By Chet Yarbrough
Objective truth is a myth; sometimes exercised with heartfelt belief, but often influenced by vested interests. Listening to Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, two issues trouble the truth. The first issue is that Robert Bryce, the author, is not educated as a scientist. The second issue is that the Manhattan Institute (for which Bryce is a Senior Fellow) pays for books like Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper. The Manhattan Institute is funded by Exxon Corporation and the Koch Family Foundation which suggests, at best, undue influence on any heartfelt belief.
The author infers that earth and civilization are not in danger because the history of technology and entrepreneurial ambition has improved life and will continue to improve life for future generations. The author’s fundamental argument is that things are better today than they were in the past. “Better” means people live longer and live better lives today than in the past; largely due to energy improvements wrought by entrepreneurial freedom and technological invention. Most historians would agree with Bryce’s “life-is-better” argument. However, as a famous playwright suggests, what’s past is not necessarily prologue (Shakespeare in The Tempest); i.e. the past only sets the scene.
Bryce argues that for the foreseeable future, carbon based or nuclear energy are the only bridges to continued life’ improvement. On the one hand, Bryce lauds human technological genius and, on the other, denies any other energy source is feasible. Bryce focuses on building arguments against alternative energy sources to promote the validity of current use of carbon based and nuclear energy resources. Bryce infers staying with what one knows is better than researching, experimenting, and developing what one does not know. History suggests the opposite of “staying with what is known” as most productive; i.e. exploring the unknown is the source of technological innovation. Explorers live for risk and scientists are always tinkering with the unknown.
Bryce does not deny carbon-based fuels are harming the environment but believes that continued use will not destroy civilization. Bryce believes meeting the need and demand for energy, even if carbon-based, is more important than the possible consequence of global warming. Remembering Bryce is not a scientist and has close ties to carbon-based corporations, diminishes the power of his historical research and argument.
Most scientists agree that human habitation and carbon-based energy use are causing global warming. Bryce is correct in saying life is better in the 21st century; i.e., civilization is better off today than yesterday, but the past is not prologue. We are here today; the scene is set, but the play is new and the story is yet to be told. The scene suggests it is time for actors to learn new lines; i.e. explore new sources of energy.
Bryce’s solution is to harden cities that are likely to be affected by global warming while focusing on N to N. (N to N means transition to Natural gas and Nuclear energy). By hardening, Bryce infers people should plan for cities like New York to become canal-ed Venice’s or diked Hollands.
While making those defensive adjustments, Bryce argues for transition from coal, oil, and gasoline production to natural gas and nuclear energy. Bryce argues that abundant natural gas and improvements in nuclear energy production are the solution to today’s energy demands. Natural gas use reduces the pace of carbon build up and nuclear energy completely eliminates carbon discharge. Bryce argues that without increasing energy output, world economic growth will decline, human productivity will diminish, and improvements in health, education, and welfare will suffer.
However, many suggest civilization’s improvement is at risk from continued use of carbon and uranium based energy. The counter to Bryce’s argument is in the same issues used to bolster his argument; i.e. science, technology, experimentation, and entrepreneurial freedom. Science, technology, experimentation, and entrepreneurial freedom are the same tools that can solve today’s energy crises and tomorrow’s global warming. If we have passed the point of no return on the consequence of global warming, then hardening is a necessity but the tools of R & D should not be limited to energy sources that compound the problem or unnecessarily endanger humanity.
Just like James Watt’s steam engine and Henry Ford’s automobile, inefficient beginnings have unforeseen consequences. The history of humankind shows technological invention, experimentation, and implementation improve world health, education, and welfare. Bryce agrees but argues that alternate energy sources are not adequate to the task of meeting world energy needs. When first discovered, Watt’s steam engine and Edison’s light bulb were not adequate to the task of moving locomotives or lighting the world.
One may agree with Bryce’s argument for transition to natural gas and uranium but his acerbic treatment of current alternative energy experimentation and discovery are premature. Why is it so difficult to believe that an alternative energy breakthrough is not only possible, but nigh? Who believed Watt’s steam engine would be a catalyst for the industrial revolution? Who believed Edison’s light bulb would light the world? Who believed Einstein’s theory of energy and mass equivalence would destroy Hiroshima, or power cities?
Bryce and other naysayers of alternative energy sources need to keep an open mind; particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence that global warming is real. There is never a right time to discourage freedom of thought, experimentation, and entrepreneurial ambition. Who does not hope the catastrophists are always wrong?