I spend some time hunting for new column ideas on the conference circuit. When you are on that circuit, you are perpetually under the illusion that you are hearing from the exciting, fresh people who are about to change history.
You're hearing from, say, the brilliant technology entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who is starting a paradigm-shifting electric car company. You're hearing from some wizard with a new solar-panel technology, or some new social-networking entrepreneur.
My main impression over the past five years is that the conference circuit capitalists who give fantastic presentations have turned out to be marginal to history while the people who are too boring and unfashionable to get invited to the conferences in the first place have actually changed the world under our noses.
Shai Agassi's company, Better Place, for example, has generated glowing magazine profiles, but it has managed to lose more than $500 million while selling astoundingly few cars. He stepped down as the chief executive, and his replacement lasted only a few months. It turns out that the things that are sexy to politicians and paradigm-shifting to conference audiences are not necessarily attractive to consumers.
Meanwhile, the anonymous drudges at American farming corporations are exporting $135 billion worth of products every year and transforming the American Midwest. The unfashionable executives at petrochemical companies have been uprooting plants from places like Chile, relocating them to places like Louisiana and transforming economic prospects in the Southeast. Most important of all, the boring old oil and gas engineers have transformed the global balance of power.
By 2020, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.S. has already overtaken Russia as the world's leading gas producer. Fuel has become America's largest export item. Within five years, according to a study by Citigroup, North America could be energy independent. “OPEC will find it challenging to survive another 60 years, let alone another decade,” Edward Morse, Citigroup's researcher, told CNBC.
All of this was accomplished by people who exist largely beyond the reach of the lavalier-mike circuit.
Joel Kotkin identified America's epicenters of economic dynamism in a study for the Manhattan Institute. It is like a giant arc of unfashionableness. You start at the Dakotas where unemployment rates are at microscopic levels. You drop straight down through the energy belts of the Great Plains until you hit Texas. Occasionally, you turn left to touch the spots where fertilizer output and other manufacturing plants are on the rebound, like the Third Coast areas in Louisiana, Mississippi and Northern Florida.
Vanity Fair still ranks the tech and media moguls and calls it The New Establishment, but, as Kotkin notes, the big winners in the current economy are the “Material Boys,” the people who grow grain, drill for fuel and lay pipeline. The growing parts of the world, meanwhile, are often the commodity belts, resource-rich places with good rule of law like Canada, Norway and Australia.
Daniel Yergin, an energy guru, noted in congressional testimony last month that the revolution in oil and gas extraction has led to 1.7 million new jobs in the United States alone, a number that could rise to 3 million by 2020. The shale revolution added $62 billion to federal revenues in 2012. At the same time, carbon-dioxide emissions are down 13 percent since 2007, as gas is used instead of coal to generate electricity.
Most of us have grown up in a world in which we assumed that energy was scarce, or even running out. We could now be entering a world of relatively cheap energy abundance.
Most of us have grown up in a world in which oil states in the Middle East could throw their weight around because of their grip on the economy's life source. But the power of petro-states is on the wane. Yergin argues that the oil sanctions against Iran may not have been sustainable if not for the new alternate sources of supply.
We've grown accustomed to despotic regimes in Russia and Venezuela that live off oil and gas wealth. But those regimes are facing hard times, too. Gazprom is already offering roughly 10 percent discounts on existing contracts. The Nigerians and Venezuelans may find it hard to compete. People in China and elsewhere are wondering if the fracking revolution means that the 21st century will be another North American century, just like the last one.
What are the names of the people who are leading this shift? Who is the Steve Jobs of shale? Magazine covers don't provide the answers. Whoever they are, they don't seem hungry for celebrity or good with the splashy project launch. They are strong economically, but they are culturally off the map.
This revolution will not be plenaried.