Dealing with Change

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Science  04 Apr 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5616, pp. 17
DOI: 10.1126/science.300.5616.17

Each generation of humans is confronted with new challenges and new opportunities—some that affect our life-styles and even our continued existence. Many of these are fundamentally scientific or technological at their core, for example, dramatic improvements over the past century in health and various welfare indicators for people in developed countries. These include the ability to control major sources of infectious disease—leading to an increase of about 30 years in life expectancy. Meanwhile, the creation of technologies to exploit fossil energy resources made possible new conveniences: abundant food, clean water, light by night, and warmth in winter.

But these successes have spawned a generation of new problems. They are, in an important way, the wages of success—the challenges of our modernity. Some of them are common to the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, including much of Europe and Japan. Others especially affect the United States. Owing to its spectacular economic development in the second half of the 20th century, the U.S.A. now has a large per capita Gross Domestic Product. The life-styles associated with affluence have led to a nationwide epidemic of obesity [see Science 299, 845–860 (7 February 2003)].

Other problems have arisen from our extraordinary development. One is dependence on fossil fuels. As a result, two major problems will affect people in the United States: a huge international trade deficit and the likelihood of attenuated supplies of energy derived from petroleum. Production of oil in the United States peaked about 30 years ago. Now about 60% of the supplies are imported. The cost of that oil is one of the factors in an increasing deficit.

In 1986, the imbalance of trade was small. But in 2002, the annual U.S. international deficit in trade of goods and services had risen to $435 billion. Data on foreign trade from the U.S. Department of Commerce are available monthly on the Internet on several hundred items, including imports and exports of computers and other high-technology items. These data show that the United States has lost its former competitive edge in high-technology. During the three years 2000–2002, the contribution of trade in goods and services to the national debt totaled $1,172 billion.

Currently, the U.S. government is fostering a huge federal deficit which, together with the trade deficit, is unlikely to inspire confidence in the future value of the dollar. An indication of an adverse attitude is already visible in the recent strength of the Euro versus the dollar.

An ominous development has been the great increase in net imports from East Asia, including China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. These countries have been increasingly competitive in both high- and low-technology items. In 2002, their favorable balance of trade with the United States amounted to about $200 billion. China had the largest balance ($103 billion) in 2002; Japan was next with $70 billion. In 1986, China enjoyed a surplus in trade with the United States of $1.665 billion/year. At that time, China exported 500,000 barrels of oil/day. In 2002, the Chinese competed with the United States for imports of oil. It imported 1,300,000 barrels of oil/day. The Chinese economy continues to grow rapidly. China is emphasizing the training and retaining of far more engineers than the United States does. In the future, will China or the United States be able to obtain and pay for their imported oil?

Petroleum is a key raw material and energy source in many chemical plants. The international competitive position of the United States in chemicals has deteriorated. U.S. companies have established plants in other countries including those of East Asia.

The United States has large resources of coal that now supply the energy for more than half of its electricity. Nuclear energy furnishes another 20%. In principle, future U.S. needs for liquid fuels and electricity could be met. However, environmental considerations have stopped construction of nuclear energy plants, and the greenhouse effect will cause added future problems for the use of coal. Construction and testing of new electrical generating plants cannot be achieved quickly. For nuclear energy, 6 to 10 years must elapse.

The federal government of the United States has not responded appropriately to new and emerging realities. The successful and increased foreign competition in high-technology items marks the country as a deteriorating power. The federal government behaves as if it is unaware of the enormous future problems and the need to begin to take constructive actions. Expanded initiatives are long overdue.

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