Zakaria: How to Achieve Energy Independence

Energy independence sounds like such a great idea. If only we could be free … of what, exactly? The single biggest energy exporter to the U.S. is Canada. And even the petrostates we don't like have to sell us oil at whatever price the market sets. We buy lots from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. He denounces us, we denounce him, but we happily do business together. After all, what else is he going to do with his oil, drink it?

One could make a broader argument: the United States should wean itself off oil in order to diminish its crucial importance in the world of energy. That would make states like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and Venezuela less powerful—and less able to fund militias and terrorist groups. This is a worthwhile goal, but let's be realistic. Given the demands for energy over the next few decades, oil is going to be a key part of the mix, which means that these countries will have plenty of cash. After all, Saudi Arabia was funding extremist Islamic groups in the 1990s, when oil was $20 a barrel. The Saudis were budgeting for oil at $35 until a few years ago—and still swimming in money. I would love to see a world in which radical Islam runs out of money, but I think that we will probably have to struggle against these forces for a long time. There is no quick energy fix.

The real sense in which we should strive for energy independence is somewhat different—and far more ambitious. We need an energy policy that understands that the world is going to require much more energy in the future. The math is pretty simple. Today there are about 6.7 billion people on earth. By 2050 there will be more than 9 billion. To sustain these extra 2.3 billion people while still raising standards of living everywhere, we will need to consume about twice as much energy as we do today. So the debate about oil vs. natural gas vs. biofuels vs. alternative energy is wholly unrealistic. If we are going to sustain and support this kind of population and economic growth, we'll need everything.

The key is to free ourselves at every level of the energy chain. That means, first of all, finding sources of energy that are abundant, cheap and don't have hidden costs—environmental, social or military. (What do I mean by military? Well, if the Middle East produced only carrots, would we have fought the last two wars there? I don't think so. A large part of the American defense budget goes toward protecting our oil supplies.) How do we do that? By generating an enormous diversity in supply and having as many sources as possible be clean and green.

This part most of us understand, and the process of searching for new fuels and energy sources—solar, wind, geothermal—is already underway. But there's another aspect to energy independence that we also need to embrace. As we live and work, we consume resources—food, minerals—and energy, and produce massive amounts of waste. Then we have to spend more energy to deal with it. We are heaping computers in massive new landfills; many countries just burn all their waste, spewing fumes into the atmosphere. This is a cycle that has worked, so far, for 6.7 billion people, many of whom are still poor. But, as Tom Friedman argues eloquently in his call to arms, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," it's unlikely to work with 9 billion people, many of whom will be consuming and producing more and more.

The solution is to be smarter about how we grow. We can and should build smart grids, highways and better-insulated buildings; cultivate vastly higher-yielding crops; and produce less-costly steel. We can achieve much more economic growth—almost 30 to 40 percent more, by some estimates—while using the same amount of energy. This doesn't depend on some miracle technology we're praying for, simply the disciplined application of technologies that already exist. Greater efficiency will lead to a more sustainable model of growth.

The ultimate goal is well articulated by William McDonough in his book "Cradle to Cradle." As he explains it, recycling today just takes large products—computers—and turns them into pieces of steel and plastic, and eventually those pieces get thrown into landfills. But we now know how to make things so that nothing is wasted—every component is either biodegradable or totally recyclable. Things go back to the earth or they go back into the manufacturing cycle.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. McDonough is an architect and has designed a plant for Ford that saves millions of dollars a year by purifying rainwater on the building's green roof instead of treating it in an expensive facility. He's built a factory for Steelcase corporation in Switzerland where the water coming out is as pure as the water going in. McDonough points out that 4.5 billion pounds of carpet get thrown away every year in the United States. If all that were reused as manufacturing inputs—which can easily be done with existing technologies that don't add costs—you would gain efficiency and sustainability.

Previous technological revolutions have been liberating. Think of the IT revolution. It created the freedom to use massive amounts of computing power in every aspect of life—from a microwave oven to an iPod. The problem with the energy revolution as it stands now is that we are essentially offering the same product—electricity, a hybrid car, a fancy new light bulb—at a higher cost. Sure, you can feel good about it. But technology revolutions are about raising efficiency, not expanding virtue. An energy revolution would produce a world in which we can all use lots of energy without worrying about its costs or consequences.

The search for a silver bullet for energy is wrong on many levels. The real revolution that must take place is one of attitudes and ideas. We have many of the technologies we need. If we put them to work and create systems that allow for all the growth we want without running out of energy or harming the earth, we will have achieved true energy independence.