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Bottomless Wells?

A few days ago I was in a bookstore looking for a book that I never found. At the end of one set of bookshelves, prominently displayed on a rack of featured books, was The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills. An astonishing title in a finite world governed by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Of course we will run out of energy—or, more correctly, the fuel we need to produce energy—but no one now living will see that day. We can burn coal for a thousand years, build nuclear power plants, even extract energy from silicon, according to Huber and Mills. Even if they are right, a thousand years' supply of energy, or ten thousand, is not "endless."

That, at least is what logic and history tell us. A thousand or ten thousand years is a long time in the history of civilization, but it is a minor blip in geological time. It is even a short time in the human story if you count prehistory. Homo sapiens has been here about a quarter of million years; our ancestors, for just over 2 million years before us. Modern use of energy dates back 200-500 years, depending on one's definition of "modern." Suddenly a thousand years does not seem so long, and the well seems less bottomless. Our ancestors, had they used oil and coal or even the silicon that Huber and Mills see as a practical alternative, would have used up their fuel supplies hundreds of thousands of years before we came on the scene.

Our ancestors, of course, did not even discover coal and oil. They evolved into us. And we discovered coal and oil and began burning them, not knowing until recently how badly we were damaging the environment. We could not have known; the science that allowed us to know did not exist when the industrial age began.

Even supposing that Huber and Mills are right about the world's seemingly endless energy potential, they are wrong on this key point: We do not always know the consequences of our energy use. And those consequences are not always benign. When we extract energy, we must proceed with care and use the energy wisely and carefully. If we don't, we may make our world unliveable. That is what The Bottomless Well leaves out. And by leaving it out, the theory moves from the merely flawed to the dangerously illusory.

There is a precedent that shows the danger of this kind of illusion. During the late Cold War, the discipline of "nuclear strategy" or "nuclear warfighting" had a very brief revival after being dormant through the 1960s and 1970s. Roughly, it was an attempt to project "scientifically" how many casualties a nation could sustain in a nuclear war and still "survive" as a nation. Nuclear warfighting was a delusion, pure and simple. A United States (or Soviet Union) that had lost a million citizens at a stroke, along with a major city or two, would be shattered, and the radiation released would damage generations of humans, plants and animals to come. And that, in the nuclear warfighting world, was a "small," "survivable" war.

I make this brief excursion into the netherworld of nuclear strategy because, in a quieter way, the bottomless well thesis could be just as destructive. The nuclear strategists allowed Reagan-era policymakers to think that nuclear war was winnable, not mutual suicide. The bottomless well theorists allow us to think that it's perfectly okay to go on burning fuel and driving SUVs and leaving all the lights on. But you can't fight nuclear war; you can only die in it—if you are lucky—or survive a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable. And you can't go on using energy as if the supply is never going to run out. It will, and in the meantime, we may find ourselves surviving a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable.

We have so far avoided nuclear war, although the future is not guaranteed. Whether we can avoid the consequences of our fecklessness about energy is still very much in question. We can only do so by changing our ways of living, moving about, growing our food, and making the goods we need. The Bottomless Well essentially argues that our current ways are just fine, thanks. That is an argument which could kill us all.