by Robert Zubrin
September 6th, 2008
The basic thesis that Mr. Zubin presents is that the US government should immediately mandate that all cars sold in the USA be flex-fuel vehicles. These are vehicles equipped with fuel systems capable of handling gasoline, ethanol, or methanol, or any combination of the above. Modern computerized ignition and fuel injection systems make such a modification fairly cheap to implement. This change would open up the market for domestic ethanol and methanol production, which would rise to meet the demand and, because it is cheaper than gasoline, would finally liberate us from our dependence on Middle East oil.
The author is certainly enthusiastic but his book is deeply flawed. The author is an aerospace engineer with a doctorate in nuclear engineering, and he certainly understands the engineering angles clearly. But he has problems with just about everything else. He wrote a chapter on the military history of oil -- a bad mistake. He's obviously not well versed in military history. He appears to have slapped together some quick research to support his thesis. Although there's nothing terribly mistaken in the chapter, it bristles with so many minor errors that it undermines his credibility. He really didn't need this chapter anyway; it struck me as gratuitous material tossed in to demonstrate intellectual breadth -- when in fact it demonstrated the opposite to me.
He does not provide an estimate of the amount of farmland that would have to be dedicated to fuel production in order to provide enough fuel to permit us to stop importing oil. I have seen a few estimates, and they are staggering -- the most pessimistic estimates suggest that we'd have to dedicate much of our current farmland to fuel production to grow that much fuel. These estimates depend on a lot of assumptions: energy costs of fertilizer, transportation, processing, and so forth. Mr. Zubrin airily dismisses such concerns with the observation that the technology works. Yes, it works -- but how much will it cost to make that much fuel? How much will our food prices rise if we dedicate that much land to growing fuel? Mr. Zubrin makes no effort to answer these bottom-line questions.
But the most discrediting aspect of this book is its Islamoparanoia. Mr. Zubrin is convinced that Muslims are the spawn of the devil, subhuman monsters intent on rapine and bloodshed. His wild rants on this subject, which cover a goodly amount of space, are embarrassing, and they destroy any confidence a fair-minded reader would have in his judgement. What's sad is that his basic point -- that the USA must end its dependence on foreign oil -- is absolutely right. But he soils that point with his bigoted ravings.
My overall assessment: this is a seriously flawed book that has a bit of good information in it, but you have to put up with a lot of nonsense, ignore the minor bloopers, and follow up with your own research to get the full benefits of this book.