March 22, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Stewart Udall & Security

If you’ll permit me to diverge a tad into a topic that may not seem totally security-related, the big news for me this weekend was the passing away of Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and champion of national parks. I wasn’t alive when he served in government, so my admiration of his work is based on reading his writings from decades past. Researching natural resources issues naturally brought me to many of his articles. 

We’ll have a new report out soon which explains a bit more deeply how we see conservation and better ecosystem management as important security tools. In the meantime, Udall’s death reminded me of the hopeful story last year of Band-e Amir becoming Afghanistan’s first national park. Obviously the war there continues regardless of the establishment of this park. But for the longer-term picture in Afghanistan, remember that USAID estimates that roughly 70% of its  population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods – and promoting stable livelihoods is obviously important for our long-term goals in that country. Without protecting the ecosystems that support that agriculture, we’re looking at either a pretty dire long-term outlook for Afghanistan, or a dramatic need to ensure that it creates a high-tech or service economy to bring in money.


Esteemed colleague CDR Herb Carmen also Tweeted a good link yesterday to Udall’s 1972 Atlantic article, “The Last Traffic Jam,” on the growing U.S. demand for cars and their use and therefore oil. The article is well worth a read, but my favorite thing about this might be that to the right of the article (at the time I viewed it Sunday) the most prominent ad is for the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Nice contrast to Udall’s warning that it was unsound policy for the United States to rely on increasing oil importation and long-term development of new domestic oil resources to fulfill our own growing demand, and “the oil needs of the other industrialized countries [which] are growing faster than ours.”


When CNAS started up in 2007, I ordered stacks of old energy books from the 1970s and early 1980s to examine what happened after the early oil crises (many of them for 1 cent plus shipping; thanks Better World Books), and why it seemed that the country had failed to ensure long-term energy security based on that experience. Of course, technology dramatically improved our energy intensity over the past decades. But these books also outline a vast array of cleaner energy technologies that flopped during the 80s (when fossil fuels went back to being dirt cheap, among other factors). Many of these very same concepts in solar, wind, geothermal and improved distribution are just now coming to scale and taking root. It was pretty depressing 3 years back to see all that clean tech know-how seemingly go to waste, and I assumed that as soon as oil prices fell, the heightened attention to energy innovation would drop again as well. I don’t think that’s happened this time around, and if anything it seems to be growing despite oil prices dropping.


As the experience after the 70s showed, a lot of innovation now doesn’t necessarily mean that 40 years ago we won’t have another era of major energy insecurity. And there are other considerations: the Leaf and other EVs will consume electricity that has to come from somewhere, and they will require lithium and other non-fuel commodities to make them work.


But innovation is still our best bet. Here’s hoping that technological development will continue to pull us beyond our current energy and environmental insecurities and help promote the resource conservation that was so dear to Udall’s heart.


The Week Ahead


On Monday, the Hudson Institute will be holding an event on Israel - U.S. Cooperation in Reducing Oil Dependencebeginning at 2pm. Tuesday at 9am, check out an event on new U.S. energy and climate policy at CSIS. At 9:30am, the Senate Armed Services Committee will be holding a hearing to consider the nominations of appointees including Director of Operations Energy Programs nominee Sharon Burke. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a full committee hearing on Opportunities to Improve Energy Security and the Environment through Transportation Policy,at 10am. Later on, the Washington Resource Institute will be hosting a viewing and discussion of Climate Refugees for the 18th Annual DC Environmental Film Festival, beginning at 6pm. Hope you have reservations, because they’re all booked up for this one. On Thursday at 1:30pm, the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee will hold a budget request hearing forDepartment of Energy atomic energy defense activities.