THE BOTTOMLESS WELL: THE TWILIGHT OF FUEL, THE VIRTUE OF WASTE, AND WHY WE WILL NEVER RUN OUT OF ENERGY
By Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills
Basic, $26, 214 pages
REVIEWED BY DOUG BANDOW
We seem to be forever living in an energy crisis. A quarter century ago the U.S. suffered through gas lines, threats of rationing, and speeches on malaise. Today Congress struggles to pass an inefficient, pork-filled bill in the name of helping America become energy independent.
It’s all nonsense. Even as the United States and the industrialized world use vast quantities of oil every year, economically recoverable petroleum reserves worldwide increase. Changing economics and technology have put ever more natural reserves into people’s reach.
Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, of the Manhattan Institute and Digital Power Capital, respectively, have produced a wonderful book, which confounds the conventional wisdom of limits and should put virtually every government energy program out of business.
It is widely believed that people should use less energy. Save money, protect the planet, ensure plenty for our descendents. Paul Ehrlich, the biologist who so spectacularly erred in predicting population disaster, once declared that “cheap abundant energy…would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.”
Actually, say Mr. Huber and Mr. Mills: “More energy consumption isn’t worse, it’s better. The idiot children are right.”
The authors start by redefining the very concept of energy. They argue that the quantity of the supplies is almost irrelevant: Energy supplies are unlimited; it is energetic energy 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. The more energy we seize and use, the more adept we become at finding and seizing still more.
Which means we should rethink demand. The largest expenditure of energy is to “extract, refine, process, and purify energy itself,” the authors report. Use more energy, make more energy.
It’s a provocative but persuasive thesis. The proverbial bugaboo of “running out of oil” simply won’t happen. Our ultimate energy supply is determined less by the amount of the resource and more by our ability to transform it. Note Mr. Huber and Mr. Mills: “What is scarce is not raw energy but the drive and the logic that is able to locate, purify, and channel it to our own ends.”
People exhibit such a voracious capacity to use energy. The authors point to history, in which more efficient energy production and consumption have always led to increased demand. Innovation has been constant, as ever more energy has been used to do ever more things. This process continues in the computer age. It’s hard to argue with the authors’ conclusion that “improving computing efficiency is not likely to reduce demand for power overall.
Mr. Huber and Mr. Mills push further, however, in declaring themselves in favor of waste. For, they contend, “it is by throwing energy overboard that we maintain and increase the order of our existence.”
It’s not waste as we commonly understand it. But it helps explain why energy consumption is likely to keep increasing. It’s not that we have a surplus of “bad engineering,” as the authors put it. Rather, we keep wanting to do new and more complex tasks. Doing so means using more energy, turning “massive amounts of low-grade energy” into “relatively tiny amounts of high-grade power.”
All of this leads to what Mr. Huber and Mr. Mills term “the paradox of efficiency.” They predict that “Still more efficiency lies ahead,” but still more increases in demand will occur. Energy efficiency typically means operating faster: “Efficient engines generally run fast, get a lot done fast, and burn fuel fast. Inefficient engines are inefficient because they run slowly, and they run slowly because nobody has yet figured out a faster — and thus more efficient — design.”
This insight explains why government energy policy is so foolish and counterproductive. For decades the government demanded that we drive slower and thus more efficiently. Yes, you can go the same distance on less fuel, but you do so more slowly. And, write the authors, “‘Efficiency’ is supposed to save fuel by doing the same job better; it is always possible to save fuel by doing less of a job, worse.”
“The Bottomless Well” is not primarily about current controversies. But it notes how technological development provides the opportunity for meeting such potential environmental challenges as global warming, if pessimistic forecasts prove to be true. For instance, Mr. Huber and Mr. Mills consider the “carbon sink” created by America’s landscape, which is greener today than it was a century ago.
The authors foresee a bountiful future, one in which we need no official “energy policy” other than one of hands off. No government subsidies, no forced conservation, no political manipulation of supply and demand. Just leave smart human beings alone to create, innovate, and transform their world.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.