When will we face another energy crisis, and how will we cope with it?

This question (or pair of questions) was on everyone's lips in the 1970s, following the oil shortage and lines at gas stations. It stimulated a lot of good thinking and good work on alternative energy sources, renewable energy sources, and energy efficiency. Although this question is still asked by many knowledgeable and concerned people, it has disappeared from the public's radar screen (or, better, television screen). Even the recent escalation of fuel prices and the electricity shortage in California have not lent urgency to thinking ahead about energy.

But we should be asking, we should be worrying, and we should be planning. A real energy crisis is closer now than it was when the question had high currency. The energy-crisis question is only part of a larger question: How is humankind going to deal in the long term with its impact on the physical world we inhabit (of which the exhaustion of fossil fuels is only a part)? Another way to phrase the larger question: Are we going to manage more or less gracefully a transition to a sustainable world, or will eventual sustainability be what's left, willy nilly, after the chaos of unplanned, unanticipated change?

Science will provide no miracles (as the Wall Street Journal, in its justification of inaction, would have us believe), but science can do a lot to ameliorate the dislocations that this century will bring. We need to encourage our public figures to lift their eyes beyond the two-, four-, and six-year time horizons of their jobs.

KENNETH FORD is a retired physicist who teaches at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with John Wheeler, of Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics.