Book Review: The Bottomless Well

Huber, Peter W. and Mills, Mark P. 2005. The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. Basic Books.

This was a painful volume to complete, and to be terribly honest, I skipped a few parts to finish more quickly. Huber and Mills are largely playing semantics in this book, trying to make arguments that nobody would disagree with. For example, they claim that we will never run out of “energy” because laws of thermodynamics state that energy is always conserved. So consuming oil doesn’t deplete energy sources, it just converts it from one source to another. They fail, however, to propose any possible ways of re-harnessing this energy so that we can re-use it. So they’re right that we won’t run out of “energy,” we may just convert all of our energy into useless formats.

But they also argue that we won’t ever run out of oil. Their reasoning is that as oil supplies deplete, it will become so expensive that eventually another alternative will become more attractive and we’ll begin using the alternative instead. Again, this is probably true, but it’s hardly good news – either way, energy prices will sharply increase. We won’t go broke buying oil, we’ll go broke buying whatever takes its place.

The authors also try to make an argument that since most energy is wasted trying to purify the energy itself, then wasting energy is somehow virtuous, because it demonstrates our control over energy sources and our ability to harness its power. Their explanation smacks of contrarianism – like they’ll say anything just to oppose those who are encouraging energy efficiency, yet half of the book also praises scientists like Watt, Carnot, and Otto for increasing the efficiency of the engines of their time.

I agree with them on one of their critical points, however. They argue that energy efficiency won’t reduce energy consumption at all, but will only encourage more consumption. Anyone that thinks improving the efficiency of automobiles will ever result in an overall reduction in oil usage is kidding themselves.

The most puzzling part of the book, however, is the last chapter. The authors present a creation of the world scenario, discussing how normal energy cycles could very well have been responsible for the creation of life on earth. This is purely speculation, of course. But even if it were true, it still wouldn’t have anything to do with the rest of the book.

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