Groping the elephant.

Author:Fitz, Don
Position:Three Hands on Biodisaster - Book review
 
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As corporate media rehash the same rhetoric on energy and the environment, many recent authors solidly reject conventional claptrap. But alternative perspectives can wear their own blindfolds. Some see through the hype for one type of energy while their faith in a growth economy leads them to embrace another energy form. Those with a "green" background often grasp the need for a smaller economy while believing that market forces can somehow rescue us from planetcide. Socialists understand the role of social domination, but a tradition of demanding "more" can critically interfere with their willingness to promote decreased production.

Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence," by Robert Bryce. New York: Public Affairs, 2008, 393 pp. $16.95. ISBN 978-1-58648-690-7 (pbk.)

Robert Bryce's Gusher of Lies is as important to read for its errors as for its observations. Yet, his observations are fascinating. Bryce demolishes the conventional wisdom that the economy can grow while using less energy. Though Amory Lovins claimed in 1984 that energy efficiency would allow US electricity to decrease, by 2007 electricity use had grown by 66%. (p. 138)

Gusher convincingly shows a strong interconnection between energy use, labor productivity and growth in the Gross Domestic Product. These connections cannot be offset by energy efficiency. As long ago as 1867, William Stanley Jevons showed that increases in the efficiency of coal use resulted in an increase (not a decrease) in the use of coal.

Nor does Bryce swallow the myth that solar or wind power can ever amount to more than a small fraction of the energy needs of an expanding market economy. Charging that "ethanol is one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated," (p. 11) he notes that ethanol has costs that are higher, efficiency that is lower, and greenhouse gases that are worse than oil. Producing a gallon of oil requires about 2.8 gallons of fresh water, while a gallon of corn-based ethanol requires 885 gallons of fresh water (pp. 188-189), making it an ecological as well as an economic travesty.

As the subtitle of Gusher indicates, the entire concept of "energy independence" is pointless. While the US imports 60% of its oil, it imports an even higher proportion of essential minerals and other raw materials. (p. 16) No modern economy can or should be "independent" of the rest of the world.

And the author sees a major problem with the US' extracting raw materials such as oil by force. Bryce despises the use of militarism and instead embraces globalism and trade. Noting that "the Second Iraq war is, largely, about controlling the flow of that country's oil" (p. 23), he derides the role of the US as international cop (p. 290), and describes the war on terrorism as more dangerous than terrorists. (p. 266)

Yet Bryce's solutions are as unworkable as the ideas he debunks. His alternative rests on two horrible premises: the US population must expand its limitless supply of junk, and this expansion requires more oil, gas and nuclear power. Very early on, Bryce decrees that "America needs energy, and lots of it." (p. 10) Later, he lets his readers know that object worship is eternal: "As people get richer, they want more stuff." (p. 133)

The concepts "biodiversity" and "habitat destruction" are not part of Gusher. Unprecedented species extinction is apparently a price well worth paying in order to amass trinkets. Bryce downplays the exhaustion of oil fields and claims that people "have no choice but to adapt to the changing global climate." (p. 268) Oblivious to environmental threats, he endorses offshore oil drilling.

With tunnel vision on expanding energy, Bryce touts nuclear power. He claims nukes produce less waste and are more economically viable.

These "solutions" quickly become snared in a web of contradictions. His work is devoted to attacking the pervasive belief in a need for oil independence. But he treats the desire for more stuff as a value which must be accepted, revealing his willingness to pick and choose which beliefs he is willing to confront. Bryce never gives any hint of understanding that if attitudes about the accumulation of things were to change, then production could decrease and problems of oil depletion would be resolved.

Even more disturbing is Bryce's belief that crass materialism can be amply supplied by coal, gas and nuclear power. Though he acknowledges that fossil fuels will one day be exhausted, he urges policy makers to rush to hasten the depletion.

His discussion of favored alternatives uses vastly different standards than for options he disdains. First, he correctly notes resource limitations of solar, wind and ethanol, but vastly understates limitations for gas, oil and nukes. Use of the phrase "at current rates of extraction" (pp. 211, 247) can easily lull readers into missing the fact that rates of extraction must increase with demand, hastening resource Judgment Day.

His second...

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