They call it the "dismal science" for good reason. These days, at least, the news from the economic front is unrelentingly grim: rising unemployment, slumping sales, the credit crunch. And then there's the gloomy talk about dwindling supplies of natural resources and soaring worldwide demand for energy and a vast array of raw materials.
Competition for those resources has already led to the kind of price increases we haven't seen for generations. Oil, many say, is headed to $150 a barrel. Gas at the pump? Maybe $5.00 in a few weeks— maybe much more. The price of steel has doubled in less than a year. Other metals have seen even bigger price hikes.
Even more worrisome is the prospect of shortages: Shortages of petroleum and everything we make from it—from fuels to plastics to all manner of chemicals. Shortages of raw materials used to make steel—steel needed for warehouse racks, lift trucks, railcars, highway trucks, building supports, cars, buses, and airplanes. What would these shortages mean for your business? For the warehousing and material handling industry? For the U.S. economy? For the global economy? In a word, disaster.
True, this is a worst-case scenario. Do I think it will happen? No. Do I think it could? Yes—at least with some commodities. If that happens, our industrial economy will suffer, and we'll all feel the pinch.
What to do? Well, the most obvious answer is to find and develop new resources and to use them more efficiently. And, indeed, that is what's going on in much of the world.
Over the past few years, for example, the famed Athabascan tar sands of Alberta, Canada, have become a money-making resource rather than a geologist's fantasyland. Brazil and other countries have discovered huge new oil deposits. China has plans under way to build new coal mines and several new nuclear power plants. France and Japan have continued (or sped up) the construction of new nuclear power plants. Russia has built new pipelines to move oil and gas from its vast fields to markets in Europe. Timber operations are going full blast in the Amazon basin and in Indonesia. Seems nearly every country is determined to find more resources, develop them, and build for the future—except our own. We are more concerned with pollution than production these days. At least, it seems that way in Washington.
We haven't built a new nuclear power plant in a generation and a half. We've done nothing to promote coal mining, even though the United States sits atop enough coal to power American industry and homes for centuries. We haven't allowed ourselves to drill for new oil or build new refineries for decades. Meanwhile, we've decided— through our politicians, few of whom have any scientific or engineering expertise—to make fuel out of corn. Works very well—with taxpayer subsidies.
We need a national energy and resource development policy that reflects the realities of a free enterprise system. Environmentalism has made a contribution to American thinking, and it's a positive contribution. We need to protect the environment as best we can. But we also have to accept that when we block all attempts to develop our own natural resources, we offer ourselves up as indentured servants to other countries.
Wouldn't it be wiser to look for cleaner, greener ways to develop and use our own oil and coal and iron ore, while pressuring the rest of the world to do the same? Seems far less dismal to me.