Factoring oil thirst out of the equation

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Published: Sunday, October 28, 2001 3:17 a.m. EST

Factoring oil thirst out of the equation


CHAPEL HILL - In spite of what we have been repeatedly told by the media and our political leaders, the Muslim hijackers of Sept. 11 and their fellow terrorists were probably not trying to "destroy our way of life"; they were more likely to be merely expressing their hatred.

The radical Muslims know, I believe, that destroying our way of life without destroying our nation would not be to their advantage. They are much better off contending with our comparatively open, basically generous society than with the harsh, authoritarian military-minded society that would likely replace a failed democracy, one they would have no hope of terrifying into surrender. They seem too intelligent to ignore our possible use of nuclear weapons.

America's increasing presence in Islamic nations may have given rise to two deep fears among radical Muslims: our culture will gradually displace theirs, and our influence may inhibit the creation of a powerful Islamic state dominated by the radicals.

Those are not our purposes, of course; we have a fundamentally different interest. To use a blunt, James Carville-like statement, "It's the oil, stupid!"

Oil -- the subject is almost never mentioned by our pundits and political leaders as they try to explain the disaster of Sept. 11 and the subsequent experiences with anthrax. But oil is at the center of much that has happened between our nation and the Arab world for decades.

In order to keep oil supplies available, we make special efforts to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich nations. The protection of oil fields was surely one of our objectives in defending Kuwait against Iraq. Our friendship with Israel can easily be seen by radical Muslims as demonstrating our determination to have a secure base for assuring, if need be, our access to oil.

For their part, the oil-rich Islamic nations decline to mention oil as a problem because its sale provides much of their income.

And certainly our interest in oil is balanced by easily recognized altruistic ends: to keep the peace, to assist in the self-determination of nations, and to give aid to struggling economies..

What can we do to remove, insofar as possible, the cause of the hatred the radical Muslims exhibit toward us?

The most important action we can take is to greatly reduce the worldwide demand for oil as fuel, thereby undermining its value on the market. This achievement would eliminate oil as highly contentious issue and free us from our chief need to maintain a strong presence in Islamic countries.

How do we reduce the use of oil and lower its market value? Simply by doing the things we ought to be doing anyhow.

We must develop more efficient models of everything that runs on oil, either directly or derivatively, especially automobiles. We must require the cleanest possible ways of burning coal and speed up the development of alternative fuels for all our energy needs. Some alternatives, including hydrogen fuel cells, wind power and solar power, are already becoming cost effective. As to nuclear power, there remains the haunting problem of nuclear waste, compounded now by the potential threat of a suicide pilot diving a large plane into a nuclear plant.

If we try, eventually we can virtually eliminate the use of oil for fuel in the United States and save what remains in the ground for petroleum-based products we use in everyday life. We can also assist other nations in achieving the same objective. Some will need extensive help in adjusting their economies.

Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney administration is pressing for an energy plan that would take us in the wrong direction. It encourages the consumption of fossil fuel far more than it encourages increased efficiency in the use of those fuels and the accelerated development of alternative fuels. It is a plan that would make oil a more prized possession, keep conflicts alive and increase needless damage to our natural environment.

The attacks of Sept. 11 reveal a heavy responsibility as well as a tremendous opportunity for Americans. We must try to bring the perpetrators to trial (preferably before an international tribunal) and simultaneously take a fresh look at human life on Earth and the other life forms with which we share it. All our nations together should make an effort again -- and again and again if necessary -- to plan our joint future. Whether we like it or not, we share one planet, and in the long run, one destiny.

We humans, the highest form of life, must re-examine ourselves, inventory the resources we have been given, consider how best to utilize them without exhausting them, and find fair ways to distribute their benefits among all who live now and those who are to come.

There is, after all, a shining silver lining in Sept. 11's sadly ominous cloud.

Oliver H. Orr Jr. is a retired historian. He taught history and government at N.C. State University and later was a specialist in U.S. history at the Library of Congress.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 28, 2001

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