Category — Book Reviews
“Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson” (Reassessing environmentalism’s fateful turn from science to advocacy)
“Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Thus, while the book provided a range of notable ideas, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance.”
- Roger Meiners, et. al (cover insert)
Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement when published 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has had a profound impact on our society. While Carson was not the first to write about the dangers of pesticides or to sound environmental alarms, her writing style and ability to reach out to a broad audience allowed her to capture and retain the attention of the public.
Yet this iconic book, hardly scrutinized over the decades, substituted sensationalism for fact and apocalyptic pronouncements for genuine knowledge.
Our just released 11-author study, Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, reexamines Carson’s historical context and science, as well as the policy consequences of Silent Spring‘s core ideas. We assembled scholars from different disciplines and asked them to evaluate Carson’s work given the state of knowledge at the time she was writing. What information was available that she ignored? Where did she deviate from accepted science of the day?
Our findings are unsettling. Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Thus, while the book provided a range of notable ideas, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance.
Despite her reputation as a careful science- and fact-based writer, Carson produced a best-seller full of significant errors and sins of omission. Three areas are particularly noteworthy:
· Carson vilified the use of DDT and other pest controls in agriculture but ignored their role in saving millions of lives worldwide from malaria, typhus, dysentery, among other diseases. Millions of deaths, and much greater human suffering, ultimately resulted from pesticide bans as part of disease-eradication campaigns. Carson knew of the beneficial effects of DDT, but never discussed it; her story was all negative. [Read more →]
September 21, 2012 14 Comments
[Ed. note: On August 27, 1997, the Cato Institute published Policy Analysis #280, which criticized the government push to subsidize politically correct renewable energy, particularly solar and windpower. Today and tomorrow, different authors revisit what was the free-market-movement's first full-scale rebuttal, on economic and environmental grounds, to so-called "green" energy policy .]
“The policy implication of [a thorough examination of renewable technologies] is, stop throwing good money after bad. All renewable energy subsidies from all levels of government should cease.”
Such is the conclusion voiced today by a rising chorus of energy experts, economists, even politicians, after many years of failed renewables projects and more expensive utility bills in the growing shadow of a $16 trillion national debt ($140,000 per taxpayer). But, remarkably, fifteen years have passed since Rob Bradley crafted this statement for the Cato Institute as the bottom line of his comprehensive six-part policy alarum, Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not ‘Green’‘
An Opening Shot
Few knew about or shared Bradley’s concerns at the time. Even more remarkably, his analysis was at odds with the policy direction of his employer, Enron, as Ken Lay’s political capitalism began promoting renewable investment as sustainable tax shelters.
By taking his concerns public, even as a scholar, Bradley risked much as Enron’s director of public policy analysis. Sparks flew as executives within Enron Wind Corporation digested Bradley’s external work (see these internal memos).
Bradley’s one-person stand also challenged the (Enron-directed) energy policies of Texas governor George W. Bush (and what would be the policies of his successor, Rick Perry). For Bradley, there was indeed a problem in Houston…. [Read more →]
August 27, 2012 6 Comments
Consider the preconceptions that surface in your mind when you read the name “Enron”. Chances are that they are negative, and not particularly nuanced — fraudulent business activity, tarnishing the idea of free markets by trying to manipulate them using the political process, and so on.
If that’s true for you, then you are probably in a pretty similar mental space to mine when I started reading Rob Bradley’s Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies. Rob’s detailed and thoroughly researched book is a well-told analysis of the valuable and interesting regulatory and business history that formed the backdrop of Enron’s spectacular failure.
Samuel Insull, Father of Modern Electricity
The name of the book is somewhat misleading, because the first third of the book focuses not on Thomas Edison but on Samuel Insull. Insull, the oldest son of a working class family in Victorian England, emigrated to the U.S. (at age 21) after several years of a successful financial career in London.
Insull brought, and sharpened, his business acumen to complement Edison’s inventive creativity. Together they built the company that was renamed General Electric in 1892. But it was Insull’s business genius after he left the manufacturing side of the business to enter the distribution side (integrated from power generation to delivery), which accelerated the electrification of the country.
Rob tells Insull’s story extremely well, and provides extensive links to supporting material that illustrates how important Insull’s contributions were to Edison’s success individually and as a business/set of businesses.
With his analysis Rob also argues that Insull’s business skill generated substantial social value (i.e., consumer surplus as well as profit). That point is incontrovertible, but the story is not told often enough or well enough, and Rob has done so here.
I appreciated this part of the book in particular because although I am familiar with Insull’s biography, I did not realized that his business model advocacy had shaped our modern electricity industry so dramatically; for example, Insull consistently pursued acquisitions and consolidation that led to reduced costs through economies of scale, but always advocated for pairing those moves with reductions in retail prices to consumers. The companies he headed that followed this strategy profited while charging lower prices, in the absence of formal economic regulation.
Insull was, though, always an advocate for regulation, largely because he worried that rising debt service costs would make it difficult to pursue this model. [Read more →]
July 25, 2012 2 Comments
While recently researching energy history for a writing project, I was reminded of how valuable–and underrated–Robert Bradley’s Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience is. While there are countless books covering the history of energy from one angle or another, very few, in my experience, can be counted on for precision and accuracy.
The majority of books I read that reference early petroleum history, for example, tell a radically oversimplified narrative of petroleum replacing whale oil. However, if one reads Harold Williamson and Arnold Daum’s definitive two-volume The American Petroleum Industry,  one learns about a far more intricate and interesting progress, including the one-time dominance of camphene, a turnpentine-based illuminant that preceded petroleum–or the story of “coal oil,” which was once believed to be the illuminant of the future. (I discuss this history in my essay Energy at the Speed of Thought: The Original Alternative Energy Market.)
What distinguishes Williamson and Daum–and Oil, Gas, and Government–is the systematic use of primary sources. For a researcher, this certainly makes life more difficult as it is far easier to use popular accounts as jumping-off points.
But the researchers who undergo this difficult task give the rest of us an enduring resource. Williamson and Daum present the essential technological and economic history of the industry through the 1950s, with exact quantitative data and contemporaneous images throughout. Bradley’s book gives us the essential political and political-economic history of the oil and gas industry through the 1980s, with pains-taking attention to detail. [Read more →]
May 25, 2012 2 Comments
“If you want to be an economist, it would be wise to study the economy.” 
It was a simple but profound statement made in an everyday email exchange. The writer was Peter Boettke, the author of an important new book, Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (reviewed below), which makes a case for realistic, applicable, fascinating economics in place of so much of the hyper-theoretical, classroom variety.
Real-world economics elucidates the world of business, politics, and decision-making in general. Such analysis and application brings in real-world energy, the subject of MasterResource and much of my books.
A prolific scholar, Dr. Boettke is BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Mercatus Center, and University Professor of Economics and Philosophy, Department of Economics, all at George Mason University. He was profiled for his good teaching work in the Wall Street Journal piece, Spreading Hayek, Spurning Keynes.
Boettke is considered a leader of Generation 6 of the Austrian School of Economics.  Yes, the iconic Milton Friedman said there was only good economics and bad economics, and not schools of thought. But Austrianism is surely a useful way of characterizing real-world economics premised on sound assumptions and logical reasoning.
Hail to Boettke’s new book! What follows is a review, “Economics By and For Human Beings,” by big-picture-thinker Jeffrey Tucker. Tucker, formerly of the Mises Institute, is now executive editor at Laissez-Faire Books. [Read more →]
May 18, 2012 No Comments
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
A consensus of the world’s leading scientific bodies and governments has proved that our current way of life, in which individuals can produce, consume, and procreate as they choose, is unsustainable and self-destructive. We must, therefore give the government the power it needs to end the threat that we pose to ourselves.
This is, of course, the central narrative of the Green movement’s call for a ban (partial or total) on the lifeblood of industrial civilization, hydrocarbons, in the name of preventing global warming.
To many Americans, this narrative seems airtight. The “consensus” of “science” is portrayed as a virtually unanimous collection of ruthlessly objective minds all independently arriving at the same inexorable conclusion from the same unambiguous data.
But if they read Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin, they will not only learn some of the fallacies of the global warming narrative in particular, they will see that this exact narrative of a “scientific” claim that freedom is unsustainable has been used in the past to promote coercive population control and eugenics policies, killing millions and bringing misery to millions more.
They will also see that the “scientific consensuses” of the past–that the earth can only hold so many people, or that freedom of procreation leads to a disastrous design in the gene pool–were utter pseudo-science. And, most importantly, they will understand how this was possible: the “scientists” in question were steeped in and corrupted by a deeply false philosophy–the same philosophy underlying the Green movement today. [Read more →]
May 11, 2012 11 Comments
Whether it is a new fuel efficiency standard for cars, bans on incandescent light-bulbs, or those commercials touting businesses’ commitment to lowering their carbon footprint, the idea that we can reduce carbon emissions by using energy more efficiently is a mantra of our age.
In fact, energy efficiency is considered to be so important that it is sometimes said to be a “fifth fuel” along with coal, petroleum, nuclear, and “alternative” energy. And who can forget Amory Lovins’s term negawatt in this regard?
But as New Yorker staff writer David Owen details in his new book The Conundrum, the idea that we can reduce our energy use by buying the right products is based on flawed economic reasoning.
Improving efficiency and related conservation are not unique to energy but all resources. They are part of the natural, self-interested capitalist process. Resource economist Erich Zimmermann noted back in 1933:
Today the conservation movement is led by sober business men and is based on the cold calculations of the engineers. Conservation, no longer viewed as a political issue, has become a business proposition…. The old school looked on conservation as a governmental function; the new school believes in entrusting it to the hands of business men and engineers.
The energy conservation movement of our era begin during the 1970s energy crisis, when oil and natural gas price controls in the United States spawned the energy crisis.  Since then, energy efficiency has had a life of its own in the public discourse and in government capitals. [Read more →]
May 2, 2012 9 Comments
“Edison to Enron … [is] the second part of a three-volume series on the history of American energy, told through the distinction between productive and predatory capitalism. Bradley is a very much underrated economic historian, largely because of his ‘amateur’ [nonacadmic] status, but there is a remarkable amount of learning in his books.”
- Tyler Cowen, ‘What I’ve Been Reading,’ Marginal Revolution, November 15, 2011.
Last Friday afternoon in our nation’s capital, Robert L. Bradley, Jr., a prominent figure in the esoterica of energy markets, unveiled the Project on which he has labored for a decade before a full room at the American Enterprise Institute. Kenneth Green moderated, and comments were provided by Stephen Hayward and yours truly. My formal remarks follow.
Enter stage right, our protagonist with The Bradley Project. He has three arrows in his quiver, a trilogy of books that will be the authoritative commentary on American political capitalism and energy policy inspired by the rise and fall of Enron (where Bradley worked for 16 years).
He artfully aims his first arrow, (Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy) a political economy text that forges a path for his second onslaught (Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies), a history text that applies the economic principles of Book 1 to the natural gas and electric industries from their 19thcentury inception to about 1985.
Both books are dense and lengthy–but very readable. Bradley tackles the vast literature behind subjects and provides hundreds of pages of documentation. For the most serious scholars (are there many anymore?), he provides Internet appendices per chapter, no less than 52 for Book 1 and 74 for Book 2. The extra mile seems to have been run in virtually all instances.
His actions set the economic, political, and historical stage for his yet unleashed third arrow, a text that will mine the Enron debacle and its aftermath for trenchant insights that will help both academics and energy professionals better understand what happened but more importantly, develop insight for the future regarding the nexus of politics and the market economy.
· Act I (today): the Bradley Project is brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed, and will stand the test of time.
· Act II (tomorrow): his perspective pierces the veil that hides the excrescence that passes as the current sorry state of energy policy.
· Act III (Saturday): dare we venture that there is such a thing as sound government intervention, heretical as that may be in this crowd.
· Act IV (Sunday): the future or, who is John Galt? [Read more →]
February 2, 2012 1 Comment
Reconstructing Climate Policy: Beyond Kyoto By Richard B. Stewart and Jonathan B. Wiener 193 pp., Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2003. This review was published in Regulation magazine (Cato Institute). MasterResource revisits Mr. Singer’s book review and asks: how does it read today?
What is it about academic economists that makes them salivate like Pavlovian dogs whenever they hear the magic words “market solution”? Sure, market-based solutions are always more efficient and less liable to be politically influenced than those based on command-and-control. But before we apply solutions, should we not first ask if there is a problem that needs to be solved?
And so it is with this book. The authors confidently assert the existence of a future climate problem more or less on faith, but they also see many difficulties with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that is supposed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. So they propose a clever alternative to Kyoto — yet another solution to a non-problem.
They visualize a U.S.-China bilateral deal to limit emissions (mainly of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning) that would operate in parallel with the Kyoto Protocol (which neither country plans to ratify). In their plan, the United States buys emission rights from an arbitrary excess quota allotted to China. The authors call it “headroom” but I call it a subsidy. The United States pays, China gets, and the atmosphere does not benefit because emissions continue essentially unabated.
Eventually and somehow, this U.S.-China deal is supposed to merge with Kyoto. Every nation in the world would then actually limit its emissions, and thereby save the climate, humanity, and Lord knows what else. What a pious hope!
What else is wrong with the Stewart-Wiener scheme? Plenty, although it may be no worse than another dozen or so clever schemes thought up by other lawyers, economists, and policy analysts that are duly referenced in this volume but never critically discussed. Is there some kind of gentlemen’s agreement here? [Read more →]
January 11, 2012 8 Comments
It was five years ago that I began to become aware of energy and the importance of its role in everything. Now as a regular contributor/columnist for many online commentary sites and newspapers, as well as a regular guest on radio and TV programs, people often comment on my passion for the subject of energy. They wonder how I became so engaged in a topic few people even care about.
My newest book, my twentieth but the first in the current affairs genre, explains my passion. Energy Freedom attempts to present energy in such a way that it becomes a subject everyone is aware of, can understand, and wants to influence.
I do not come from an energy, science, or public policy background. I’ve spent my life in speaking and writing either as a communicator or a trainer of communicators. When circumstances in my personal life mandated that I get a real job, I never imagined that I could be so enthusiastic about something not of my own making.
In September 2006, I accepted a position at Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE) and became Executive Director on January 1, 2007. Back then, like most people, I knew little more about energy than putting gas in my car or flipping a switch on the wall. Since then, I’ve had some great teachers and been an eager student.
In my personal energy education, I’ve read many exhaustive tomes offering a thorough treatment on the subject. Engineers or professors wrote the books. If you want to understand the difference between a watt, horsepower, and a joule, I can recommend several books for you—but not Energy Freedom. My book is for the average American energy consumer who knows that energy costs are going up, but doesn’t understand why; and for the person who is newly politically engaged out of concern for the direction America is heading. [Read more →]
October 28, 2011 5 Comments