for our species. He would attack a slate blackboard with a piece of chalk so hard that sparks seemed to fly, leaving in his wake a barely decipherable message of numerals and symbols.

I would copy down everything he wrote. I would review my notes. And ultimately I would conclude that I had no idea what he was talking about.

Chemistry, I soon realized, requires a deep imagination. You couldn't simply scribble out a formula on your notebook paper and say, voila!, this is how a chemical reaction works.

You had to actually picture it. Or at least it seemed you did if you wanted to have any bit of success with my professor.

I plumbed the depths of my imagination, trying to picture the atoms, the electrons, the protons and neutrons, the chemical reactions I was causing in the laboratory.

I might as well have been trying to imagine pixies dancing on the head of a pin. My imagination, I learned, could descend only so far before making an emergency ascent to gasp for air.

Then one day he said we weren't going to talk about chemistry. We were going to talk about a different subject entirely: Energy.

Not the kinetic energy created in a beaker when you throw the proper elements together. The world's energy.

Energy was a hot topic at the time. Jimmy Carter was about to assume the presidency, and the nation had already been gripped by gasoline shortages and fluctuating prices. We had all learned the hard way from this that the world has a limited supply of fossil fuels.

My professor proposed a scenario to us. Today, I can't remember all of the details, but I remember the end result of the exercise.

If we were lucky, there might be enough fossil fuels left in the world to last my lifetime. But only if we're lucky.

Evar D. Nering, writing in the June 4 New York Times, jarred my memory back to those harrowing times with my chemistry professor. Nering teaches mathematics in Arizona.

He describes the following hypothetical situation to his students. We have a 100-year supply of a resource, say oil � that is, the oil would last 100 years if it were consumed at its current rate. But the oil is consumed at a rate that grows by 5 percent each year. How long would it last under these circumstances? This is an easy calculation; the answer is about 36 years.

Oh, but let's say we underestimated the supply, and we actually have a 1,000-year supply. At the same annual 5 percent growth rate in use, how long will this last? The answer is about 79 years.

Then let us say we make a striking discovery of more oil yet � a bonanza � and we now have a 10,000-year supply. At our same rate of growing use, how long would it last? Answer: 125 years.

Estimates vary for how long currently known oil reserves will last, though they are usually considerably less than 100 years. But the point of this analysis is that it really doesn't matter what the estimates are. There is no way that a supply-side attack on America's energy problem can work.

Nering notes that this mathematical reality seems to have escaped the politicians pushing to solve our energy problem by simply increasing supply. Building more power plants and drilling for more oil is exactly the wrong thing to do, because it will encourage more use. If we want to avoid dire consequences, we need to find the political will to reduce the growth in energy consumption to zero � or even begin to consume less.

Back in my university years, the United States actually took steps to conserve. The speed limit was reduced. Cars were built that got better gas mileage. Buildings were engineered to be more energy efficient.

Today, we grumble as we pay a few more dollars to fill our SUVs' gas tanks. And little more.

If you think our way of life won't eventually have to change to adapt to the realities of our nation's limited energy supply, you're fooling yourself.

We will have to consume less. That means living closer to where we work or play. It means telecommuting. It means controlling population growth. It means shifting to renewable energy sources.

It is not, perhaps, necessary to cut our use of oil, but it is essential that we cut the rate of increase at which we consume it. To do otherwise is to leave our descendants in an impoverished world.

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