SINCE WE NOW burn oil faster than we find it, since coal pollutes and the future of nuclear energy is politically clouded, the existence of "energy insecurity" is but refined commom sense.
The two great "oil shocks" of the '70s (following the 1973 Yom Kippur war and the 1978-79 Iranian revolution) measurably depressed the world economy. They brought sluggish growth, rising unemployment, and in some cases (especially as it became rational to substitute labor-intensive for energy-intensive processes) lower productivity.
Yet, like hypertension, the disorder had faint physical symptoms. Between 1974 and 1979, indeed, the "real" price of oil actually fell, reinforcing the illusion that the crisis was illusory -- or, even if real, a temporary disequilibrium to be corrected by letting "market forces" work freely.
It is primarily to emphasize that energy stringency is real and important that this book has been written under Daniel Yergin's guidance and editorship. Unfortunately, few of the contributors write as lucidly as he, so laymen will find quite a bit of high-sulfur prose in need of distillation. But it's all here if you look patiently -- what rising prices and energy insecurity are doing, and might yet do to the world economy.
One major problem, of course, is to persuade those who need persuading (including our current president) that there is a problem.
Yergin writes: "The assumption of unlimited abundance is so deep-seated that even a decade (after the end of U.S. self-sufficiency in oil) the successful Republican candidate was predicting that 'with decontrol, we could be producing enough oil to be self-sufficient in five years.' " How, he did not say.
More serious, however, is the notion that without conservation, energy demand can be contained. Forgetting the Pollyanna-ish prediction of his chief, Reagan's first energy secretary, James Edwards, "declared that oil imports were likely to remain at the same high level -- 5 to 7 million barrels a day throughout the 1980s -- but that federal encouragement of conservation and renewables would no longer be necessary because 'market principles' would suffice."
To the Europeans and Japanese, who import most of their oil, there is a childlike insouciance about the Reagan administration view. Alas, however, it reflects U.S. public sentiment all too well. As recently as March 1979, "68 percent of the American public described the oil crisis as a hoax perpetrated by the oil companies."
Even the Detroit auto makers, who should be better informed about what the oil market is doing to consumer demand, "would have been in even worse shape," writes Yergin, "were it not for government policy -- the fuel efficiency standards of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 . . . (which) were generally opposed by the auto industry."
Even when the reality has been accepted -- or if and when it is -- there remains the task of accurate analysis and prognosis. In energy use, it seems, "obvious" conclusions are rarely obvious. As Ian Smart notes in a compelling essay on "Energy and the Power of Nations," "the value of a secure supply is inevitably circumstantial." In Britain, in 1973-74, a coal strike hurt the economy more than reductions in the flow of Arab oil, while in the Netherlands an abundance of domestically-produced natural gas pumped income into consumption -- "the Dutch disease." Latterly, North Sea oil has strengthened the pound sterling, thereby cheapening imports to Britain, making British exports more expensive, and thus exacerbating unemployment.
So the process of "adjustment" which is touted in this book as the most desirable way to cope with energy stringency is not easy; nor do strategies of adjustment present themselves without complications and trade-offs.
For purposes of world "adjustment," Yergin and the others say, the optimum climate would be a reasonably stable world energy supply growing, modestly, at about two percent per year, with no sudden shocks or political upheavals to bring abrupt scarcities or wild price spirals. But optimum conditions are by no means certain, considering the political volatility of the Gulf region. Even if conditions are tranquil, the management of the vast flows of wealth among sellers and purchasers of energy (especially when purchasers are the poor nations of the earth) is a separate challenge in itself.
The great worry is that scarcity will stir up bloody-mindedness and protectionism when co-operation and planning are needed. We are, fortunately, past the day when OPEC countries (the more reasonable ones, anyway) imagined it feasible to extort indefinite unilateral advantage from oil prices.
"Stagnation and unemployment and depression," writes Yergin, "sorely tested democratic systems in the years between World War I and World War II. The disaffected turned to political idols on the right and the left, and in some countries democracy gave way to dictatorship, and dictatorships turned to war. The ultimate toll was measured in tens of millions of deaths and in the endless stretch of devastated landscape."
A measured pessimism about the capacity of the world to fail the present challenge is, remembering Yergin's bleak words above, never misplaced. But the tone of this book, while sober, is not despairing. We are learning, if too slowly, to cope -- the U.S. has recently raised its energy efficiency (per unit of GNP) by 17 per cent. And two imponderable variables -- inspired leadership and technological ingenuity -- offer additional possibilities. It is no doubt prudent as the authors of this book suggest, to plan on stringency as the abiding condition, unrelieved by great political vision or invention. But it does no harm to hope, meanwhile, that the latter will somehow turn up.