Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper
How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong
by Robert Bryce
Public Affairs, 2014 (400 pgs.)
Robert Bryce is optimistic about our energy future, and indeed, the future of humanity. His books and op-eds are carefully researched and clearly written. Bryce does not claim that every problem will have a technological fix, but our frequently-successful search for such fixes have led to a world in which more people are living longer and healthier lives. For example, in 1970, the average life span in the least-developed countries was 43 years. In 2011, the average for those same countries was 59 years. Almost everywhere in the world, literacy is up, mortality and maternal mortality is down, and lives are longer and better.
In this book, Bryce shows that this happy result is a direct consequence of our human quest to achieve more results while using less resources. In other words, we seek to do our work in ways that are “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.” His book covers some of the same ground as his earlier book, Power Hungry. In this book, he expands the scope to fields beyond energy.
Some of the areas that he describes are familiar to all of us: the fact that computers are smaller is no surprise to anyone. But other aspects of “smaller faster” were new to me. For example, in poor countries, cell phones can encourage commerce. In Africa and Afghanistan, most people do not have bank accounts. The ability to buy goods by cell-phone has increased commerce and partially disabled corruption. (The account is held by the cell phone company, and there are kiosks for people to deposit or withdraw cash.) In one case, Afghan policemen, paid through their cell phones, thought they had gotten a major raise. Actually, the policemen were merely getting their full pay, without their superiors skimming about 30% of their cash payments before the policemen ever saw the money.
In expected ways, and in surprising ways, the world of making things smaller, faster, lighter, denser and cheaper has led to unprecedented prosperity and health. For the energy to power this world, Bryce recommends the N2N plan described in Power Hungry: Use natural gas (N) while building advanced nuclear (N). I would amend this slightly to be sure to Keep Existing Nuclear while building advanced nuclear, but his basics are correct.
Some parts of the book are painful to read. The title of one section is pretty direct: “Biofuels are a crime against humanity.” Government and academic reports question both the practicality and the morals of biofuel production. Using land for biofuels increases the cost of food, increases the volatility of food prices, decreases the ability of poor nations to import food, and indeed, decreases our ability to feed the poor and hungry.
With many examples, Bryce shows that moving to low-density “renewable” energy would be a step backwards for human health and happiness. His analysis of McKibben’s “Energy Starvation” plan is well-referenced and scathing.
I hate to say that anything is “required reading” for everyone, but I strongly recommend that people in Vermont read this book. Why Vermont? Well, right now, Vermont has an official state energy plan that claims we will reduce statewide energy use by more than 1/3 by 2050. Further, the state of Vermont “plans” to have 90% of the remaining energy come from renewable sources by 2050. The energy plan admits that renewable sources are not as dense as conventional sources, and that the ridges planned for wind turbines are important wildlife and watershed resources. The Vermont plan is the opposite of N2N. The Vermont plan is not about making things smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper.
Will Vermonters allow this plan continue to be our state plan, in which everything is justified on the basis of “low greenhouse gases”? Are we going to use the “Energy Starvation” plan proposed by those who hate nuclear energy (which also produces no greenhouse gases) and who also don’t seem to care very much about wildlife habitat? Or will we take some reasonable version of N2N, choosing dense, relatively low-emissions energy sources.
Will Vermont continue to move to Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper, as humanity has always aimed to do? Or will we go backwards? It’s up to us, right here in Vermont, to choose a happy and prosperous future. Let’s not mess it up.
- Review by Meredith Angwin
This review appeared in the February newsletter of the Ethan Allen Institute.
While you are looking at the newsletter, let me also recommend Willem Post's article Abandoning Low Cost Hydro for Costly Renewables. Vermont is buying less power from Hydro Quebec, perhaps in the hope of building yet more instate renewables.