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.

    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
    much.

    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
    walking.

    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
    www.betsyhart.net.)