Mystery Cassandra

A prudent man offers a prescient warning on riotous living and peak oil.

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 5, 2006 6:23PM (EST)

Who said this, and when?

Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is -- in the long run -- none.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.

For more than one hundred years we have stoked ever growing numbers of machines with coal; for fifty years we have pumped gas and oil into our factories, cars, trucks, tractors, ships, planes, and homes without giving a thought to the future. Occasionally the voice of a Cassandra has been raised only to be quickly silenced when a lucky discovery revised estimates of our oil reserves upward, or a new coalfield was found in some remote spot. Fewer such lucky discoveries can be expected in the future, especially in industrialized countries where extensive mapping of resources has been done. Yet the popularizers of scientific news would have us believe that there is no cause for anxiety, that reserves will last thousands of years, and that before they run out science will have produced miracles. Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen -- that everything turns out right in the end. But, prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity.

Answer: Rear Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, at a banquet of the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association on May 14, 1957.

Many thanks to Energy Bulletin for alerting us to this astonishingly prescient speech. If you're new to the peak-oil debate, but you're lazy and want to avoid rehashing the last few years of voluminous discussion on all related topics, this is the speech for you. Quite literally, very little new has been said since. Adm. Rickover was a smart guy.

He is also renowned as the father of the nuclear submarine, and he gave this speech in his capacity as chief of the Naval Reactors Branch of the Division of Reactor Development at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and assistant chief of the Navy Department's Bureau of Ships for Nuclear Propulsion. So it's little surprise that the ultimate thrust of the speech concludes that renewables hold no chance at providing for the bulk of humanity's energy needs, but that the outlook for nuclear fuels is "more promising."

What would Rickover think if he were around today to observe that the last time a new nuclear power plant was ordered by a utility in the United States was 1973? Or if he could read today's pessimistic Wall Street Journal article on how current shortages of uranium may crimp President Bush's plans for a nuclear power "renaissance"?

Judging by the quality of his speech 50 years ago, he'd probably have some pretty pithy advice. Like: I warned you idiots this was going to happen, now get off your ass and do something about it. Only expressed more politely.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Energy Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power Peak Oil