A Prophet Without Honor in Congress

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Roscoe Bartlett

I was supposed to go somewhere yesterday afternoon when I turned on C-Span and saw a somewhat stooped old guy on the House floor talking about the end of oil supplies, whipping out one chart after another. The guy was obviously too scientific to be a politician. He looked and sounded like a cross between Mr. Wizard and Johnny Appleseed, as he explained that the depletion of oil will cause great economic and possibly civic disruption unless we get on the stick now.

As I soon discovered, this prophetic figure is Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who turns 80 in two weeks.

His hour-long speech is called “Peak Oil,” and he ssays he will give it or a variant again and again till his fellow congressmen listen. Bartlett’s ease with science reflects the fact that he is a former professor of physiology, with many patents in aeronautics. And he’s a farmer; the Almanac of American Politics says he still milks his own goats.

Bartlett’s message is that the discovery of oil was a giant windfall to humanity, transforming civilization over the last 150 years. Ignoring its fast depletion is insane. He puts up a picture of Easter Island. Its great art works were fostered by the cutting down of giant trees. Then they chopped down the last tree, and the people starved to death. “You cannot continue to mine a nonrenewable resource.”

He is an optimist; he thinks that Americans can rise to this challenge with the same urgency that they responded to World War II. Some of his facts: Thanks to brownouts and education, Californians use 65 percent of the electricity that other Americans do, per capita. We have continually deluded ourselves about the fact that oil production has peaked—a year ago, for instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that oil prices would soon reach $45-$57 a barrel and stay there for several years! At least a dozen countries use less oil than we do and their people feel better than our people do about their station in life (yes, he has statistics). We can get there too.

Bartlett is becoming a folk hero, with wide attention in the energy community. “Bartlett’s talks are amazing,” says Bart Anderson, co-editor of the Energy Bulletin in Palo Alto, which along with the the congressman and many geologists and environmentalists, subscribes to the theory of “peak oil” (the party’s over). Why isn’t Bartlett on the nightly news and the front pages?