Paul Ehrlich may not be a household name but this troubadour of doom greatly has influenced the Left. His book, The Population Bomb, predicted disastrous famines. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” he predicted. Not only did Ehrlich prove to be a Chicken Little about overpopulation, he also claimed in a 1975 newsletter published by the Federation of American Scientists that “giving society cheap abundant energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.” Surprisingly, Ehrlich’s thinking still influences many Americans but not everyone buys the nonsense or double-talk.
Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills are energy experts who take a different view. Their new book, The Bottomless Well: the Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, challenges Ehrlich’s thinking that has come to pervade much of American society. Huber, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, specializes in technology. He also holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT and a law degree from Harvard. Mills holds a BSc degree in physics from Queens University and was a consultant to the White House Science Office. They argue that our society thinks there is an energy “problem.” The authors see energy as a “solution” and thus inject fresh air and counter-conventional thinking into a debate dominated by buzzwords and slogans such as “energy efficiency” and “don’t be fuelish.”
Huber and Mills state, “Everything we know about ‘running out of energy’ isn’t just muddled and wrong; it’s the exact opposite of the truth. The more energy we capture and put to use, the more readily we will capture still more.” The authors advance seven “heresies” that are in direct juxtaposition to how our society has come to view energy. For example, “The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume.” The more efficient technology the more people will do at a faster pace, creating more demand for energy.
The authors also explain why the Federal Government raised Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and required that automobile manufactures build fuel-efficient vehicles to meet the new mileage standards. The reasoning by Congress and the regulators held that fuel-efficient vehicles reduce energy consumption.
Thirty years of experience with CAFE standards prove the opposite. Andrew Kleit, an Energy Economics professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote that the “CAFE standard increases affect only new vehicles and do nothing to reduce driving. In fact, they tend to encourage increased driving as costs per mile driven decline.” (CAFE standards, which require downsizing and down-weighting of cars, have become the norm. But for the last three decades it has been known that heavier vehicles inflict damage on the lighter, presumably more energy-efficient models.) Of course, materials are being developed that are lighter weight and strong enough to prevent serious accidents.
To “waste” energy horrifies many people, but not Huber and Mills, who argue, “It is only by throwing most of the energy away that we can put what’s left to productive use.” Converting energy into fuel is compared to a Ponzi scheme in which useless energy is discarded while higher grade energy is refined and converted into power.
At the turn of the 20th Century consumers deemed the incandescent lamp to be valuable because it provided heat and light, and offered more light than a candle or gas lamp. Similarly, a pickup truck requires more gallons of gas than a car but conserves more energy when transporting heavy tools and construction equipment. Bear in mind that only 2% of the oil extracted from beneath the ocean will be developed to propel your pickup. On the other hand, it sure beats using a horse and wagon.
The authors (acknowledging the work of 19th Century French engineer Sadi Carnot) hold “[t]o structure, organize, move and increase order – of anything, anywhere – you have to add high grade energy at one end, and then discard some fraction of it in the form of low-grade heat at the other.” The benefits are enormous and have proven true when placing a log on a fire or boosting a rocket into outer space.
Concentrated fuel is required to propel a car because the heaviest objects are the engine and the fuel tank, not the passengers. Politicians and environmental groups long have advocated the research and development tax and government mandates to produce energy-efficient cars run on electricity. Huber and Mills make clear that more energy-efficient vehicles are being manufactured but not because of mandates issued by the States or the Federal Government or the European Union or the United Nations. Silicon chips are being used to replace conventional brakes with electro-hydraulic brakes and belt-driven radiator cooling fans with silicon-controlled electric cooling. Car engines eventually will become smaller and be more fuel-efficient because of the silicon chip.
The authors foresee the manufacture of electric cars that indeed are efficient and economical. “It will take heavy-duty wiring and substantial silicon drives and electric motors to propel a hybrid-electric SUV down a highway at 70 mph – but they’ll be far smaller than the steel structures in today’s power train. Cars will shed many hundreds of pounds, and every key aspect of performance will improve considerably.” It remains to be seen what kind of energy best will power car motors but in the view of Huber and Mills the best thing government policymakers can do is to do nothing. Let the auto manufacturers and consumers – not regulators – decide what works best.
Another heretical belief cited by Huber and Mills holds that there remains a supply of fuel to be drilled and mined. That belief may be taken for granted by many people but there is certainly not a shortage of self-proclaimed experts warning of energy depletion, particularly oil. Believe it or not, our State Department warned Americans in 1951 that global oil reserves would be depleted within thirteen years. We experienced an energy crisis in the 1970s and during the last few months but no one truly can say there is not a drop of oil left.
Huber and Mills do not foresee an immediate end to oil and gas consumption but they suggest environmentalists should cut their ties to the anti-nuclear power movement (with its Hollywood axis – remember the 1979 movie starring Jane Fonda called “The China Syndrome”?) and realize that clean, plentiful energy can be produced. The Greens are the swing constituency which can set our country back or move it forward with an energy policy. Post-Three Mile Island the gap between meeting a rising demand for energy and the environmental opposition increasingly to rely on nuclear power was met by burning coal. However, nuclear power is cleaner and safer than other fuels, a record which should appease the environmentalists’ concerns about global warming. Solar and wind power cannot meet all of our anticipated energy needs over the next two decades but it should be part of the energy mix.
We may have to work hard to develop energy resources but the authors lay down the maxim that “energy begets more energy,” which means we have increasingly become able to produce energy by using innovative technology. Pessimists believe that if we need energy to find energy there will be less energy. The view advanced by Huber and Mills holds that stockpiling energy or surplus will let us discover more energy resources, including alternative ones.
Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions on population have proven false. I will place my faith in Huber and Mills, who realize that energy efficiency is not the only solution to meet the increasing demand for energy and that government should let the marketplace – not taxes or regulations – decide. Their book is not written for the layman but their complex message is one that realistic thinkers, policymakers and journalists should consider carefully and disseminate its message in simple language. We’ve seen the mileage the Left has gotten from such wrong-minded thinkers as Ehrlich. It’s time we start pumping up our volume to counter their nonsense. The ideas presented in this book can provide the jolt of sound reasoning we need.