Reviewed by Bradley Hughes
This book is simultaneously very good and deeply flawed.
Starting with the good parts: this book presents exhaustive research into how to vastly increase the efficiency of transportation, industry, buildings and electricity generation and combine that with renewable power sources.
In the section on energy use in buildings, the authors point out that “Never in our history has US building energy use trended downward.” So, the design improvements and retrofits they suggest must pay back the cost plus a “return on investment.”
They look at new designs for building-cooling systems, new materials for insulation, and LED lighting. Some of the new technologies are really cool. There are phase change materials we can put in walls and roofs that will melt as it gets hotter. They absorb heat during the day and release it at night. Rotors and fans that look like nautilus shells can move the same amount of air (or other fluids) using 30 percent less energy. There is even a combination of specially designed cooking pots and stove tops that consumes only a third of the electricity of conventional electric ranges.
Similar clever innovations are covered in the sections on transportation, industry and electricity generation. Over all, by combining much greater efficiency with renewable sources the authors show how we can eliminate fossil fuels.
A book for the 1%
The flaw of this book is that it is written for the 1%. Our role is to be amazed by the power of capitalism to make money and solve the climate crisis.
Like the class the book is written for, the authors have no understanding of the way capitalism works. They rightly point out the vast powers we control as a society to transform the natural world, and they even point out some of the draw-backs of fossil fuel use. However their assumption is that business only makes our lives better, and if there is a way to make a profit, business will follow it.
Capitalism makes some people’s lives better, but always at a cost to other people and/or the environment. A computer might improve my life, but if we consider the poison wastes created by its production along with the misery and industrial disease inflicted on the workers who built it, can we be sure that globally we are better off? This will remain true as long as profit is the driving motive.
Just because building energy-efficient cars is profitable doesn’t mean that other profitable options don’t exist. Any industry that can find a way of making more profit from environmentally destructive practices will do so. The authors designed a car to make its production more energy-efficient and cheaper, resulting in a much more fuel-efficient car. But they could not find a car company willing to build it.
Even if industries start down the road of lowering the consumption of fossil fuel based energy, this could easily make such sources cheaper, leading to greater consumption. As heating and cooling systems, and insulation have gotten more efficient, house sizes in North America have increased, requiring more energy. More energy efficiency has resulted in more energy consumption, not less.
If you really want to benefit from this book, read it to see how the solutions to eliminate fossil fuels already exist. Then help build a movement to eliminate the entwined economy and politics of capitalism that stops us from implementing them.