Robert Zubrin's Unethical Energy Victory

By: Shawn Alli
Posted: June 7, 2013

 

Robert Zubrin's 2007 book, Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil, is a mediocre, long winded book that makes a few good points. I can't even claim that Zubrin's intention to revolutionize the world through alcohol fuels is a good one because he advocates destroying the Muslim world. For the record, I'm not a religious person by no means and criticize all organized religions as fear-based methods of control.

 

Before getting to the table of contents, let alone the introduction, the front flap of the book is problematic. In the front flap Zubrin says:

As long as America keeps running on gas, we will be paying for our own destruction.

 

By itself, this claim isn't problematic; but when you study Zubrin's work as a whole, it definitely is. Robert Zubrin is best known for his role as a strong advocate for the exploration of Mars through manned human missions. There's nothing wrong with that as well. Our ability to utilize and advance our interests in outer space is a reflection of humanity's will to grow and understand everything in the universe.

 

But in pushing for a human Mars mission, Zubrin firmly states in other books and documentaries that chemical propulsion is the best means possible. Propulsion through chemical fuels such as hydrocarbons or any liquid fuel is almost 200 years old with the advent of the internal combustion engine in the 1820s.

 

The fact that Zubrin decries the use of oil in this book, yet believes chemical propulsion is the best way to get to Mars, is contradictory.

 

On p. 107 Zubrin says:

I mention this because many in the environmental community today tend to be reactively suspicious, or even axiomatically hostile, to new technologies.

 

He's referring to the reaction of methanol flex-fuel vehicles. But again this is contradictory because Zubrin is against the use of VASIMR engines, an electromagnetic propulsion system developed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. Diaz advocates this technology for outer space and deep space travel, with the possibility of a one way trip to Mars taking no longer than 2 months. That definitely beats the 7-8 months of cosmic radiation the astronauts would face using chemical propulsion.

 

A scheduled test of the VASIMR engine is set for 2015. If it fails...there's no harm done. Creating technology to go beyond the current limits doesn't always work but at least individuals are striving for something better than outdated technology. For Zubrin to dismiss VASIMR technology outright is an insult to scientific advancement; but more importantly disingenuous while advocating for the end of oil in Energy Victory.

 

By the end of the book, you'll be endowed with the notion that the Saudi government and Islam is the single greatest evil on the planet.

 

Yes, the Saudi government is not a democratic one ensuring the rights of its people; but this is different than other Middle Eastern regimes...how? This is worse than the US government spying on its citizens...how? This is worse than justifying the war on terror by eroding constitutional rights...how? This is worse than the pretense of democracy under the shadow of corporatocracy...how? Yes, there are radical forms of Islam, just as there are radical forms of Christianity.

 

The idea that nuclear war will break out because the Saudi government funds terrorist organizations through US oil funds is too extreme. This is a lot of fear mongering and callous blame, not the standard for an intellectual like Zubrin. And a small but important note is that Zubrin believes the US government is negligent to fund terrorist organizations by paying OPEC for its oil, or paying "tribute" to them.

 

The problem with this type of thinking is that it sees America's foreign policy as accidental or naive, when really it's intentional. You can't justify the erosion of constitutional rights in the US if you don't have an enemy.

 

Zubrin makes the usual argument that the oil economy continues because we're dependent on the Middle East for oil. This is completely false. If tomorrow, the Saudi government cut off the US from all oil exports forever, that will be the day the keystone pipeline goes through and every other pipeline.

 

And to think that the small nation of Saudi Arabia is holding the world economy by the balls is pure fiction. If the US, Russia or China took control of the oil fields by force, all forms of resistance would fall to the technological superiority of the US, Russian or Chinese military.

 

Zubrin says that the modern economy can't be sustained without liquid fuels (be it oil, ethanol or methanol). While it's true the modern economy is heavily dependent on liquid fuels, the idea that it's impossible to change is nonsense. If nations and individuals in the 1780s think this way there's no possibility of the industrial revolution happening because there's a lack of infrastructure.

 

It's because of new visions and ideologies from individuals that the industrial revolution takes place. Of course there's no infrastructure for new technology in the late 18th century, that's why it has to be built from the ground up.

 

Zubrin is forever locked into the liquid fuel paradigm and can't break free of it to see a world run on electricity without liquid fuels (except nuclear, which he supports). A simple example of breaking free of this status quo paradigm is the watch. The lightweight battery of a wristwatch can last over 25 years or the entire lifetime of an individual. You mean to tell me this concept can't be applied to cars and airplanes? It can, but there's no profit in it.

 

Do you think Apple or Samsung can't create cell phones, mobile devices and electronic readers that can last a lifetime without recharging?

 

They can, but they won't. There's no profit in it.

 

An example is a car from the '30s and '40s built to last an owner's lifetime. There are even vehicles from the 1880s and early 1900s that are still running today. This represents a genuine intention to provide the best means of transportation through quality engineering.

 

But in 2013 you're lucky if you get 5 years out of a car without heavy maintenance. These vehicles aren't about quality, it's about getting away with as much as you can without consumers realizing it or changing their actions because of it.

 

Flex-fuel vehicles are a great idea with Brazil being the poster child followed by Sweden. But aren't we just shifting the power control from oil producers to biomass producers. Sure, people can make their own fuel, which gives them greater energy independence, but large biomass producers that supply gas stations will create the usual propaganda - that their biomass is made to a higher standard.

 

While Zubrin maintains that oil is quite abundant and not close to running out for centuries, like most reputable authors, he refuses to take the abiotic leap. It's quite understandable though. The abiotic theory is not popular in a capitalistic "free market" economy, nor is it helpful to an esteemed author with much to lose.

 

One notable plus for Energy Victory is about using trash (plastics, wrappers, foliage, leaves, Styrofoam, packaging material etc...) to make methanol. And this biomass solution is radical from the current notion of dumping trash into landfills, but capable of revolutionizing fuel substitutes and solving the social problem of garbage. And right behind this idea is the runner up, cellulosic ethanol technology (using straw, hay, sticks, grass or any foliage to make ethanol). Cellulosic ethanol at an affordable rate looks like a great innovation.

 

Near the end of Energy Victory Zubrin spends more than 20 pages on the history of WWI & WWII in regards to oil superiority and strategy. Yet two lines are more than enough to sum it up. "If you want to win a war, attack the enemy's fuel supply, make your own oil, and have about a decade's worth on hand and in the vault when you begin."

 

Unethically, Zubrin suggests bombing Iran's oil supply to cut off the income to support their nuclear program. He says:

The only thing barring us from such a course of action is the consequence to the global economy of the loss of Iran's oil.

 

This is the problem with strategists who have revolutionary vision, the ethics goes right out the window, similar to Hitler's actions. Such an action is capable of igniting WWIII with Iran and uniting the entire Arab world against the US. The ethics of dropping bombs, killing innocent bystanders and creating a stronger generation of hatred in the world are unimportant to Zubrin. This idea is blatantly unintelligent.

 

Worse, Zubrin goes off to defend Christianity as righteous and having a conscience, and Muslims as slaves to Allah. Christianity vs. Islam. US vs. Arab Muslims. Good vs. Evil. Statements like:

As the primary financiers of the global promotion of Islamofascism, the Saudis absolutely must be broken. If that is not done, the fire will continue to spread out of control...

 

...are truly deplorable for a man of such brilliance.

 

If zero is a real star rating, this book definitely deserves it. But to be fair, Zubrin does advocate a revolution through ethanol and methanol. Zubrin's Energy Victory gets 2 stars out of 5, a grade of E, close to a passing D.