Doom or boom: perceiving our puzzle

Professors and pupils weave together expertise and experience. From this process, they generate knowledge, understanding, passion and direction. Mentors hope students will develop the expertise necessary to assemble the puzzle of their lives. Students question doom and boom, wondering about their lot.

Each generation confronts these possibilities. A key element of the present puzzle is energy depletion. How we respond to this cultural challenge will affect every citizen of Earth. Since the United States uses the most energy, it will affect our students most.

Global energy supplies grow less secure each year. The U.S. energy profile looks alarming: oil 40 percent, natural gas 23 percent, coal 23 percent, nukes 9 percent, and renewables 5 percent. Fossil fuels drive our economy. But U.S. production of oil peaked in 1971. Today, we use 21 million barrels a day, but we only produce 5.5 million. We import more each year because this energy transports 95 percent of our goods and services. We cannot sustain this course.

Energy demand is growing with globalization. People in China and India, numbering 2.5 billion, would like to use as much oil as the .3 billion citizens of the United States. There is not enough oil. The rate of oil discovery has been falling since the mid-1980s, which is why profitable oil companies have not built new refineries. Today, U.S. refineries are operating at 90 percent capacity, risking disaster.

Three additional elements in this energy puzzle add anxiety. Global oil production is likely to peak by 2012. Prices will explode before the peak. Also, U.S. natural gas production has peaked. North American natural gas production is peaking now. Oil and natural gas drive 63 percent of our economy.

Students are caught in this equation. Prices reflect growing tensions between supplies and growing demand. Risks of collapse are significant if we do not find state and federal leadership. The U.S. has been living beyond our means. A global devaluation of the dollar and growing stagflation will occur, if we stay the course. Experts in the field smell doom.

Universities are centers for responding to new puzzles. We might find a sustainable path out of this. There could be a boom. Clearly, we must conserve energy ruthlessly. Then we can turn on renewable energies. And finally, we must invest time and money for social collaboration so that we can learn better teamwork. This puzzle could be our undoing, but a few students sense a possible boom.

Bill Mittlefehldt is a University alumnus. Please send comments to [email protected]