Tag Archives: Energy


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction

Written by: Elizabeth Kolbert

Narration by:  Anne Twomey


Homo sapiens are the only species that has the capacity to change events to conform to plan.  Elizabeth Kolbert argues that the fate of life on earth is subject to nature and human volition; i.e. the randomness of nature’s cataclysmic events and the will of society.  “The Sixth Extinction” recounts the history of five worldwide extinctions.  In recounting that history, Kolbert and most scientists suggest there is a pending “…Sixth Extinction”.  The difference between the first five and a presumed sixth is the birth and maturity of humankind.

To some listeners, this story is tiresome.  It is considered tiresome because the future seems far away.  Species have become extinct ever since science began to understand evolution.  The story of extinction offers no sense of urgency.  Numerous futurists dwell on the extinction of wildlife that is either part of the natural order of existence, a cataclysm of human-caused origin, or part of “God’s” plan.  Some believe science will provide an escape hatch for human beings to avoid extinction.  History and Kolbert’s book suggest a “…Sixth Extinction” is inevitable, regardless of one’s belief.

The reason Kolbert’s book is popular and is awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction is because she writes well and has a point of view that offers hope for the future of humanity.  On the one hand, Kolbert decries the death of bat species, the acidification of earth’s oceans, and the loss of coral reefs, but Kolbert infers human life prevails because it has shown the capacity to change.

The real fear that Kolbert, and many other journalists, scientists, and politicians talk about, is that society will not respond to man-made degradation of earth’s environment soon enough to delay an inevitable “…Sixth Extinction”.  Kolbert infers artificial preservation of endangered species is a fool’s errand in the face of habitat destruction.  After all, what is the point of preserving a species in a zoo or in a frozen state of animation if natural habitats are destroyed?

A way of interpreting Kolbert’s theme is to argue that loss of life’s diversity is a consequence of earth becoming an island of sameness; i.e. an island where the environment is degraded and species are introduced to the same bacteria, the same pollutants, and the same adaptive needs to survive.  Biodiversity becomes less possible because of the interconnections of continents, consequent to international travel and species introduction to all the continents of the world.

One may argue this is the fault of human civilization but that is wasted intellectualization.  The advance of civilization naturally induces loss of biodiversity.  Part of Kolbert’s theme suggests interconnectedness is the proximate cause of loss of biodiversity but it does not have to be the cause for a “…Sixth Extinction”.

Kolbert’s argument reminds one of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

“The Sixth Extinction” notes that human beings are the only species that shows the capacity to change events to conform to plan.  What the world’s people need is the political will to mitigate the causes of human environmental pollution.  It is not that “The Sixth Extinction” will not occur but that human beings need not be the proximate cause.

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Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and DisastersAtomic Accidents

By James Mahaffey

Narrated by: Tom Weiner


Listening to James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents, the first thing that comes to mind is point-of-view, second is author’s qualification, and third is writing ability.

Doctor James Mahaffey’s professional career is founded on the nuclear industry.  Educated at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Mahaffey holds a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s in science, and a doctoral in nuclear engineering.  Mahaffey is well versed in the science, engineering, and mechanics of nuclear energy.  Because of education, one presumes Mahaffey is a proponent of the nuclear power industry.  After dissection of several atomic accidents, a listener becomes unsure of Mahaffey’s point of view.  By the end, his point of view is clear.  Mahaffey’s book is historically fascinating, and enlightening.  Happily, Mahaffey writes well with erudite understanding and little obfuscating jargon.

In history, America has purposely and accidentally dropped nuclear bombs around the world.  The best known purposely dropped bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII.

Less known accidental nuclear bomb drops were in peace time. Bombs were accidentally released on remote military bases, in sparsely populated residential areas, and in the sea.  Some dropped in the sea remain unrecoverable.  None of the peace time bombs have exploded or been reported to have leaked any radiation.

After WWII, America chose to keep nuclear secrets from Great Britain because of concern over nuclear bomb proliferation.  In part, because of America’s lack of cooperation, English scientists and engineers designed graphite nuclear power plants that are inherently dangerous.  Graphite will catch fire at high temperature and is notoriously hard to extinguish.  However, graphite nuclear plants became widely copied throughout the world.   Mahaffey’s stories of nuclear mishaps range from dumb to dumber; i.e. from wind fans that feed graphite nuclear plant fires to technicians that ignore rules of reactor management.  Nuclear accidents seem inevitable and insurmountable.

Mahaffey explains that the former U.S.S.R. ignored environment in their nuclear bombs race with America.  They dumped plutonium in Russian waters and blew up a graphite nuclear plant that reportedly killed Russian workers in a steam explosion.  The explosion contaminated miles of Russian homeland with radioactive fallout estimated to have killed 200 people.  Later, the U.S.S.R. mismanaged Chernobyl’s nuclear facilities and created a nuclear meltdown that reportedly killed over 60 people from radiation and left an area of Russia uninhabitable for generations to come.

Mahaffey tells the story of Gary Powers, the American’ pilot shot down by the Russians in the 1950s.  Powers is taking aerial pictures of plutonium manufacturing facilities in the U.S.S.R.  Eisenhower is compelled to lie and then apologize to Russia for the clandestine operation.  Mahaffey makes the story interesting by revealing the monumental effort made by the U.S.S.R. to shoot down Powers’ airplane and reassemble plane parts to prove Powers was spying.

In the end, Mahaffey discounts the many nuclear accidents and incidents he examines.

His conclusion is that nuclear power can be made probabiistically safe.  Mahaffey argues for the design of nuclear energy facilities that are small and simple to operate.  He suggests small nuclear power plants be designed and manufactured for specific industrial facilities.  Small nuclear plants could meet industrial energy demands while reducing environmental carbon emission from other sources.  With small nuclear energy plants, the potential for catastrophic Chernobyl-like’ events would not happen.  With small nuclear energy plants replacing coastal nuclear behemoths, the 2011 underwater earthquake and concomitant tsunami would not have decimated Japan’s nuclear energy production.  Evacuation would have been limited to the natural effects of a weather event rather than a potential nuclear disaster. Mahaffey implies proper design and training for small, simple nuclear energy facilities will mitigate a pending world energy crises.  Mahaffey infers nuclear accidents are unavoidable, but human and environmental damage can be minimized with smaller self-sufficient nuclear energy plants.

Mahaffey explains that radiation is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  He argues that shutting nuclear waste disposal facility like Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a mistake.  Mahaffey’s point of view is that nuclear power generation accidents will happen but their consequences can be minimized with smaller plants and better planning for treatment of victims when accidents occur.  He believes nuclear energy benefits far out way their risks.

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Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists WrongSMALLER FASTER LIGHTER DENSER CHEAPER By: Robert Bryce

Narration by: Stephen Menasche


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?

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