Heat, Drive and be Merry

by Dan Schafer

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Last year your friend bought a 4-wheel drive sport utility vehicle. It is a sporty-looking car even if the closest he will ever get to off road driving is the grass at the edge of his garage driveway. But it uses 1 litre of petrol for every 7 kilometers he drives. Should you spoil his fun and your friendship with him by telling him he shouldn’t be wasting the world’s natural resources on a big, gas-guzzling, show-off, Detroit road-hog? Or what about your other friend who owns a big house? He keeps it heated all winter and cooled all summer even though he spends most of his time at the office and out partying. It isn’t that he doesn’t pay his gas and electric bills. He is a great supporter of the local utilities. But what about all that energy he is using that just goes to waste?

In the January-February issue we quoted Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University as saying world oil production could peak as soon as 2004 meaning that we could begin to experience scarcity from then on. That is probably a pessimistic view, but we all know we are going to run out of oil sooner or later and very likely will see scarcity in our lifetime. Ignoring that fact is irresponsible, because even if we don’t suffer much from a shortage ourselves certainly our children or grandchildren will know a time when there is relatively little of it left.

Who’s Problem is It?

What then is the responsible response to it? Should you go ahead and tell your friends off? Irresponsibility is, by definition, not doing that which it is our responsibility to do. So do we have a responsibility to do something about the supply of oil in the world, or not? Obviously if no one has a responsibility we all will face a big problem in the 10 to 30 years hence when supplies start to get short. That is, if no one takes any steps to remedy the situation, scenes of London’s M25 becoming a 200 km long car park will be only a mild inconvenience compared to the grinding to a halt of the world’s industry and transportation systems.

But most of us probably doubt that that will happen. Why? Well, for one thing, we know that generally we have found our way around most problems we have faced before. In the mid 1400’s many people worried about falling off the edge of the world if you sailed too far west. But someone chanced it, having a pretty good hunch that commonly accepted wisdom was mistaken. He solved the problem and found more than he intended to find.

Another thing is that, whatever our politics or economics, most of us accept certain principles of the market place. The most basic of those is the law of supply and demand. So we know that as the supply of oil starts getting lean and demand continues to grow, if governments don’t interfere, there will be price adjustments that will tend to level supply and demand. Then another principle of the market will come. Some guy is going to say, “I have something that works as well or almost as well as oil, and I will sell it to you cheaper.” Then many more people are going to get in on the act. That is because there are all sorts of ideas out there of alternative energy and renewable energy whose main problem is that oil is too cheap. (See our January-February issue)

If the problem is going to solve itself, do we have a responsibility or do we not? And if we do, what is it? Perhaps we could say our responsibility lies somewhere between that of our parents and the responsibility we had as children.

A Child’s View

Let’s think about how we did things when we were children. Then we didn’t think much about where our food came from. We didn’t worry about keeping the house warm in the winter. We probably saw our dad or mom fill the car with petrol, but we certainly didn’t think about how the supply would hold out. We didn’t worry because children aren’t meant to worry about those things. Even if at times money was scarce, we maybe knew our parents were concerned, but we trusted they would work things out.

Our parents, on the other hand, knew they had to do certain things. At least one of them knew that they had to go to work every morning if they were going to have a paycheck from which to pay the bills. At least one of them knew they had to take care of us when we were small. They had to protect us from all the dumb things we would do if left to ourselves. They had to provide food and clothes and a warm house for us. They knew they had to get us off to school when we were old enough for that.

But we need to start by seeing that our responsibility is more like that of a child. We know that everything we have came to us as a gift. That is, we didn’t buy our eyes. We didn’t put batteries in to get our hearts going. Our skill to write or run, to fix machines or manage people, to understand science or to do surgery aren’t really things we created. Of course we studied and trained, but the basic stuff was there before we started. The air that we are breathing is not only a gift, but the fact that we keep drawing it in and letting it out all night while we sleep without being conscious of it shows that we can’t take too much credit even for keeping ourselves alive. Similarly the electricity for our lights, the gas for our stove, the petrol for our car are not really ours by right. Sure we paid for them and complain when the bill comes due, but the fact that we have them at all is not basically because of our input. The oil was buried in the ground, the water for hydroelectric power came flowing down from the hills, the trees that turned into coal and oil were just growing in the forest without any of our help. The sun that gives us a tan when we are on the beach and brightens our day when it shines is just a free gift that any amount of money we throw at it will not brighten or darken. The order and beauty of all these things being organized so handily for us tempts even the most skeptical of us to suspect there was a design behind it all. And that is where we can afford to be like children. We can be glad and happy with what the One who designed it all has provided for us. We don’t need to worry anymore than we did as children. Just as, when we were children we trusted our parents to work out the details — we can relax and let the One who designed us and the world He put us in take care of the details. We can be sure that His plan isn’t going to fail on a little detail about enough energy.

Making a Mess of Things

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But even though in our hearts we can afford to be carefree children, the measure of our responsibility to act, like that of our parents, is the measure of our understanding—our understanding of the situation and our understanding of what we ought to do. And in spite of the fact that there is a beautiful design, it is certainly true that we humans do have the ability to make a mess of things. History shows us clearly that man in his greed and thoughtlessness messes up not only his own life, but the lives of many around him. How many more tanker ships are going to spill their oil into the oceans and ruin things for the birds and seals and all of us? How many more Enrons are going to collapse and mess up their employees’ lives? How many more pipelines in Africa are going to blow up and kill poor people?

Just as our parents knew there was something they could and should do, so we probably also should know. But also like them we know that there are things that we cannot do, and that certain things we could do are not exactly helpful. But can we, then, employ our understanding to do something to reverse the prevalent, blind, greedy, me-first approach? If the world, as it seems obvious, has a design, then we need to do what we can to get in line with what the Designer had in mind, and begin to develop the resources He gave us in the way He planned. The first thing probably is to do as Michael Jackson’s song said, “Look at the man in the mirror.” Where am I being deceitful, blind and greedy? Then if that humbles us a bit, we might be surprised at how our conscience would start to help us find out something about our Designer’s plan and what part He intended for us to play in that plan.

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