Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis - Part 1

by Prof. Al Bartlett

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored," - Aldous Huxley

I. Introduction1

The energy crisis has been brought into focus by President Carter's message to the American people on April 18 and by his message to the Congress on April 20, 1977. Although the President spoke of the gravity of the energy situation when he said that it was "unprecedented in our history," his messages have triggered an avalanche of critical responses from national political and business leaders. A very common criticism of the President's message is that he failed to give sufficient emphasis to increased fuel pr oduction as a way of easing the crisis. The President proposed an escalating tax on gasoline and a tax on the large gas guzzling cars in order to reduce gasoline consumption. These taxes have been attacked by politicians, by labor leaders, and by the manufacturers of the "gas guzzlers" who convey the impression that one of the options that is open to us is to go ahead using gasoline as we have used it in the past.

We have the vague feeling that Arctic oil from Alaska will greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We have recently heard political leaders speaking of energy self-sufficiency for the U.S. and of "Project Independence." The divergent discussion of the energy problem creates confusion rather than clarity, and from the confusion many Americans draw the conclusion that the energy shortage is mainly a matter of manipulation or of interpretation. It then follows in the minds of many that the shortage can be "solved" by congressional action in the manner in which we "solve" social and political problems.

Many people seem comfortably confident that the problem is being dealt with by experts who understand it. However, when one sees the great hardships that people suffered in the Northeastern U.S. in January 1977 because of the shortage of fossil fuels, one may begin to wonder about the long-range wisdom of the way that our society has developed.

What are the fundamentals of the energy crisis?

Rather than travel into the sticky abyss of statistics it is better to rely on a few data and on the pristine simplicity of elementary mathematics. With these it is possible to gain a clear understanding of the origins, scope, and implications of the energy crisis.

Reprinted with permission from Bartlett, A., American Journal of Physics, 46(9), 876, 1978. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Copyright 1978, the American Association of Physics Teachers.
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