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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Sustainable Goes Strategic

Not Just Simple Denial
The most intriguing and challenging thinking about energy exists in an intentionally contrarian view that is a must-read for anyone interested in the energy debate: Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills’s The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. There is plenty to question here, but the authors’ core arguments are original and ultimately compelling.

First, they counter the idea that human energy consumption, in itself, represents a threat to natural life. If it were, they say, we would need to hunker down for some very hard centuries, using not only less energy, but less everything else, since all our “stuff” needs energy in its production, and there are more consumers every year. The effluents of energy production and use — the CO2 and methane, the particulates, the oil spills, the damaged landscapes in West Virginia and Alberta, Canada — are indeed destructive to the environment. But all of them are more or less separable from producing ever more (and more re­fined) units of energy.

To Huber and Mills, energy itself is far too vague a term. A lump of coal in the ground is not the same as a laser beam. What humanity seeks from energy (and has for more than two centuries) is “more ordered” power — evolving from steam engines to internal combustion engines to turbines, from turning a shaft to moving bits to moving photons. The more precisely controlled the power, the more uses we can find for it. The billions of minuscule bits of energy that move around tiny chips in a cell phone can be used to take photographs, play music, and access the world’s knowledge.

This movement toward more precisely controlled power may well be the primary driver of civilization since the 18th century. It takes power to create more-ordered power, and most of the power used is wasted as heat at each stage of refining and ordering — and the more highly ordered the final product is, the more is wasted.

When fuel costs rise, the authors claim, it’s not because it is getting harder to find oil, but because the growing population of the world and newly burgeoning economies make competition for energy ever stronger. Another factor (especially in the United States and Europe) is the increasing difficulty involved in building new refining capacity or generating plants. And the worry about running out of fuel itself makes the price volatile. New efficiencies in the methods for finding and extracting fossil fuels have outpaced the demand so greatly that bringing oil up through two miles of seawater, four miles of vertical rock, and six miles of horizontal rock today actually costs no more in constant dollars than extracting North Sea oil did in the 1980s, and it costs considerably less than extracting the first Pennsylvania oil did in the 1880s.

The authors also attack the popularity of energy efficiency, on the grounds that it does not necessarily lead to less energy use or to less global warming. With every increase in energy efficiency, people find many more uses for energy. How many of us have left a compact fluorescent lightbulb on overnight because, after all, “it’s only 13 watts”? Or been more willing to drive to a faraway park or resort be­cause, after all, “the Prius gets 50 miles per gallon”? The long history of energy use is one of increasing concentration of energy and increasing efficiency in its use — and increasing numbers of ways to use it, which far outpace the efficiencies.

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Sustainability Resources
Works discussed in this review.

  1. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, 2008), 412 pages
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 586 pages
  3. Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 448 pages
  4. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005), 242 pages
  5. Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming (W.W. Norton, 2008), 280 pages 
  6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), 196 pages
  7. Peter Senge et al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (Doubleday, 2008), 416 pages
  8. Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), 608 pages
  9. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), 336 pages 
  10. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 1991), 934 pages 
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