Rickover’s 1957 energy warning resonates today

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a number of important cultural markers: the launch of Sputnik; the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss’ landmark children’s book; the introduction of the Edsel, a symbol of failure, soon after the Bel Air, which became an American icon; the school crisis in Little Rock, one of the biggest battles involving racial integration; and the release of the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which went on to win the Academy Award for best picture.

All that plus one other, hardly noted at the time, all but forgotten now: A half-century ago, Rear Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, accepted an invitation to speak at the banquet of the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association in St. Paul. In that speech, before a gathering of physicians, Adm. Rickover raised the specter that easily accessible and economically reasonable supplies of fossil fuels would be in jeopardy … just about now.

Ahead of his time

In those 1957 days of big-fin roadsters, drive-in restaurants and a lifestyle that increasingly revolved around the automobile, this was a remarkable, radical thought. By that time, for a quarter-century (with, of course, a wartime interruption) the motor car had been the standard by which world economies were measured. It was a means of conveyance, to be sure, but it was also the tool that made the suburbs inevitable, that made fumbling, back-seat premarital sex possible, that made transportation a style statement and an emblem of conspicuous consumption.

Hardly anyone remembers what Rickover said and, in truth, hardly anyone remarked on it. Not a soul took his advice, and hardly anyone took him seriously. But his speech makes for provocative reading today, with oil prices soaring and with experts and scholars seriously and legitimately wondering whether we might have reached an economic milestone, when world oil production has peaked, or soon might, and whether the same might soon be said about natural gas and coal.

Rickover began his 1957 remarks with an argument, difficult to refute today, that his listeners were living in something of a Golden Age. There was a Cold War raging, to be sure, and no responsible voice would call for a return to the race relations of 1957, or to the lack of opportunity for women that prevailed at the time, the year that Nancy Lopez and Katie Couric were born. But by any measure, this was a Golden Age of affluence and abundance.

Not mere rhetoric

It was in that context that Rickover made perhaps the most remarkable comment of the entire year: “Whether this Golden Age will continue depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population.”

This was no mere rhetorical warning. At the heart of the Rickover thesis was the role that energy played in civilization, or perhaps said another way, in civilizing humankind. “What lifted man – one of the weaker mammals – above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit,” he argued. “Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.”

So Rickover set the predicate: Energy is more than fuel but is instead a requirement for our very humanity and our survival. He went on to argue that a reduction of per-capita energy consumption throughout history has led to a reversion to a more primitive lifestyle. (One of his examples: Once wood supplies were exhausted, the Mayan civilization was imperiled.) Then he delivered the warning we did not heed: “Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is – in the long run – none.”

There you have it. Now a word about why Rickover ought to be listened to today even if he was ignored a half-century ago.

Many years ago, when I was a young reporter, I was assigned to cover a fancy dinner to honor Rickover. There to salute this great military figure were Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard M. Nixon – a spectacle that Sen. Bob Dole would later immortalize as a gathering of “Hear No Evil, See No Evil … and Evil.” But the important thing is that during the dinner Mr. Carter saluted Rickover for being “omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.” It’s the second word that matters here.

Impact of scarce energy

Rickover understood what was happening, and what is continuing to happen now, and he warned that we ought to take action before it was too late. Smart, responsible people now are talking about the implications of a new energy crisis that will make the last one seem tame. Energy scarcity, for example, could become a vital health issue; consider how much energy is required to operate hospitals, manufacture drugs and common medical devices, and run the sophisticated tools of health technology.

This is a cause for alarm, not an extremist cause being pushed by Puritans and Luddites. Take a look, for example, at the leadership of the U.S. House Peak Oil Caucus. It was founded by a Republican and counts among its members both the son and the nephew of Stewart L. Udall, who was the secretary of the interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and is no wild radical.

“I suggest,” Rickover said in his 1957 speech, “that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendents – those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age.”

If it was a good time then, it is a better time now. Or, as Dr. Seuss wrote in “The Cat in the Hat” 50 years ago: “Do you hear?”