Thursday, March 20, 2008

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce has written for dozens of publications including Atlantic Monthly, Slate, New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation and The American Conservative. His new book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.” In a recent review of the book, William Grimes of the New York Times calls Bryce “hard-nosed” and “an equal-opportunity smiter” of energy myths. Grimes goes on to say that Bryce “reveals himself in the end as something of a visionary and perhaps even a revolutionary.”

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Since I write about energy, I am always reading books about energy-related topics. Among the most interesting books of that genre that I've read lately is Jevons' Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements, by John M. Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampetro, and Blake Alcott. The book's thesis is spelled out on page 3, where the authors state, “We aim to show that increased energy efficiency leads to increased demand and consumption of energy.”

It's counterintuitive that efficiency increases energy use, but their book is one of numerous studies that confirm the findings of William Stanley Jevons, a British economist, who, in 1865 published a book called The Coal Question, which contains what is now known as the Jevons Paradox: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Since that time, Jevons's work has been examined and re-examined and no reputable scientist has ever refuted it. The Jevons Paradox is perhaps the most important, and yet least understood, concept in the energy business and it has profound implications for the future of the global economy.

I recently finished reading Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I’m a big fan of Gleick’s. His book on Isaac Newton was brilliant. And in this bio of Feynman, who was one of the midwives of the atomic bomb, Gleick illustrates just how important Feynman’s thinking has been to our modern understanding of physics, and therefore, of energy. Feynman grappled with the big questions about matter, science, and the quest for human knowledge and understanding. One of my favorite parts of Gleick’s book comes early on, when he talks about Feynman’s effort to distill human understanding of science into as short a passage as possible. Feynman posed himself this question: what if all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm? What statement would convey the most knowledge in the fewest words to the next generations? Feynman proposed this: “All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another….In that one little sentence , you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

Gleick is brilliant. For me, he’s a little like Mark Twain in that when I read his stuff, it whispers to me that I should perhaps quit what I’m doing because I’ll just never be that good.

One non-energy book that I have not yet finished, but am savoring, is Cullen Murphy's book, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. It's a short book, only about 200 pages. It’s a remarkably concise and thought-provoking book. Murphy draws numerous parallels between the Roman Empire and the American regime. I was motivated to buy the book after I heard Murphy speak here in Austin. In his speech, he said that the U.S. military was “both too big and too small.” That is, it’s too big to be affordable and yet too small to be able to accomplish the many tasks that it has been assigned.

Books that I’ve just begun include Rashid Khalidi’s Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, and Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Khalidi’s book is important because it’s really about oil politics. I bought Kurlansky’s book because salt is the mineral commodity which, for millennia, was the modern-day equivalent of oil. America’s laws governing mineral rights were shaped, in large part, by laws governing salt deposits.

Visit Robert Bryce's website.

--Marshal Zeringue