Homer Simpson once said of the USA Today that it is the only newspaper that isn’t afraid to tell the truth – that everything is just fine!
I’m a little bit afraid that I’m becoming a Homer. A few years ago I became interested in the idea of “peak oil.” At the time I was working on an article about petroleum and I read a book by David Goodstein, of Mechanical Universe fame (ok, fame for me. I’ll admit it’s a little weird that I know more physicists by name than rock stars).
Anyway, Goodstein’s book, Out of Gas, is pretty grim regarding the future. Goodstein and others say that oil, as a finite resource, must eventually become scarce. When demand outstrips supply, oil will become too expensive to use, and essentially all our technology will grind to a halt.
At the same time, I read another book, skeptical of the idea of peak oil. This book was by a free-market economist named Peter Huber and a physicist named Mark Mills. It was called The Bottomless Well. In the book, the authors made the argument that we will never run out of energy because energy begets energy. Sounded like a pretty crazy idea at the time, and I mostly discounted what they had to say.
But even then something about their optimism regarding human ingenuity struck me as a powerful idea. I guess it stayed with me more than I knew, because as I read Beginning of Infinity, I recalled this strange energy book I’d read earlier. Recently I returned to The Bottomless Well and read it again.
Like Deutsch in BoI, the authors of The Bottomless Well present some deeply counter-intuitive ideas. The first is that energy is not what we’re after at all. Instead it’s order that we seek. In fact, we use up most of the energy we collect in transforming energy from less-ordered to more-ordered.
One great example is how we make and use electricity. There’s a commercial I’ve seen in which laptops and mp3 players are powered by gasoline. The reason this is silly isn’t that gasoline is polluting. It’s that gasoline lacks the order needed to operate things like laptops.
When we burn coal or oil to make electricity, we aren’t just transforming one kind of energy into another. The transformation process is never 100% efficient – far from it. When we transform energy we lose most of it, but we end up highly-ordered energy that we use to run laptops, lasers, and surgical robots. Much of The Bottomless Well is about how much energy we waste in creating order in the form of electricity. This waste is both necessary and good – the more energy we waste in this way, the more possibilities we create.
Another counter-intuitive idea is that energy efficiency is self-defeating. Consider the first computers. With their rooms full of vacuum tubes to perform even the simplest arithmetical tasks, they were amazingly inefficient. My laptop today is vastly more powerful and hugely more efficient than the most powerful computer on the planet sixty years ago. Yet it is just this efficiency, made possible by transistors and then integrated circuits, that has caused the total energy used by computers today to skyrocket. Efficiency doesn’t let us do less, it encourages us to do more. Therefore energy efficiency will always lead to more consumption, not less.
One of the most memorable parts of the book was the allusion to the coal problem in the early 1800s. Everyone knew that coal was a vastly superior fuel to wood, which in any case was dwindling away. But how to move the coal, heavy and bulky, from where it was found to where it was needed? In the end, through the invention of the coal-fired pump and the coal-fired steam locomotive, the coal moved itself. Energy begets more energy.
It’s a powerful, optimistic view of human potential that serves as a fine sequel to Deutsch’s book. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I remain skeptical of the authors’ faith in the free market to find the best solution to every problem. But I also recognize that I still have lots to learn. An infinite amount, in fact.
Of course we’ll run out of oil someday. Problems are inevitable. But problems are also soluble. All evil results from a lack of knowledge. The answer to our problems isn’t to pull back. It’s to move forward, actively searching for more knowledge, more solutions, more sources of ever better energy. Of course those energy sources will be imperfect, and will lead to new problems. Problems are inevitable. But, with enough knowledge, problems are soluble.