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The Conservation Hoax

October 6, 2005

President Bush tells us to drive less and limit trips to only the essentials, while the EPA's EnergyStar program is urging us all to "change a lightbulb" in our homes, from a regular one to a government-approved one, which they claim will save hundreds of millions.

You are also supposed to take a pledge: "I pledge to do my part to save energy and help protect our environment by changing a light in my home to an ENERGY STAR qualified one"--then the government will send you a free "zipper pull."

We can see where this is headed: back to the days of relentless brow-beating, intimidation, regulation, and calls for national sacrifice—possibly even regimentation and control—all in the name of saving energy. (How much energy is consumed in making and sending the zipper pull?)

Just in time to check this growing mania comes The Bottomless Well, by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills (Basic Books, 2005). It provides nothing less than a total shift of paradigm for viewing the energy crises that have animated the media for at least the past 35 years. For those to whom the book's revelations are largely new, a lifetime's habits of thought on the subject of energy face complete refutation.

And here it is: energy is abundant, virtually everywhere, and with technologies already in use, is accessible to man's appropriation and use. And while the use of energy can create pollution of various forms, all such pollution is subject to abatement by . . . use of more energy. Breathtaking corollaries cascade one from the next both in consequence and in support of this proposition, such as, the more energy is used, the more can be found and exploited for any and all of the growing range of purposes to which energy applies.

Many of the book's revelations are delivered through what might be called shift of point of view. The authors identify the familiar steam engines of Newcomen and then Watt as the beginning of use of energy for mechanical power. But for what purpose were these machines devised? Why, to get more energy (specifically, to remove water from coal mines)! And by no coincidence, their fuel was that very coal that they were helping to mine.

Canards of conventional thinking tumble like tenpins. Chief among these may be the widespread, ill-considered assumption that improvements in efficiency, such as those mandated for vehicle engines by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Act of 1978, can produce reductions in total energy consumption.

Using both a priorireasoning long familiar to Austrian and other enlightened economists together with a tsunami of empirical data, the authors demonstrate that the reverse is ineluctably true: improvements in efficiency lead to the consumption of more energy, whether in vehicle engines, electrical appliances, electricity generation, or computation.

Another of these is that Earth must eventually suffocate or burn up under a growing mantle of carbon dioxide and other emissions from the process of burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. Theories of global warming have been debunked both well and often prior to this book, but this book brings to the discussion three facts that overcome the concern even if it should in fact be grounded in reality.

First, technologies exist to reduce carbon-dioxide and other emissions that require for their implementation little more than the will to consume the additional amounts of energy required for their use.

Second, nuclear power, an obvious and available solution to greenhouse-gas concerns since the 1960s, is today safer (against both terrorism and operational mishap) and more efficient than it ever has been, such pollution as it generates in the form of spent fuel being far easier to deal with than anti-nuclear interests have led the public to believe.

And third, perhaps most astonishingly, North America, with its massive total and per-capita burning of fossil fuels, is evidently not a producer of carbon to global processes, but according to reliable measurements, actually absorbs carbon in net from other parts of the world whose carbon accounts are in surplus.

Peter W. Huber is the author of four previous books on public policy and science, including Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists. Mark P. Mills is a physicist whose work has been concentrated in electricity and electronics, and who served on the consulting staff of the White House Science Office. While neither of these authors claims any formal qualifications in economics, their book is in fact all about economics as it plays out in a world of permanent physical realities conditioned by ever-shifting political and legal currents.

The book contains few explicit policy prescriptions but, just as a good novel conveys values without ever once actually propounding them, simple, actionable policy directions seem to shine forth from every chapter of this eye-opening analysis.

  Capitalism is the answer: $26

As to policy, the book devotes much more attention to the actual effects of energy policies that have been enacted. The effects of these policies are, for each of them when viewed in total, inimical not only to human welfare, but to their stated goals, typically either conservation of energy sources, reduction of pollution, or both.

The upshot of the cases studied, from global warming to exhaustion of energy sources, is the energy equivalent to Ludwig von Mises's profound insight that all economic regulation is ultimately and inevitably harmful to the very goals it was emplaced for in the first case.

In a very few cases, the authors allow themselves an aside in which they express hope that a promising new development will not end up being frustrated by future regulation, or they note that some past seminal development occurred entirely without benefit of, or in spite of, government regulation.

In the end, the authors shine a light on the record of government interference in energy markets that discloses the anti-life qualities that its outcomes invariably express. In fact, as the authors literally state on more than one occasion, energy is life.

And vice-versa.


N. Joseph Potts studies economics at his home in South Florida. [email]. See his archive. Comment on the Blog.


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