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A West German Journalist Ponders the Implications of the Oil Shock (November 15, 1973)

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Merely saving oil is not enough. The task is to replace oil.

This is not only a challenge for the state and the government; above all it is a challenge for the market economy, which now has to prove its much-extolled flexibility. Of course, it’s no small matter to switch from one energy source to another – less convenient one – on short notice. But it’s not impossible, just expensive and unpleasant. Coal is certainly available, and almost anything can be made from it – if necessary, even car fuel. And besides, there’s no harm in taking this opportunity to accelerate the switchover from gasoline cars to electric ones, since it will come sooner or later anyway.

This is also a challenge for science, and not just with regard to atomic energy and the futuristic project of solar energy. Unfortunately, we have no time to wait for these things. What scientists have to do now – just like in wartime when they have to quickly develop new weapons and alternative raw materials for industry – is develop, for example, new and better coal-liquefaction processes and new foundations for the field of synthetic chemistry.

Nowadays, when the chemical industry can make just about anything out of anything, it would be ludicrous to think that oil is the only thing that plastics can be made from. It’s just that it’s so easy and inexpensive with oil. But it doesn’t help to cry about it. The less we think about the fact that something like oil exists, the faster we will put the unavoidable shortages behind us.

This all sounds harsh and alienating, I know. It means making an effort – including a mental one – and doing without, two things that have become utterly foreign to us. At least it doesn’t mean that we’ll go hungry, and assuming that we don’t go about things too foolishly, we won’t freeze either. And maybe it isn’t so bad to have a few real things to worry about again. In the last few years, we’ve occasionally succumbed to the trivial pseudo-worries of people who are too well off.

Source: Sebastian Haffner, “Geht es nicht auch ohne Öl?” [“Can’t We Make Do Without Oil?”], Stern, no. 47 (November 15, 1973).

Translation: Allison Brown

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