You frequently hear that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” particularly when it comes to climate and energy policy. It’s a mark of “seriousness” to solemnly proclaim that it’s all going to cost a lot of money and be very, very difficult.

But the free-lunch canard is just another way of restating the central and most deleterious myth of conventional economics: full employment, the notion that our capital and energy resources are optimally deployed, and thus that anything that forces redeployment will be suboptimal — i.e., cost money. A moment’s thought reveals that this is a ridiculous notion. Our economy is hugely inefficient. If we generate the same amount of delivered power from a smaller amount of primary fuel, or get the same amount of energy services from a smaller amount of delivered power, then we are saving money and reducing greenhouse emissions at the same time. In other words: it’s a free lunch!

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In fact, such free lunches are all over the damn place. Part of what’s holding us back from eating them is our conviction, handed down from the wise and oh-so-serious proprietors of our energy dialogue, that despite all appearances that buffet in front of us is an illusion.

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