I Wish I Had a Car

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, June 4, 2005

The price of gas went up again today. There is not much you can do about it other than complain, so that's what I did---although only to myself, for it is bad form to whine in public about the price of gas. I imagined several creative new methods of torturing to death "those people." I thought about the businesses on the edge of profitability that went bankrupt today, and how glad I was not to be responsible for their payrolls. I thought about my job. I thought about rapidly disappearing resources of the earth, the purity of the water and air, the similarity of human civilization to locust swarms, and the crying need for increased conservation---by people other than myself.

Fuel consumption by humans is fundamentally a matter of economics, not technology. That's why we blame other people, rather than things, for rising gas prices. It is different from the consumption of internet bits, movies, or Starcraft television shows in that we would all die if it stopped. Modern cities are already much too big to exist without motive power to carry food in and waste out. If any country's access to fuel were choked off, the country would advance immediately to war, for the alternative would be mass starvation. This is why discussions of energy policy never seem to make any sense. The force underneath isn't intellectual. It's the animal instinct to live.

I would pay a great deal more for gas if I had to. I vividly remember going for a job interview at Bell Labs during the energy crisis in the late 1970s, and planning out all the extreme measures I would take if fuel ran short. My whole career depended on showing up for this interview. I was fortunate and got to my appointment without incident, but then I had to pay a big bribe to get gas for the trip home. I would rather not say how much I paid.

In light this familiar psychology, it seems amazing that gas is so cheap. As proved oil reserves shrink, you would expect suppliers to cut back production and gouge us. Indeed, fear of petroleum blackmail, especially in times of military conflict, is the reason governments all over the world are investing in expensive alternative energy technologies.

The cheapness of gas should give them pause, however. It tells you that the technologies in question don't have to be invented but already exist and are holding the price down through competition.

My favorite example is synthetic petroleum made out of coal by the Fischer-Tropsch process. The details of this technology are fascinating (it involves hot steam and metal powders) but ultimately immaterial. It was invented by the Germans in 1923, and, at the end of World War II, was generating 65,000 barrels of such oil per day for them. South Africa became the world leader in Fischer-Tropsch technology during the apartheid days when it was under oil embargo, and now has a plant generating 150,000 barrels a day. The big Hyundai refinery in Korea, by comparison, processes 280,000 barrels per day.

It is true that Fischer-Tropsch technology puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than burning conventional oil does, but that is unfortunately a secondary consideration. When my job interview is at stake I will gladly dump a couple of kilograms of carbon into the air without a second thought. I believe everyone else feels the same way. Combine this with the energy industry's long history of vicious price competition for market share and you reach a terrifying conclusion: there isn't going to be any hydrogen economy. Instead we're going to burn up all the oil, then turn to coal and burn that all up too. There is a LOT of coal in the US and China. Over the next 400 years, all of it will go into the air. The result will be a world better for plants, and worse for icebergs, than the present one.

The economic principles driving toward this state of affairs are charmingly universal. A couple of years ago I was in Beijing on business and got stuck in traffic next to a crowd of bicyclists. My older son was with me, and I decided to teach him a lesson about life. I pointed to one of bicyclists and asked him what the man was thinking. My son hesitated a couple of seconds and then replied, "He's thinking: I wish I had a car." I was suddenly hit with a wave of fatherly pride, for not only had my son manfully called my bluff, he was right. That is precisely what the bicyclist was thinking.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]