The International Writers Magazine: Review
The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why
We Will Never Run Out of Energy
by Peter W. Huber & Mark P. Mills,
Basic Books, 2005, 214 pp. ISBN: 0-465-03116-1
A Charlie Dickinson Review
One virtue of reading
is occasionally a book makes you rethink a pet topic. I admit to being
a bit of a bug on the subject of energy conservation. In the past twelve
months, I signed up for 100% renewable energy with our local electric
utility, I travelled to Canada to import a car capable of 50 mpg--which
Toyota doesn't sell in the States - and I went through our house swapping
out 60-watt and 100-watt incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents
by the dozen. But after reading THE BOTTOMLESS WELL, seemingly a paean
to pedal-to-the-metal energy consumption, I'll live with my choices,
but I no longer see SUV drivers as evil personified.
Iconoclasts, contrarians, original thinkers authors Huber and
Mills are all these. The apple cart they overturn goes back years: the
OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s, public disenchantment with nuclear energy
after Three Mile Island (later Chernobyl), widespread fear about global
warming induced by gas guzzlers and sippers alike, mass acceptance of
"guilt" about Americans using more than their fair share of
energy ... the list goes on.
Overturning these worried givens for many social policy discussions
is a tall order. Yet, in this compelling and stylish meditation on energy,
at times showing an intellectual reach bordering on the metaphysical,
the authors pull it off. They offer a documented, cogent vision of the
future to lead us out of the Land of Chicken Little (and away from that
well-intentioned Kyoto Protocol).
For starters, this is one well-written book. Any nonfiction book whose
first sentence sums up the book's overarching argument hits the ground
running for me: "What lies at the bottom of the bottomless well
isn't oil, it's logic." Emblematic of that logic is the Scottish
inventor James Watt. Coal was always around as fuel in Great Britain.
Primitive steam engines existed before Watt came along. But Watt came
up with a steam engine regulator (or logic device) that brought amazing
power to steam engines, compared to the earlier Newcomen engine. That
combination plus plentiful coal touched off the Industrial Revolution
in Great Britain. The Brits never looked back.
Today, in the Information Age (or the Post-Industrial Revolution), America
occupies some of the primacy Great Britain enjoyed more than 200 years
ago. The logic converting raw energy into power is now written in silicon
(our cars are more and more networked computers with attached wheels).
The central argument in THE BOTTOMLESS WELL is that America's primacy
in logic devices will ease our adaptation to the day the gas pumps go
Huber and Mills don't think current declines in worldwide oil production,
coupled with increasing demand in such places as China, need spell an
energy catastrophe. Our future is electricity and for that we have two
fuel sources. Coal and uranium. The world's supply of each will last
millennia. With silicon chips, we now can render emissions of a car
engine cleaner than ambient air. We can do the same for coal-burning
power plants. Also with silicon chips (and enough concrete), we can
ensure safe uranium-fuelled power plants that confirm Chernobyl was
a primitive-technology aberration.
One of the book's more pointed jabs at popular misconception has to
do with the idea Americans are hell-bent on laying waste to the environment
and polluting the planet. Americans, to be sure, consume more energy
than anyone else. So all those SUVs we Americans drive guarantee we
contribute far, far more than our share to global warming, right? Well,
as Michael Crichton learned with his recent novel, STATE OF FEAR, some
people don't want to be troubled by observable data when it comes to
the global warming controversy. Not if it's outside their schema of
bumper sticker logic. So what if in a mere generation, at the current
rate of reforestation, America has as many trees as when the Pilgrims
landed in the 1600s?
Well, that might be one of the whats that leads to, as Huber and Mills
point out, an odd thing. Based on more reliable data than make the case
for global warming--the North American continent is a net carbon sink!
That is, on balance, Canadians, Americans, Mexicans and the terra firma
they occupy are absorbing, not emitting carbon dioxide. Sounds like
a punt for the Kyoto Protocol Team and possibly novelist Crichton is
not an apologist for Halliburton, or some similar lefty fantasy I recently
There's much more in this book than a review can fairly capsulize (I
won't attempt the Second Law of Thermodynamics in twenty-five words).
If the book lacks anything--and to be fair, this is outside what the
authors gave as the book's scope--I'd like to see something about how
the transition to less reliance on petroleum can be gracefully negotiated.
We can't one morning wake up to gas lines and expect to muddle through
again, if we're out of gas for good. But that's another book and THE
BOTTOMLESS WELL for now is a worthwhile update about what our energy
future looks like and how digital technology can take us there with
the power of logic.
© Charlie Dickinson May 2005
Toyota ECHO HB website, "An American in Yaris":
http://www.nyx.net/~cdickins, includes link to hackwriters essay,
"Choosing an Enough
all rights reserved