06/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Know Nothings, the Decline of America as a World Power and a Historical Precedent

There seem to be a large number of Americans who know nothing about the future of energy conservation and the existence of global warming, while the Chinese, the Russians and the Norwegians take them as givens and plan to take advantage of them and utilize them in order to improve their economies and extend their world influence.

Most of us, including the Wall Street Journal, have recognized that "China's vast market and economics of scale are bringing down the cost of solar and wind energy, as well as other environmentally friendly technologies such as electric car batteries... China is reshaping two of the biggest green technologies in use already -- wind and solar power." Tom Friedman, of the New York Times, quotes a spokesman for an American solar panel company, "Roughly 50 percent of the solar panels in the world were made in China last year". Entrepreneur John Doerr of Kliner Perkins recognize that we are in a race to dominate the clean energy market and says, "my conclusion is that we are barely in the race...My conclusion is China is winning." Meanwhile, he believes "China's growth in renewables is outstanding."

Just as the know nothings fail to see the economic opportunities created by the need to control carbon emissions in the United States, their failure to admit the possibility of global warming blinds them to the economic advantages global warming might provide.

On Tuesday the rest of us got a wakeup call: After 40 years of wrangling, the Russians and Norwegians reached agreement dividing the Barents Sea and part of the Arctic Ocean, so that each may begin prospecting for oil and natural gas in the region as the polar icecap melts. According to the New York Times, Willy Ostreng, the chairman of Norway's Ocean Futures research institute states that "Both parties believe the disputed area contains rich deposits of mineral resources, in particular oil and gas...But they don't know for sure. And when you don't know for sure you act as if the area is extremely rich, it is not easy to give up strategic resources."

Both sides are prepared to spend large sums of money on exploring the area, even though its full development depends on the shriveling of the polar ice cap due to global warming. The Russians and Norwegians are betting their money on the belief that global warming is for real. The Norwegians are already assisting Gazprom, the Russian state owned gas company, in developing a "large offshore field called Shtokman far out at sea on the Russia side" of the dividing line. American know nothings deny the existence of global warming. Europeans are betting on it.

It is very hard to write about this issue without sounding like a, God forbid, "elitist," but the triumph of ignorance over knowledge is one of the defining marks of a dying culture. But there is a historical precedent for what happens when a civilization decides not to take advantage of a new source of energy:

In 1750, Chinese and Western European economies were roughly at the same level, trading with each other on equal terms, with western countries paying in silver for Chinese silks and cotton. But then the west, England in particular, turned from wood to coal while the Chinese, for geographic and political reasons, failed to adapt to fossil fuels, the new energy source.
It took almost 250 years of political instability, a semi-colonial occupation, a Japanese invasion and a Communist Revolution before China could once again compete on equal footing with the Western, Japanese and Korean economies. Now, thanks to the know nothings, they have pulled ahead of us and we are playing catch-up.

It's taken only ten years for the Norwegians and the Russians to advantage of global warming by seeking out energy reserves under the northern oceans.

Wednesday, we took a small step forward when the Department of the Interior, over the protests of historical preservationists, issued a federal permit allowing the construction the nation's first offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. And, as for the Norwegians and Russians, we are still the only nation with a permanent station on Antarctica, and maybe we will strike oil there.

Still, if we continue to ignore both air pollution produced by inferior energy technologies and the reality of global warming, we risk the livelihoods of our children and the lives of our grandchildren.