A couple of weeks ago, I attended a seminar hosted by several departments at the University of Texas on the topic of “peak oil.” The occasion was the visit of David Sundalow of the Brookings Institution, who is hawking his new book Freedom from Oil. This was mutually convenient for him and the university, which is trying to carve out a position as an optimistic, rolled-up-sleeves, can-do problem-solver in the fields of energy and water.
I have no objection to that approach and am pleased to be somewhat distantly associated with it. That said, I did not leave the event with great enthusiasm for Sundalow’s book. It was worthwhile in that it drew for me a sharp distinction between can-do optimism and unrealistic, delusional optimism.
I think a train wreck of development, energy, food, environment, and warfare, all driven by a hugely overpopulated planet, is going to be very hard to avoid. I think we can avoid it, and even when I am pessimistic I whistle a happy tune and act as if we can avoid it — because without optimism there is no hope. Optimism is a moral imperative. That said, it needs to be reality-based optimism. Sometimes the things we want to work aren’t the things that are going to work.
I won’t bother describing the peculiar literary device in Sundalow’s book. Here’s some PR, with some impressive blurbs: Bill Clinton, Richard Lugar, Wesley Clark. Here’s a favorable review with an audio link. Alas, they are all badly wrong. The species of wrongness exhibited here is a form of middle-of-the-road lawyers’ science, in which physical reality is forced to take a back seat to some convenient, pseudoreasonable political posturing.
Sundalow thinks all of our problems will be magically resolved by plug-in hybrids. Somehow he manages to convince himself that this not only removes the need for oil (of course, with present driving patterns it doesn’t) but that somehow it will solve our electricity problems as well.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against instrumental solutions. If someone could find a way to cheaply stabilize carbon, I would not try to legislate my aesthetic. I’d just smile tolerantly and let the Republicans have their fun hauling their three-ton vehicles across the state to their NASCAR thing. (I’d still want a decent bike lane in town though.)
The trouble is, Sundalow keeps saying things that aren’t true. Like the part about electric cars being so much more “efficient” than gasoline cars that even a coal-powered electric car has less CO2 emissions than a gasoline powered car. He says this in the book and he said it at the podium. He obviously believes it. Clearly, Clinton, Lugar, and Clark are not unwilling to believe it. It sounds completely wrong to me. Consider that the electric car, all else equal, starts a factor of two behind. Then put transmission losses behind that. I just find the claim beyond the bounds of credibility.
Similarly, he has very positive things to say about corn-based ethanol. Well, that isn’t my thing, but everyone I respect who has anything to say about it thinks it is completely delusional. This is where matters got interesting in the seminar.
There were a couple of engineers in the audience (in their requisite plaid shirts) who were adamant that even the absurd slightly-better-than-break-even proposition that the corn ethanol people are pushing is completely overoptimistic. They claimed — in rather angry tones — that in the analysis they had seen, 92 percent of the energy in the ethanol that was required just for the distillation process is unaccounted for.
Now, I’m no chemist. I’m not exactly sure how to treat that number or that claim. The thing is that I would not do what Sundalow did about it. I would say “please give me your card after this talk, I would love to investigate that claim, I need to understand the implications.” What Sundalow did was pretty much shrug and move on.
This sort of optimism is exactly what makes me a pessimist. We need our policy class to have the competence to evaluate competing claims. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be an expert on everything. It does mean that they need to know whom to trust, they need to ask the right questions, and they should not try to divert attention from inconvenient counterarguments as if they were arguing in a courtroom or a political debate. Foolish optimism is about the most dangerous sort of error. As Richard Feynman said, nature cannot be fooled.
I have nothing against plug-in hybrids. It’s a promising technology, and it may well help matters quite a bit in combination with new electricity sources and various other strategies. We need to move forward on lots of fronts to limit our problems and avoid the abyss. Declaring something to have magic powers, though, will not make it so. No matter how much ethanol we make, for instance, it appears we won’t be better off. Maybe the guys in plaid got it right: we are substantially worse off with every gallon.