Sitting down and just talking with really smart people can be a terrible disappointment. On the other hand, sometimes the really smart people surprise you with down to earth, sensible, insightful and carefully reasoned commentary. I found one.

There is a dichotomy between being educated and having common sense. Education, as practiced in the U.S. often backfires leaving common sense wafting off sadly with the wind while the assertions of higher education drive to domination or worse. That leaves the widely informed, the generally knowledgeable and sensible and simple with a sense of self-doubt. This is unfair to start and fallacious over time. No amount of strident expertise can overcome the facts, nor overwhelm the need to demonstrate and replicate hypotheses into sound theory. But the bluster, with status from degrees granted or acclaims of awards and such gets seemingly worse by the year.

That’s when the sensible, softly spoken reasoning that combines the common sense to the depth of knowledge and know-how from serious study can offer something more than new, but insightful and adds to the base of common sense. That merits attention and serious consideration by all of us.

James L. Sweeney, PhD

Meet James L. Sweeney, PhD. Professor of Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The guy has a resume that compels a certain concentration, as it runs across a surprising breadth of involvement way beyond academia. But to know someone requires a personal encounter of some kind, and I was blessed to talk with him after the Newsweek-Chevron-Stanford panel discussion the week before last that the American Petroleum Institute arranged and saw to it that I was there. I mostly listened. Admittedly, I wasn’t alone with Doctor Sweeney, and there was a wealth of other questioners and conversation making so jumping in was hardly necessary. Maria Surma Manka and Tim Hurst were every bit as curious as myself and youthful enough to charge right in.

Doctor Sweeney offered those thoughts while closing the panel discussion. What stands out is the efficiency of reducing oil and coal product demands by 10%. That doesn’t sound like much, but the comparison made makes it clear that 10% savings of oil and coal are very substantial numbers. OK, he is being politically correct on some things like ethanol and climate change but the point, the thing we need to take home, is the need to become more efficient in our energized work. Those choices and for quite a while to come are the most significant things each energy and fuel buyer must consider if one is to make progress for their own self interest and for the interests of others.

Fuel and energy markets are currently in close balance. What that means is – just what we see in prices today – any little bump bangs the prices hard. To get a weightier supply side demand has to drop or more supply gets to market. The supply growth can’t come from the free or developed world and it just won’t, so far, come from the OPEC or Axis of Oil countries. That leaves it to each of us to cut back, get more efficient, and find develop alternatives.

During the dinner party, Doctor Sweeney offered the notion that there isn’t any silver bullet to fix the problem. What is needed is silver birdshot. Birdshot is the really small pellets in a shotgun shell or more commonly in 22 caliber or other ammunition for birds, snakes and such. The metaphor is that “the one” bullet isn’t there, but there already lots of small things that run from home insulation improvements, on to tire pressures and tune-ups, clean filters and a long list of things that can reduce the energy and fuel needed. Every little bit is just a little pellet, but added together can make a huge difference or a dead snake.

Which is not to say that time won’t form some silver bullets. There is a lot going on, but with oil, coal, and natural gas way up in price, something has to be done by each of us for our own and our family’s sake.

Maria summed it up well quoting Doctor Sweeney,

“There’s no silver bullet solution to the energy problem. There’s not even silver buckshot. We should be thinking in terms of silver birdshot!”

Then Maria says, “In other words, getting these technologies to market and scaling them up to commercial use should be the critical focus. It’s great if there’s one manufacturer out there making an efficient solar power system, but that system then needs to be on every home in American to really make a difference. And it’s got to make economic sense for the homeowner to want to put the system on their house.”

Young and the old. That’s what a little matured education leavened with common sense can do for the youth.

On the other hand . . . coming in a contrasting post.


1 Comment so far

  1. A Very Bright Guy With Some Sense | New Energy and Fuel on March 24, 2009 11:18 PM

    […] get noticed. Especially those that demonstrate they have some sense, you know like common sense. Dr. James Sweeney at Stanford comes to mind. Now we’ll add Professor Richard A. Muller at UC Berkeley. I haven’t met him as I have Sweeney, […]

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