The New 'Sputnik' Challenges: They All Run on Oil, Thomas Friedman
I came to Detroit looking for the hottest new American cars. Instead, I found Sputnik.
You remember Sputnik - the little satellite the Soviets launched in 1957. The Eisenhower administration was so stunned it put the U.S. into a crash program to train more scientists and engineers so America could catch up with the Russians in the space race.
Well, for anyone paying attention, our generation's Sputnik showed up at the annual Detroit auto show this week. It's not a satellite. It's a car. It's called the Geely 7151 CK sedan. It seats a family of five, gets good mileage and will cost around $10,000 when it goes on sale in 2008.
It's made in China.
That doesn't get your attention? Well, there's another Sputnik that just went up: Iran. It's going to make a nuclear bomb, no matter what the U.N. or U.S. says, because at $60-a-barrel oil, Tehran's mullahs are rich enough to buy off or tell off the rest of the world. That doesn't worry you? Well, there's a quieter Sputnik orbiting Earth. It's called climate change - a k a Katrina and melting glaciers.
What am I saying here? I am saying that our era doesn't have a single Sputnik to grab our attention and crystallize the threat to our security and way of life in one little steel ball - the way our parents' era did. But that doesn't mean such threats don't exist. They do, and they have a single common denominator: the way we use and consume energy today, particularly oil.
Friends, we are in the midst of an energy crisis - but this is not your grandfather's energy crisis. No, this is something so much bigger, for four reasons.
First, we are in a war against a radical, violent stream of Islam that is fueled and funded by our own energy purchases. We are financing both sides in the war on terrorism: the U.S. Army with our tax dollars, and Islamist charities, madrasas and terrorist organizations through our oil purchases.
Second, the world has gotten flat, and three billion new players from India, China and the former Soviet Union just walked onto the field with their version of the American dream: a house, a car, a toaster and a refrigerator. If we don't quickly move to renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, we will warm up, smoke up and choke up this planet far faster than at any time in the history of the world. Katrina will look like a day at the beach.
Third, because of the above, green energy-saving technologies and designs - for cars, planes, homes, appliances or office buildings - will be one of the biggest industries of the 21st century. Tell your kids. China is already rushing down this path because it can't breathe and can't grow if it doesn't reduce its energy consumption. Will we dominate the green industry, or will we all be driving cars from China, Japan and Europe?
Finally, if we continue to depend on oil, we are going to undermine the whole democratic trend that was unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because oil will remain at $60 a barrel and will fuel the worst regimes in the world - like Iran - to do the worst things for the world. Indeed, this $60-a-barrel boom in the hands of criminal regimes, and just plain criminals, will, if sustained, pose a bigger threat to democracies than communism or Islamism. It will be a black tide that turns back the democratic wave everywhere, including in Iraq.
The one thing we can do now to cope with all four of these trends is to create a tax that fixes the pump price at $3.50 to $4 a gallon - no matter where the OPEC price goes. Because if consumers know that the price of oil is never coming down, they will change their behavior. And when consumers change their behavior in a big way, G.M., Ford and DaimlerChrysler will change their cars in a big way, and it is cars and trucks that consume a vast majority of the world's oil.
The more Detroit goes green, the faster it will be propelled down the innovation curve, making it more likely that Detroit - and not Toyota or Honda or the Chinese - will dominate the green technologies of the 21st century. A permanent gasoline tax will also make solar, wind and biofuels so competitive with oil that it will drive their innovations as well.
George Bush may think he is preserving the American way of life by rejecting a gasoline tax. But if he does not act now - starting with his State of the Union speech - he will be seen as the man who presided over the decline of our way of life. He will be the American president who ignored the Sputniks of our day.
As we enter 2006, we find ourselves in trouble, at home and abroad. We are in trouble because we are led by defeatists - wimps, actually.
What's so disturbing about President Bush and Dick Cheney is that they talk tough about the necessity of invading Iraq, torturing terror suspects and engaging in domestic spying - all to defend our way of life and promote democracy around the globe.
But when it comes to what is actually the most important issue in U.S. foreign and domestic policy today - making ourselves energy efficient and independent, and environmentally green - they ridicule it as something only liberals, tree-huggers and sissies believe is possible or necessary.
Sorry, but being green, focusing the nation on greater energy efficiency and conservation, is not some girlie-man issue. It is actually the most tough-minded, geostrategic, pro-growth and patriotic thing we can do. Living green is not for sissies. Sticking with oil, and basically saying that a country that can double the speed of microchips every 18 months is somehow incapable of innovating its way to energy independence - that is for sissies, defeatists and people who are ready to see American values eroded at home and abroad.
Living green is not just a "personal virtue," as Mr. Cheney says. It's a national security imperative.
The biggest threat to America and its values today is not communism, authoritarianism or Islamism. It's petrolism. Petrolism is my term for the corrupting, antidemocratic governing practices - in oil states from Russia to Nigeria and Iran - that result from a long run of $60-a-barrel oil. Petrolism is the politics of using oil income to buy off one's citizens with subsidies and government jobs, using oil and gas exports to intimidate or buy off one's enemies, and using oil profits to build up one's internal security forces and army to keep oneself ensconced in power, without any transparency or checks and balances.
When a nation's leaders can practice petrolism, they never have to tap their people's energy and creativity; they simply have to tap an oil well. And therefore politics in a petrolist state is not about building a society or an educational system that maximizes its people's ability to innovate, export and compete. It is simply about who controls the oil tap.
In petrolist states like Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Sudan, people get rich by being in government and sucking the treasury dry - so they never want to cede power. In non-petrolist states, like Taiwan, Singapore and Korea, people get rich by staying outside government and building real businesses.
Our energy gluttony fosters and strengthens various kinds of petrolist regimes. It emboldens authoritarian petrolism in Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan and Central Asia. It empowers Islamist petrolism in Sudan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It even helps sustain communism in Castro's Cuba, which survives today in part thanks to cheap oil from Venezuela. Most of these petrolist regimes would have collapsed long ago, having proved utterly incapable of delivering a modern future for their people, but they have been saved by our energy excesses.
No matter what happens in Iraq, we cannot dry up the swamps of authoritarianism and violent Islamism in the Middle East without also drying up our consumption of oil - thereby bringing down the price of crude. A democratization policy in the Middle East without a different energy policy at home is a waste of time, money and, most important, the lives of our young people.
That's because there is a huge difference in what these bad regimes can do with $20-a-barrel oil compared with the current $60-a-barrel oil. It is no accident that the reform era in Russia under Boris Yeltsin, and in Iran under Mohammad Khatami, coincided with low oil prices. When prices soared again, petrolist authoritarians in both societies reasserted themselves.
We need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but to also impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home. That takes a real energy policy with long-term incentives for renewable energy - wind, solar, biofuels - rather than the welfare-for-oil-companies-and-special-interests that masqueraded last year as an energy bill.
Enough of this Bush-Cheney nonsense that conservation, energy efficiency and environmentalism are some hobby we can't afford. I can't think of anything more cowardly or un-American. Real patriots, real advocates of spreading democracy around the world, live green.
Green is the new red, white and blue.