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.