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Premature death: A cautionary energy tale

By Tom Randall
web posted February 25, 2002

A young woman who didn't care for my opinion that energy should be cheap and plentiful confronted me one night on a Chicago public television talk show.

Insisting that air pollution from burning fossil fuels was killing Americans and that higher taxes should be placed on these forms of energy to restrict their use, she said, "What does extra cost mean when lives are at stake?"

She was referring to studies supposedly showing the thousands of "premature" deaths caused by fine particulates and other pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels and the resulting need to produce cleaner electricity, regardless of cost. There have been many of these studies. They always leave one question unanswered: Premature to what?

When my parents were born, back when horses were the primary transportation devices and candles provided light, living into your early 50s was considered a gift from God. By the time I was born, you had a better-than-even shot at getting into your 60s. I remember wondering, as a kid, if I would see the 21st Century. Now we have pushed life expectancies to nearly 80 and are speculating about how long the human body is designed to last, perhaps 120 to 150 years.

Cheap, abundant energy has had a lot to do with our expanded life expectancy, just as it did with my survival of a heart attack 18 years ago.

High-octane gasoline got me from my remote home to a hospital within what cardiologists call the "Golden Hour," a key to surviving such events. The staff of the hospital - hospitals are real energy guzzlers - used yards of plastic tubing, wire, oxygen and costly electronics to save my life. All required great amounts of energy for their production and use. This was also true of the heart-lung machine that took over the job of pumping oxygenated blood during the bypass surgery.

Today, I eat a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables year 'round. When I was a kid, such luxuries were available only in the summer and fall. There simply wasn't the cheap, abundant energy needed to grow, process, refrigerate or freeze and transport fresh food year-round. Soon we will undoubtedly be using energy to irradiate our food to wipe out diseases such as botulism and salmonella, and our descendants will take this for granted.

Odds are that I will live another 20-some years in our energy-abundant society. If the young woman whom I met on television lived in the limited-energy society of the past, an energy-deprived society that would return should the policies she proposes be adopted, she, too, might expect to live just a bit over 20 years more. The difference: I would die in my 80s, she would in her 40s.

I urge this young lady and others who think cheap, abundant energy is unhealthy to give the matter another thought. The next time you roll out of bed, well rested because you didn't have get up in the middle of the night to throw a couple of logs on the fire... the next time you get out of your piping hot shower and grab the hair dryer.

The next time you polish off that breakfast of fresh juice, fruit, cereal and milk - or maybe it's just a hot latte as you drive to your air-conditioned workplace... give cheap, abundant energy and its contribution to health, happiness and physical well-being another thought.

Give it a thought as you send your e (as in electronic) -mail. Give cheap abundant energy a thought as you plan that next vacation to see family and friends... think about jet engines... aluminum airplanes... miles of concrete runways... the trip that will take mere hours instead of perilous days, weeks or even months.

God forbid that you should have to think about it as a pain grows in your chest.

Tom Randall is the Director of Environmental & Regulatory Affairs of the John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs of The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC. Comments may be sent to TRandall@nationalcenter.org.

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