Physics Nobel Prize laureate Steven Chu is leaving the chair of the U.S. energy secretary.
It seems sort of weird that the Department of Energy has been morphed into an activist organization promoting negligible, ideologically justified, uneconomic sources of energy. In the past, the department actually had to care about the "bulk" of the energy in the U.S., right? For example, it had to supervise the construction of genuine, feasible, technologically new sources of energy such as nuclear power plants, right? When did the transition to "energy doesn't matter, just the renewable one does" occur?
But I want to spend some time with Chu's comments about the Stone Age.
He said the following:
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions.First, insiders will notice that this sentence isn't a sign of Chu's genius. He simply stole it from Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.
The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones, and the petroleum age won't end because we run out of petroleum.One lesson from this plagiarism is that when we transition to better solutions, they will probably not be solutions invented by the alarmists. More likely, they will be solutions invented by people who think at least slightly rationally which Steven Chu unfortunately isn't, at least when it comes to energy and the economy.
Second, Lomborg's and Chu's statements about the Stone Age look extremely similar and Lomborg also implicitly meant that the "new technologies" were the reason why the Stone Age ended but there's still a subtle difference in what they write in explicit words as well as "in between the lines". Because of this subtle difference, the messages of the two statements are pretty much exactly the opposite to one another.
Lomborg used his catchy slogan to express the – correct – idea that it makes no sense to try to conserve (or abandon) fossil fuels because there's no genuine shortage of fossil fuels in the real world and when such a shortage will appear in the future and fossil fuels will cease to be the natural best answer to the bulk of mankind's energy needs, the transition will occur automatically.
The actual logic is that we are using fossil fuels simply because they're the best solution right now and when they cease to be the best solution, e.g. because they will get too scarce and therefore expensive, people will automatically restrict their consumption (or completely abandon them) and they will switch to alternatives that will become better or cheaper (and they will spend more time and money with research if energy will be too expensive and no alternative solution will look good enough). One doesn't need secretaries to regulate such things, it's common sense.
Chu's message is a very different one. He says that we should abandon fossil fuels and look for better solutions now and throughout our behavior, we should assume that we will find a better solution rather soon. But this is just a pure speculation. What Chu seems to misunderstand is that the Stone Age didn't end because secretaries issued political declarations with lots of wishful thinking that the Stone Age should end and people should transition to better technologies. The actual causal relationship goes in the opposite direction than Chu seems to think.
Instead, the Stone Age ended when someone figured out how to use copper and its alloy with something else, typically tin, which is called bronze. When this occurred, the Stone Age ended and the Bronze Age began. (Just to remind you, it was followed by the Iron Age.) At different places of Eurasia, the know-how began to be exploited at very different moments.
How would it have looked like if a Stone Age bureaucrat issued a fatwa demanding that all the Stone Age working-class families switch to something better than stones in 5 or 10 years? What could they have invented before the deadline? What the results could be like? Could the Flintstones still drive their Chrysler XL Stone or would they be forced to switch to something like lianas and behave as monkeys, thus eliminating the advantage of our species relatively to our biological ancestors?
But you shouldn't overlook the fact that the Stone Age lasted for 2,500 years, between 4500 BC and 2000 BC or so. It couldn't have been reliably superseded in a 4-year tenure of an activist Stone Age bureaucrat. The Stone Age became obsolete not because of some political plan, ideology, or wishful thinking but because of an unexpected invention that arrives at some moment but that can't really be planned. In the same way, people may invent a superior replacement for fossil fuels in 10 years or 60 years or 300 years from now and it may become actually cheaper than fossil fuels – because the changes of prices will aid this new ranking – in 20, 80, or 350 years. We don't know and we can't plan it. It would be utterly foolish to speculate on these unknown future developments and risk our current and foreseeable future prosperity by making assumptions about the future that may very well be totally wrong. When we're planning how to spend our trillions we possess now or next year, we should build on assumptions that are very likely to hold.
Chu is a smart guy when it comes to certain things. However, his understanding of the profitability of subsidized companies is completely wrong. His understanding of the process of invention and its drivers is completely wrong. His understanding of the human history is completely wrong, too. He misunderstands that certain deep changes in the society are sparked by technological breakthroughs – that emerge according to their own, largely unpredictable and politically unplannable, timing – and not the other way around. If I summarize these things, he doesn't understand how irrelevant for the progress of the human society bureaucrats such as himself are and have been. He doesn't understand how immensely modest a piece of nothing this small Chu of himself is relatively to the overall human ingenuity and everything it still has in store. He doesn't understand how humble he should be which is why he ended with this stunning, smug, arrogance of power.
He's a very good physicist but when it comes to politics, good riddance. Well, just to be sure, I don't expect his successor to be too much rational...