By Daniel Rigney
In recent years the energy industry (and the plume of discourse that rises from it) has generated a seemingly inexhaustible supply of metaphors that take the form “X is the Saudi Arabia of Y.” (Common example: “The United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” which may well be true, figuratively speaking.)
I’m having trouble keeping my Saudi Arabia analogies straight lately, so I’ve decided to compile a little glossary of them to help us think about our potential energy future, or “mix” of futures.
To construct the glossary, I’ve searched and found exact matches of the phrase “the saudi arabia of.” Here’s what I found today. (Check my work. Confirmation is right at your fingertips.)
[Open disclosure: I have a positive bias toward energy sources that are endlessly renewable, sustainable, decentralized and ultimately gridless. Forgive me, but I have a sentimental attachment to future generations.]
For decades we’ve heard that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. (I sure hope it’s “clean coal” and not that old kind that turns lungs black.)
We’ve also heard, from sources in the North American oil industry, that the United States, Canada and Mexico are the Saudi Arabia of oil, if we’ll only drill-baby-drill for it.
Meanwhile we’re learning that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, and that gas may help ease the necessary transition from oil to renewables, provided we develop it in ways that make both economic and ecological sense.
This approach to kicking our oil addiction has support in the Obama administration, and is being actively promoted in T. Boone Pickens’ plan to invest in natural gas as a transition fuel. Gas is a dirty but nonetheless relatively cleaner alternative to petroleum on the path toward more renewable and less carbon-dioxic energy sources.
Several more Arabian analogies turn up in my search:
The Southern California desert is the Saudi Arabia of green power (solar, wind, biofuel, and geothermal energy), as are many other regions around the globe.
Brazil and subtropical regions of Africa and India are the Saudi Arabias of biofuel. (See especially the plant jatropha. I wonder, though, who will own the seeds. Monsanto?)
The Great Plains from Canada to West Texas are the Saudi Arabia of wind, as are New England from Maine to Rhode Island, and the North Sea.
Pioneering Iceland is a Saudi Arabia of geothermal energy.
Japan, however, is probably not the future Saudi Arabia of nuclear energy.
The abundance of energy Arabias leads us to this question: What is the "Saudi Arabia" of Saudi Arabia itself, when (and if) the world moves decisively toward renewable, economical, and environmentally sustainable energy alternatives? (I'm trying to be optimistic here.)One answer: Saudi Arabia may be a future "Saudi Arabia" of solar power, together with other sun-rich nations and regions: the Himalayas and the Andes (which literally have elevated levels of solar radiation), large regions of Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia, Greece, the southwestern United States (including California, Nevada, and Arizona), Florida, and Long Island. (Did you say Long Island?) These have all been named potential “Saudi Arabias” of solar energy.
Solar power is an energy solution on which inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk (conceivably our next Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs) is focusing his vision, brains and billions, just as T. Boone Pickens is betting big on natural gas and wind.
Any of these options (solar, wind, gas) would be preferable in the long run, or even the short run, to our continuing reliance on coal and oil.
I’m hoping solar energy has a bright future, provided that (as Ralph Nader used to say) oil companies don’t figure out a way to own the sun.
By the way, we're also learning, in our search of semantic space today, that …
Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism (according to Julian Assange).
Spain is the Saudi Arabia of olive oil.
New Zealand is the Saudi Arabia of milk.
Quebec is the Saudi Arabia of maple syrup.
Bolivia is the Saudi Arabia of obstruction (so-named for its opposition to international measures to create market incentives to prevent deforestation).
Meanwhile, the United States is known increasingly around the world as the Saudi Arabia of climate change denial, perhaps even in solar-investing Saudi Arabia itself.
Daniel Rigney is author of The Metaphorical Society and The Matthew Effect.
P.S.: I've just discovered (10/4/2012, 10 p.m.) that my recent satire of the "Saudi Arabia" cliche is already at least three years out of date. In a New York Times Green blog post, Kate Galbraith proposed a “Contest: Replace the ‘Saudi Arabia’ Trope." I'm hoping Ms. Galbraith's contest is still accepting entries. If I can come up with a better metaphorical mousetrap to capture the notion of an abundance of resources, I'll surely submit it. Does anyone else want to suggest a better catchphrase?