The Bottomless Well – Huber and Mills

Book Review By: Wendell Krossa

Some comments on the book The Bottomless Well by Huber and Mills. Originally posted with JBAS Mar. 3/06

I have just read The Bottomless Well by Huber and Mills. This is another of the many books on the unbounded potential of humanity and the rising trajectory of life.  In this work the authors set forth the rising nature of life against the backdrop of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inevitable dissipation of energy.  They offer some good new insights such as, according to the Second Law, waste is virtuous in that we dissipate (waste) lower level energy (fuel oil) in order to create higher level energy (e.g. electricity).  This virtuous waste is necessary for life to become more ordered.

Some quotes and comments- humanity is destined to find and consume more energy and more still, forever.  Energy supplies are unlimited.

They argue that energy concepts are entirely misunderstood and hard to get right.  Once again, environmentalists have things all wrong.  Some heresies they propose- the cost of energy has less and less to do with the cost of fuel. Waste is virtuous- we use up most of our energy refining energy itself, dumping waste energy in the process. This waste lets us do more life-affirming things better, more cleanly, and more safely

The more efficient we get the more energy we consume. The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging back toward the US.  As ever new technologies replace older ones, the Luddites are proven wrong again and again.  Yes, old technologies die out and make people redundant, but new ones employ more people at higher wages doing less onerous work.

Another heresy- we will never stop craving more and we should never wish to.  Life is energy in unceasing pursuit of order in tireless battle against the forces of dispersion and decay.  Here I am reminded of Eliade in the Myth of the Eternal Return and the fact that religion has been a struggle against chaos and to maintain order.  The faster we extract and burn the faster we find more.  Energy supplies are infinite.

And a last heresy- America’s relentless pursuit of high-grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, it restores order.  So much good insight that contravenes intuitive ideas held broadly in the public.

This book, say the authors, is a chronicle of humanity’s struggle against the second law of thermodynamics and the impulse to create order.  It is about what humanity is; the organizing principle of life is the most powerful thing. Chaos (thermodynamics is simply the backdrop against which this story of rising life can be lived out).

I won’t include material on all the data graphs which show that historical trends defy all intuition.  Energy does beget more energy and human logic or intelligence is what drives all this movement toward order, just as logic or intelligence from the beginning drove life toward more order.

The book shows that the price of energy has dropped steadily over history.  It also goes into the technologies that have enabled humanity to harness energy in the creation of more order; Watt’s steam engine and on up to computer power.  We exponentially get better at concentrating power, ordering the streams of power and concentrating power in smaller and more powerful systems.

The chapter on the second law is quite stimulating in its fresh look at waste as virtuous.  It is by throwing energy overboard that we maintain and increase the order of our existence.  This is the process of purifying energy or power.  This is our main use of energy- to purify energy itself.  Massive amounts of low grade energy are consumed to deliver relatively small amounts of high grade power.  The important goal here is order.  Energetic order is important not energy itself.  In distancing ourselves from chaos we waste and employ the second law in our pursuit of more order.  We make the second law (dissipation of energy) our servant to continue the rise of life toward more order.  What permits order to increase is not the input of high grade energy but the dumping of low grade energy, or chaos, to surrounding areas.  To increase the order of anything, including the order in energy itself, you must dump waste energy out the back door.  A system sheds entropy- chaos- only by shedding energy itself, in the form of waste heat.  To produce more well-ordered energy, faster, in less space- to increase power density, one must throw away more energy, faster.  Waste is virtuous.  You cannot get or maintain good things without dumping heat.  Life and growth being inescapably dissipative processes, waste is as virtuous as life itself.

Humanity has a deep seated aversion to chaos.  I have skipped over chapters of detailed info on the development of various forms of energy and fascinating trends in energy use.  Many insights such as how each new trend in energy use leads to greater productivity, greater employment and greater wealth, goes against all the false intuition of the environmental movement which misses the fundamental generosity of life.  Rising employment goes hand in hand with rising consumption and rising discovery and rising order:  it’s the unstoppable trend of life. They note various doomsters who predicted collapse and decay and were proven wrong again and again.  Every person in America is now served by the equivalent of about two hundred servants, yet most people are still gainfully employed.  All the labor saving developments don’t lead to more unemployment but to more employment and more income for all.  Its counter intuitive but its history.

The amazing thing is that with all this development we are impacting nature less and less.  More and more land is returned to forest with the development of our high use energy economies.

There is also some interesting stuff on carbon sinks.  American land absorbs more carbon than the country emits.  It is not contributing to world pollution.  Fossil emissions are 1.6 petagrams (1.6 billion metric tons) a year and terrestrial uptake is 1.6 to 1.7 petagrams a year.  This was published in Science (Oct. 1998).

Idealists would actually destroy the environment.  Drilling for oil and driving a SUV uses 10 times less land than growing food to fuel a bicyclist.  Such options are land hungry, territory expanding and damaging.  Nature ideology misses these basic facts.

The material on genetic order- DNA- is also interesting.  Design, intelligence and logic all impose order on chaos. Order is the essence of logic, wisdom, intelligence, and life.  We will always want more order and hence the pursuit of more energy and the incontrovertible fact is that energy supplies haven’t run down, but have run up. This is related to the very rise of life itself.  DNA is part of the ordering of chaos and the intelligent use of energy. Life is progress from chaos to coherence; from muddle to order. There is a creative thrust in all history. The total amount of order grows and is folded into more and more complex forms.  After noting the various explanations for the rise of initial life (the primordial soup) and the mysteries surrounding this, the authors end by quoting Genesis. God said, let there be light and there was light.

Perhaps logic and power are really one and the same.  At the time of creation there was infinite power in zero-space and thus, perhaps, infinite logic in that one place and time.

Good read. Wendell Krossa