Defending Human Ingenuity And Innovation
Review of Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper by Robert Bryce (Public Affairs, 2014).
Worldwide living standards are getting better, driven by humans' desire for making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper. This is the title of Robert Bryce's new book in which he devotes 300 pages to refuting the claims of those neo-Malthusians who think mankind is near or at "peak everything."
Instead of accepting this "collapse anxiety," Bryce, a senior fellow and my colleague at the Manhattan Institute, provides a full-throated defense of human ingenuity and innovation. Getting back to nature à la Rousseau, Thoreau, and Carson by embracing renewable energy and decreased standards of living is not the way of the future. To continue the advancement of the developed and non-developed world, policymakers need to stop inhibiting progress and embrace the world's master resource-energy.
Bryce begins his book by proving that "more people are living longer, healthier, freer, more peaceful, lives than at any time in human history." Still, in the face of this progress, "there remains an entrenched and powerful interest group that believes we humans are doing too much, that we must reduce our consumption of everything."
Innovation is all about doing more with less. Human history has been marked by this desire. All forms of progress, from the printing press, to the steam engine, to cloud computing, to the electric guitar, are driven by this natural inclination. None of this progress would have been possible without energy and the electricity it provides.
Turning to oil, Bryce says, "No other commodity inspires more passion, or more witless hyperbole, than petroleum. Nevertheless, the world runs on oil. It will continue running on oil for decades to come." In 2012, U.S. daily oil production increased by nearly 800,000 barrels. This was the biggest increase in the storied history of oil production in the United States.
Oil has a high energy density (measured in joules or BTUs contained in a given volume or mass), it has remained affordable, and can be easily and safely transported. For these reasons, policymakers should be figuring out how to make this "miracle substance" more affordable and readily available, not condemning it as tyrannical as President Obama has.
Renewable energy produced from wind, solar, and biofuels, many people's preferred alternatives to oil, is not dense enough and requires too much land for energy produced. Additionally, burning food for fuel is not a productive policy-especially when doing so requires billions of dollars in taxpayer funding.
As Bryce puts it, "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper" is connecting the world. Forty percent of the world's electricity comes from coal. If advances in computing are to continue, and if internet access is to grow, the world needs more electricity. Renewable energy will not produce this increase. In 2011, U.S. data centers consumed 47 times as much electricity as all U.S. solar projects produced.
About seven percent of the world's electricity is used for our efforts to stay connected. Cutting back would have dire consequences for global wealth and personal freedom. As Bryce says, "If there's one indisputable truth about the Information Age, it's this: the Faster the bits, the freer and richer the people. The inverse of that statement is also true: the slower the bits, the less free and poorer the people."
Besides the technology that allows for instantaneous international communication, international travel times and prices, propelled by jet fuel and diesel, have fallen drastically over the past half century. In 1946, a flight from New York to Paris cost nearly $8,000 in today's dollars and 20 hours, and the trip took five days aboard an ocean liner. Now travelers have dozens of options for around $1,000 and can make the trip in 8 hours.
The right question to ask is not why we have poverty-it is why we have wealth. Until the recent growth that was enabled by access to cheap, efficient energy, humans lived very difficult lives. The past age that extreme environmentalists romanticize lacked social, intellectual, and economic mobility and was marked by lives of deprivation.
Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world lived on under $1 a day. Today, that number is only 16 percent, and falling. Those who want to return humanity to the time when the average life span was under 50 years (the United States before 1900 and the least-developed countries until the last quarter century) are advocating complete rejection of progress and the prosperity that accompanies it.
Bryce is not someone who believes that technology can solve all problems, that we will never run out of natural resources, or that innovation has no negative consequences. What he does believe is that people are continually figuring out ways to do more with less. Bryce also considers himself part of the "climate agnostic" tribe. He is more interested in policies that foster innovation, which then allows people to conquer the challenges posed by the natural world, including climate change.
Bryce argues that global CO2 emissions are not going to decline anytime soon. Hydrocarbons produce 87 percent of the world's total energy needs. People in poor countries want the immense benefits that come with abundant, affordable electricity, and coal is their answer. Until there is a source of fuel that can produce electricity cheaper than coal can, nothing is going to stop rising emissions-especially not another feel-good conference of first world leaders that makes vague promises to do something.
However, natural gas and nuclear power offer low-carbon solutions to the world's increasing appetite for growth. Natural gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal does during electricity generation. The growth in U.S. natural gas production has done more to decrease CO2 emissions than every green energy government-mandated program in Europe.
Nuclear power plants have 2,100 times as much power density as wind energy. As Bryce repeatedly points out, density is green. Nuclear energy remains expensive and there are important safety risks to mitigate, but it is still in its infancy. Nuclear is the future, not renewable energy. As Bryce says, "We humans have been relying on renewable energy for thousands of years. And what did we learn in all that time? We found that renewable energy stinks."
Additionally, the terrible accident at Fukushima shows how safe nuclear has become. The disaster that led to the meltdown could not have been more severe and the failure of the plant was complete. Yet, environmental damage and radiation exposure were low and no deaths from radiation have been observed.
Bryce writes that if someone is anti-carbon and anti-nuclear, they are anti-growth and pro-blackout. Being against these two forms of energy is far from humanitarian since "degrowth" will return a large portion of the world to short lives of mere substance.
The future lies in density and cities mean density. Modern cities foster the innovation and prosperity that has marked the modern age. However, people still need to eat, and denser food production is what allows for cities.
The push towards organic farming and against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is unproductive. If U.S. farms relied on organic farming, nearly 40 percent more farmland would be necessary to produce as much food. This is not only harmful for humans-it is unhelpful for the environment. Bryce writes, "Any wide-scale effort to enforce agricultural techniques that will decrease the density of production could be a recipe for higher prices, increased deforestation, and possibly even mass starvation."
Bryce sees America as dominating the "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper" future. Despite our political flaws, he says our history of entrepreneurship and our necessary natural and intellectual resources will continue driving innovation. I admit the United States does have many advantages, but if it continues its slide in economic freedom, its overburdening tax and regulatory environment will stifle future growth.
While some of the book's arguments and profiles are unnecessary (did you know that Johnny Manziel took all his courses online one semester or that only 21 riders finished the Tour de France in 1903?), even the sidetracks are still as interesting as the rest of Bryce's writing. His calculations of energy density are straightforward, and they are useful in displaying just how ridiculous are some claims by anti-carbon environmentalists (see the excerpt from his book "Green" Computing Can't Power the Cloud on Economics21.org).
Bryce has an important message that is lost on many commentators in the media today-that the world has gotten much better. But perhaps his biggest contribution is the clear mandate he provides for the support of future innovation powered by natural gas and nuclear energy.
Most people in developing countries want to increase their life spans and embrace progress. They want to join Bryce's future-one where human ingenuity is set free to build everything "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper."