Today, a new take on energy conservation. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Herbert Inhaber and Harry
Saunders take a disturbing look at energy
conservation. They begin in 1845. An English
mathematician, William Stanley Jevons, had just
written a book titled The Coal
Question. Watt's new engines were eating up
English coal. Once it was gone, England was in
trouble. And Jevons wrote:
... some day our coal seams [may] be found
emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a
coal-cellar. Our fires and furnaces ... suddenly
extinguished, and cold and darkness ... left to
reign over a depopulated country.
The answer seemed to lie in creating more efficient
steam engines. Jevons may not have realized that
steam engines were already closing in on
thermodynamic limits of efficiency. But he did see
that increased efficiency wouldn't save us in any
Look at the Watt engine, he said. It was invented
because the older Newcomen engine was so
inefficient. Did Watt cut coal consumption by
quadrupling efficiency? Quite the contrary. By
making steam power more efficient, he spread the
use of steam throughout the land. Coal consumption
A few years later, Henry Bessemer invented a new
highly energy-efficient scheme for smelting steel.
Jevons's argument played out once more. Now that we
could have cheap steel, we began making everything
from it -- plows, toys, even store fronts.
Energy-efficiency had again driven coal consumption
We saw Jevons's script replaying yet again after
the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Our response was
to create more energy-efficient cars. Since then,
Americans have increased the number of miles
they've driven to 162 percent of what it was.
Right on the heels of Jevons, Karl Marx went back
to the efficiency argument. Marx believed that
production would become so efficient as to
eliminate most work. Few failures of Marxist theory
were as dramatic as this one. Industrialization
freed us all right. It freed us to find other
things to work at.
At the very beginning of the 19th century, William
Blake wrote, "Energy is pure delight." It may
appear that our ecology and our survival are doomed
as we ride the delightful downward roller coaster
of energy production and consumption.
Still, Inhaber and Saunders offer hope. Sure, they
trash any hope of creating a decent world with
laissez-faire mechanisms. But they also remind us
that we will conserve energy when we, as
individuals, want to conserve energy. We'll
conserve energy when we choose to turn off the
lights as we leave the room -- when we choose to
recycle bottles and ride the bus. It is you and I
who'll save ourselves. It's never been anyone else
-- not our government, not the collective. You and
I will save the world -- but only when we realize
how badly we want to save it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds