Elon Musk recently sat down with Cosmos host and all-around awesome scientist dude Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the television show. The topic naturally turned towards fossil fuels, with Musk telling Tyson; “If we don’t find a solution to burning oil for transport, when we then run out of oil, the economy will collapse and society will come to an end. If we know we have to get off oil no matter what, we know that is an inescapable outcome, why run this crazy experiment of changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans by adding enormous amounts of CO2 that have been buried since the Precambrian Era?” he added. “That’s crazy. That’s the dumbest experiment in history, by far,” Musk said on Tyson’s show, Startalk Radio.
His remarks echo those of Admiral Hyman Rickover nearly 60 years ago. Rickover is widely regarded as the “father of the nuclear navy” for his tireless promotion of nuclear power for the US submarine fleet. But he was much more than that. A visionary with the gift of great insight and clear thinking, he spoke these prophetic words in 1957:
The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.
In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.
Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.
Would it be fair to say that civilization today is squandering its inheritance in “riotous living” and ignoring the needs of future generations? Many people would agree with those sentiments. And yet, enormously wealthy individuals and vastly powerful corporations are digging in their heels and allowing themselves to be willfully blinded to reality, all in the name of milking the last few dollars out of a dying economy based on fossil fuels.
There are fortunes to be made by giving up our profligate policies of the past and developing the clean, renewable power sources of the future. We need to embrace the future, not fear it.