A Free-Market Energy Blog

On Sustainable Energy (Part I)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 9, 2012

The market order encompasses the concept of sustainability, which has been defined (Brundtland Report) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]

In a sustainable energy market, the quantity, quality, and utility of energy improve over time. Sustainable energy becomes more available, affordable, usable, and reliable. Energy consumers do not borrow from the future; they subsidize their progeny by enabling the expansion of technology and upgraded infrastructure.

The catchphrase sustainable energy encompasses the goals of security and reliability, energy availability, and environmental progress. Critics of industrial modernism censure fossil fuels, beginning with coal and continuing with oil. Relatively cleaner-burning natural gas is preferred of the three, but sometimes only as the transition fuel to an envisioned post-hydrocarbon economy.

Market failure is alleged where private benefits from producing and using carbon-based energies create net social costs (more costs than benefits). It is the invisible hand in reverse, whereby self-interested action creates a so-called negative externality. But is this the case?

Statistics support the conclusion of increasing energy sustainability, not its opposite, whether measured in terms of air emissions or resource development.[2] Regarding the latter, the natural science concept of mineral fixity—and thus depletion with every extraction—is contradicted by the business and social science reality of replenished supply and net reserve additions from entrepreneurship, or in this case, resourceship.

Feared mineral depletion and the false allure of renewables have colored energy economics and public policy from the beginning.  W. S. Jevons pessimistically calculated the coming end of Britain’s coal abundance. Samuel Insull, a resource pessimist, feared the decline of coal supplies and saw natural gas as but a fleeting respite from the past and future of gasified coal.

In 1981, leaders of the natural gas industry voiced their pessimism about future supply and prices. “Domestic oil and gas will never be in an oversupply position,” said Jack Bowen of Transco. “Planning is going forward for the day when the market may require a versatile substitute fuel for natural gas,” stated Robert Herring of Houston Natural Gas.

Both gentlemen, heading the largest interstate and intrastate gas pipeline systems in America, respectively, would be proved wrong within a year.

“Peak gas” fears, not only running-out-of-oil concerns, are not new.

Expanding ‘Depletable’ Resources

The paradox of growing exhaustible or depleting minerals—such as oil, natural gas, and coal—can be explained in terms of improving knowledge and expanding capital. “Knowledge is truly the mother of all resources,” Erich Zimmermann concluded.

Julian Simon called human ingenuity the “ultimate resource,” a nondepletable, expansive resource. “Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover,” Simon said. This was the opposite of a “closed system,” Simon found, allowing “human beings … [to] create more than they destroy.”

[1] Also see the discussion of energy optimism versus pessimism in Robert Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy(Book 1), pp. 186–88.

[2] Rising energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse (global warming) gas, is the exception to this trend. But CO2 is not a pollutant and has distinct environmental goods, not only environmental bads, to make it an externality of uncertain sign.


[NOTE: This excerpt is from the concluding chapter of Bradley’s new book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies (Wiley & Sons and Scrivener Publishing). Full documentation for this post can be found at Edison to Enron, pp. 491–493, and at http://politicalcapitalism.org/book2/pdf/Epilogue.pdf. Part II tomorrow will further examine the views of Erich Zimmermann and Julian Simon and revisit some of the false pronouncements of ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak gas’ advocates, such as James Schlesinger in the 1970s.]


  1. Floccina  

    “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    Is absurd it would mean that humanity should never have used coal or petroleum at a rate faster than it is created which means hardly at all! Look at the progress that would have been missed. I hate the term sustainable.


    • rbradley  

      Floccina: But the good news is that today’s progress opens up better tomorrows thanks to the nondepletable resource of human ingenuity. And we are ‘creating’ more minerals than we are consuming in a business/economic sense.


  2. Lionell Griffith  

    Keep in mind the so called progressives hold tight to post modernism in which the only possible knowledge is that held by the collective. Each knows only what the next knows in infinite regression summing to nothing connected to reality.

    From this perspective, nothing can be done for the first time or any time without the permission of the collective. Hence, the notion that some uncontrolled engineer will invent a new way to do more with less or exploit new resources or discover new reserves of old resources is to be greatly feared. The future must be stopped at all costs exactly because it must be invented and reinvented using what is and can be.

    How this universal stasis can be called “progressive” escapes me. It is nothing but The Divine Right of Stagnation at work. The only thing that can accomplish is poverty, despair, death, and destruction in wholesale lots.


  3. john  

    Romney is the same as Obama going back to ENRON..

    First Wind Secures $376M For UT Project



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