We’ll never run out of energy

Converging in August 2007 were a feisty mood, controversial book, and blank screen where a column needed to be, with this result:

How’s that for provocative? Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills are pleased to tell you why they think so in “The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.” It’s a book that even large-scale thinker Bill Gates said is the only one “…I’ve ever seen that really explains energy.” In it, Huber and Mills demolish a catalog of shibboleths with “…seven great energy heresies we propound in this book.” They are:

• The cost of energy as we use it has less and less to do with the cost of fuel.

• “Waste” is virtuous.

• The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume.

• The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging decisively back toward the United States.

• Human demand for energy is insatiable.

• The raw fuels are not running out.

  • America’s relentless pursuit of high-grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, it restores order.

They’re pretty hard on most of the energy literature generated since the landmark crises of 1973 (the first oil embargo) and 1979 (Three Mile Island). “They are all wrong, except where they are not even good enough to be wrong, which many of them aren’t, most of the time,” the authors say. “The best that can be said in their defense is that it is easy to be wrong when writing about energy.” They cite Richard Feynman, who observed, “Energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I mean by that is it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly, using the energy idea.” The authors pile on: “Most of what most people think they know about energy is so very wrong that their convictions, heartfelt though they may be, lie beyond logical contradiction or refutation.”

It’s a safe bet that few people with any knowledge of the subject would have said to the great physicist directly, “Feynman, you’re a nitwit,” so maybe there’s something in what he and the authors are on to.

“What most of us think about energy supply is wrong,” the authors say. “Energy supplies are unlimited; it is energetic order that’s scarce, and the order in energy that’s expensive. Energy supplies are determined mainly by how cleverly we’re able to impose logic and order on the mountains and catacombs of energy that surround and envelop us.”

You can guess their opinions of efforts to regulate energy consumption. They call proponents of such efforts “Lethargists” and quote professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich, who once said, “Giving society cheap abundant energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

An opposing camp, the “Cornucopians,” proposes energy efficiency as a path to less energy use. Although the authors cheerfully support energy efficiency, they say the Cornucopians are wrong in a “spectacularly self-defeating way — energy efficiency leads to more consumption, not less…”

Huber and Mills have much more to say (and numerous statistics to present) in an interesting and entertaining read that will make you think hard about your arguments no matter what side of the debate you are on.

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