It's probably safe to assume America's current energy crisis won't be resolved just because the burgeoning prices of gasoline and natural gas have driven up the costs of farming proportionately.

Unfortunately, solution will not come from sympathy for the harried urban resident either. For as long as any of us, from farm or city, reach deeper into our pockets to pay any price for the fuel it takes to pamper our insatiable internal-combustion engines, the crisis, like California blackouts, will roll from emergency to emergency. As in Energy Crisis I, back in the 1970s, “resolution” will be the settling in of whatever the traffic will bear.

Why, if Americans, whether farmers or stockbrokers, finally decide by uncomfortable consensus that we can really afford $2 per gallon gasoline, or more, we may not have our next energy crisis for another 10 years. That supposition, as many Californians may tell you, begs the question of energy availability, especially of the electrical kind, but we're still talking more about resignation than solution.

In the meantime, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was saying a few days ago that the country is facing the most serious energy shortages since the 1970s. Energy secretaries are supposed to notice things like that. Otherwise, I've personally never been all that impressed with the Department of Energy.

DOE, in fact, reminds me of something Dorothy Parker, once The New Yorker magazine's resident wit, is supposed to have said about Calvin Coolidge, who was much reputed in his time for a general lack of personal energy. According to one told story, Ms. Parker was at a party one evening back in nineteen-twenty-something when someone came in and announced that former President Coolidge had died.

“Oh?” Ms. Parker replied. “How can they tell?”

It makes me wonder. How could anyone tell if the listless Department of Energy slipped on an oil spill one day and slid off Alaska's North Slope into the Arctic Ocean? Would anyone miss it? Inspired by energy crisis, the DOE very quickly lost both relevance and usefulness after Americans decided we were wealthy enough to afford the high cost of energy.

For its inability, or disinclination, to do much about the costs and supplies of energy, the DOE has been more purposely used for three decades to make social and political statements. Every presidential administration since Gerald Ford's has announced its “position” on environmental affairs with appointments to secretary of energy; but in the waffling of sympathies and the changing ascendancies of the last best argument, no long-term national energy policy, neither innovation nor new ideas, have emerged in the face of tightening fossil fuel supplies.

The environmental concerns have, of course, always been as legitimate and needful of attention as the expressions of them have often been hysterical. The unavoidable reality, however, remains that the fossil fuels and the environment are inseparable. It's not either-or. Without alternatives to fossil fuels, we will deplete the one to exhaust the other.

As a collateral effort in the search for alternative fuels, how about looking for an alternative to the greatest of all fossil fuel burners? It's certainly not a phenomenon peculiar to this country, but Americans have had a love affair with the internal-combustion engine since before the first noisy T-Model Fords rolled into the yards to spook the horses and make the dogs bark and the babies cry. The tryst goes on. My own, somewhat less commotional Jeep Cherokee is sinfully fond of high-priced fuel, but I think I'll keep it.

I know. The industrialized world cannot imagine anything that might ever replace anything so — well, so natural and God-given — as the internal-combustion engine; but if DOE really wants to make itself useful, it might, as a long-term project, hire on some brainstormers to imagine something so unimaginable and otherworldly as the internal-combustion engine was barely more than a century ago.


e-mail: ben_pryor@intertec.com