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BOOK REVIEW: 'Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper': The End-of-the-World Luddites Are All Wrong
It's a variation on NPR's "driveway moment" -- which occurs when you're listening to an interesting story on your NPR station and you stay in the car with the radio on to listen to the complete story.
My "parking lot moment" occurred when I pulled into a vacant space next to a brand new shiny black Lincoln MKZ and noticed the "2.0 Liter" plaque on the back of the Lincoln. This luxury car has the same size engine as my Dodge Caliber -- a 2.0 liter four-cylinder power plant! Of course the MKZ is a turbo engine, compared to the normally aspirated twin-cam four-banger in my Dodge, but the cars weren't that much different in size.
The Caliber, Dodge's smallest car, was discontinued in 2012, replaced by the new Dart, which also has relatively small four-cylinder engines. This phenomenon illustrates the Smaller and Cheaper aspects Bryce explores in Chapter Eight, "The Engines of the Economy." Beginning on Page 85, he discusses Ford's Eco-Boost engine -- the kind used in the Lincoln MKZ, Ford Fusion and many other Ford products.
The engines in today's cars produce far more horsepower than much larger engines, which also makes them Denser. In this context I was thinking of the 1951 Chrysler New Yorker that I drove for a few years when I was in college in the late 1950s. It had Chrysler's first Hemi engine, a V-8 with 331 cubic inches (5.4 liters) and 180 horsepower. (Boy, did I love that maroon four-door sedan!)
The little four-cylinder engine in my 2010 Caliber produces 160 horsepower and gets 23 city and 31 highway -- far more than the New Yorker, which is good because gas cost about 31 cents a gallon back then! And the Chrysler was a gas hog. And the Caliber is about half the weight of the '51 New Yorker, definitely Lighter.
Bryce calls himself an "agnostic" about climate change. As I was preparing this review, the government released (on May 6) a new report on climate change (http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report) which presents a doomsday view of the subject. In the USA Today story about the report (http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/05/06/national-climate-assess...)
Here's an excerpt from the USA Today story, based on the 800-page report:
Devastating droughts in the Southwest, ruinous floods in New York City, killer wildfires in Colorado, intense heat waves in the Plains: These are the some of the disasters today that are being exacerbated by global warming, and will continue to worsen in the decades to come, according to a massive federal climate report released today at the White House in Washington.
Climate change is affecting where and how Americans live and work and their health, and evidence is mounting that burning fossil fuels has made extreme weather such as heat waves and heavy precipitation much more likely in the USA, according to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), the largest, most comprehensive U.S.-focused climate change report ever produced.
"If people took the time to read the report, they would see that it is not necessarily about polar bears, whales or butterflies," said meteorologist Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia. "I care about all of those, but the NCA is about our kids, dinner table issues, and our well being."
"Climate change is here and now, and not in some distant time or place," agreed Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, one of the authors of the 800-page report.
"The choices we're making today will have a significant impact on our future," Hayhoe said.
The assessment was prepared by hundreds of the USA's top scientists. It agreed with a recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the planet is warming, mostly because of human activity.
The assessment provides "the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date" for immediate and aggressive climate action, said John P. Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, at a press conference in Washington on Tuesday.
"All Americans will find things that matter to them in this report," added Jerry Melillo, chair of the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee.
"Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience," the U.S. report stated. "So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York and native peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska."
Early in the book (in the introduction, Page XX) Bryce provides a definition for this narrative: "collapse anxiety":
"The avalanche of bad news has led led many people to experience, or even embrace, what author Gregg Easterbrook calls 'collapse anxiety'. Easterbrook describes the condition as a 'widespread feeling that the prosperity of the United States and the European Union cannot really be enjoyed because the Western lifestyle may crash owning to economic breakdown, environmental damage, resource exhaustion…or some other imposed calamity.'"
Bryce says that as we confront today’s environmental and economic challenges, doomsayers preach that the only way to stave off disaster is for humans to reverse course: to de-industrialize, re-localize, ban the use of modern energy sources, and forswear prosperity. The doomsayers are against just about all of modern life (which doesn't mean "Inconvenient Truth" Al Gore is giving up his jet or his lavish 10,000 square foot home with its high energy bills (http://jacksonville.com/reason/fact-check/2013-06-02/story/fact-check-al...).
Bryce's rejoinder to the neo-Luddites and neo-Malthusians: Innovation and the unstoppable human desire to make things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper is providing consumers with Cheaper and more abundant energy, Faster computing, Lighter vehicles, and myriad other goods. That same desire is fostering unprecedented prosperity, greater liberty, and yes, better environmental protection.
On Pages 270-271, Bryce presents some startling numbers about the cost of electricity per kilowatt hour (KwH) in 2012:
Denmark, a world leader in wind power, had the highest cost in the developed world at 41 cents per KwH. The European Union's average was 26 cents. Germany was 35 cents; the UK was 20 cents and the US was 12 cents. I just looked at my electricity bill from TXU and the cost per KwH was 8.9 cents.
Bryce says electricity is "only part of the story. You name it -- sun, coal, oil, uranium, natural gas, wind -- the United States has loads of each."
With in-the-field reporting from Ottawa to Panama City and Pittsburgh to Bakersfield, Bryce shows how we have, for centuries, been pushing for Smaller Faster solutions to our problems. From the vacuum tube, mass-produced fertilizer, and the printing press to mobile phones, nanotech, and advanced oil drill rigs, Bryce demonstrates how cutting-edge companies and breakthrough technologies have created a world in which people are living longer, freer, healthier, lives than at any time in human history.
The push toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper is happening across multiple sectors. Bryce profiles innovative individuals and companies, from long-established ones like Ford and Intel to upstarts like Aquion Energy and Khan Academy. And he zeroes in on the energy industry, proving that the future belongs to the high power density sources that can provide the enormous quantities of energy the world demands.
The tools we need to save the planet aren’t to be found in the technologies or lifestyles of the past. Nor must we sacrifice prosperity and human progress to ensure our survival. The catastrophists have been wrong since the days of Thomas Malthus. This is the time to embrace the innovators and businesses all over the world who are making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
Much of what Bryce writes about energy today is basically the same as he described in his 2008 book "Gusher of Lies" (PublicAffairs). Here's my review: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/080310-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html.
Essentially, he says that so-called renewable energy like ethanol gobbles up land in the U.S.'s Midwest and in places like Brazil best used for food production and uses huge amounts of water. Wind power gobbles up birds and bats and solar power -- like wind power -- is far too inefficient. It's not Dense enough. We need more natural gas for generating electricity and for vehicle power and he says we need more nuclear power, the kind his hometown of Austin, TX uses to produce much of its electricity. This aspect of Austin, the most liberal city in the state, is explored at length in "Gusher of Lies". I quote from my review:
"In Chapter 14, Bryce tells the story of the city-owned Austin Energy's investment in the South Texas Project, a 16 percent investment in the two-nuclear reactor project. Liberal opponents -- and Austin is the most liberal city in Texas -- derided the investment in the 1970s and 1980s with jokes like: "Q: What do you have when you have Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and the South Texas Project? A: Two moneymakers and a dog."
"Despite cost overruns and delays, the joke has been turned topsy-turvy, Bryce writes: "...over the past few years, the South Texas Project has emerged as one of the best deals the city of Austin has ever done. For three years in a row, from 2004 to 2006, the plant produced more energy than any other two-nuclear reactor nuclear plant in the country. Austin now gets about 29 percent of its electricity from the nuclear plant and that juice is likely the cheapest power in its portfolio."
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I found the contrarian views expressed in Bryce's new book to be a refreshing antidote to the gloom and doom that pervades the TV screens and print media today. He shows us there is hope, as long as the human power to innovate and make changes is present.
About the author
Robert Bryce is the acclaimed author of four previous books, including, most recently, "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future". A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, his articles have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Austin Chronicle, Bloomberg View, Counterpunch, and National Review. An apiarist, he lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, Lorin, and their three children.
His website: www.robertbryce.com