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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 dry.

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 read.
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":, includes link to hackwriters essay,
"Choosing an Enough Car."

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