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Nobody's Chump

John Tierney had an Op-Ed piece in yesterday's Times that I found unusually irritating. I am almost always irritated by John Tierney. Our ways of looking at the world are, frankly, hostile. His way strkes me as short-term, bottom line, sauve qui peut. A cold draft of social Darwinism courses through his opinions. I see him as an intelligent man who's determined to be nobody's chump. Light on his feet, an agile debater, Mr Tierney is too competitive by half. He may, in fact, be none of these things; I have never met him. But that is the vision of him that I have built up over the years, and now it inclines me to skip his columns.

I read yesterday's offering because I'm curious to see just how the "Peak Oil" issue makes its way onto center stage - as it appears, finally, to be doing. I don't expect the transfer to be handled very intelligently. The other day, I quoted David Owen on the upsetting books about the "end of oil" that he is not going to read while he still has hopes of being alive for the next six months. If you have been pushing energy worries toward the edges of your thought, indulging in magically thinking that "they'll think of something; they always do," then the sudden loss of faith in this approach can induce a rush of sheer despair - and an attendant loss of judgment. Hands thrown up in the air are not particularly useful hands.

Mr Tierney actually believes that they'll think of something, because they always do. This is not magical thinking for him but demonstrable fact. And it is fact - if your time frame stretches from the end of World War II to fifteen years from now. To be more specific, the time frame that Mr Tierney sets in "The 10,000 Question" runs from 1980 to January 1, 2011, when a $5000 bet will be decided. If the price of a barrel of oil is "in the triple digits" as of that date, then Matthew Simmons, a Houston investment banker and the author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, will collect the $10,000 that he, Mr Tierney, and Mr Tierney's partner, Rita Simon have deposited in an escrow account. (Mr Tierney and Ms Simon, partners, put in $2500 each; Rita Simon is the widow of Julian Simon, an economist who won a bet, made in 1980, with ecologist Paul Ehrlich, concerning the price of metals.)

In some ways, I hope that Mr Tierney and Ms Simon win their bet. It's not even unlikely that they'll win it; the flow of fuels is full of surprises. But I'm inclined to agree with petroleum engineers who believe that we may have already burnt up half of the earth's oil supply. I like that figure, because it gives us some time - time to find other energy sources, time to realize that a free market approach, while successful in the short term, will doom humanity in the long. That's why I also hope that Mr Simmons will win - not because oil has become scarce but because leaders may have persuaded voters to reverse course and resume the program of delayed gratification that built the powerful middle class in the first place. Don't worry; I'm not making any bets that this will happen. But against the long view that I'm taking - and it's not really a long view to think a century or two ahead - Mr Tierney's thinking looks just plain infantile. He's betting on what's worst about us. He's nobody's chump. It must feel great to be so cool.


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I truly don't understand why I keep finding myself running down the same lanes or parallel lanes as you many times. I was digging around in "hubbert peak oil theory" searches a few days ago myself. As always with any issue there are many sides, some of them pure spin. Eddie Bernays would be proud, evidence "ARE WE RUNNING OUT OF OIL?, "FUNCTIONAL THEORY" SAYS NO", By Robert L. Bradley Jr. at PERC. Simply amazing, my head is still spinning. Free market forces may be the best solution however, they will be quick, brutal and conclusive. Nothing encourages innovation like scarcity and sky high prices. Adminstrative restriction of consumption through taxation or other means introduces the possibility of all manner of favoritism which in the long run could have a more devastating outcome than sky high prices. Will we start storing oil at a Ft. Knox like facility in a few years, will oil replace gold? Probably not, it's so messy to handle.

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