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!

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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