The energy shelf is a relatively recent addition to the bookstore. It dates back to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, an event which galvanized american society into sudden awareness of the fragility of something that was taken for granted.
Today a browser finds this shelf filled with books of various ideological and technical persuasions. The best are changing the course of national energy policy. Most are gathering dust.
One volume that has influenced the energy debate is Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School, edited by Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin (New York: Ballantine/Vintage, paperback $2.95). Published in hardcover in 1979 and in revised paperback last fall, it is one of the few books on this subject to become a best seller, and even when compared with newer books it is one of the most impressive.
The reason is partly its liveliness and readability, partly the grass-roots appeal of is its basic message: Conservation and solar energy are, overall, the least expensive and most practical options open to us and should be pursued more vigorously. This book confers a new aura of respectability on alternative energy sources that in the past were considered too expensive and exotic.
Most books on the energy shelf have a common failing. They treat the subject as a new issue which sprang suddenly on an unsuspecting nation seven years ago. This oversight is rectified by America's Energy (New York: Pantheon Books, hardcover $17.95, paperback $7.95). Edited by Robert Engler, this volume consists of articles from The Nation magazine, dating back as far as a century. The message: that the ongoing energy debate is just the latest manifestation of a long-running power struggle.
This collection reexamines forgotten battles over coal, electricity, oil, and nuclear power. Though all of the articles are written from a populist bias and some of them lack a necessary context, they vividly bring home the fact that, underneath the technical rhetoric, a fundamental political struggle is being waged.
This perspective is invaluable when reading Energy In Transition: 1985-2010 (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman $11.95), the result of an important energy project at the National Academy of Sciences. Dry and fact-filled, the report's businesslike tone gives no clue of the internal controversy which delayed its being issued for several years. More than other volumes covered here, "Energy In Transition" represents the thinking of the academic and industry experts in this field, whose ideas are closely allied with the industry's political and monetary clout.
Yet the report contains some surprising recommendations, such as one involving conservation: "All in all, conservation deserves the highest immediate priority in energy planning." this statement represents a radical change in the position of the experts. Conservation has been like motherhood and apple pie in one respect; everyone is for it, but not enough to make it a top priority in national planning. Apparently that is now beginning to change.
The slow evolution of attitudes among energy experts may be the entering wedge of an entirely new world view. That, at least, is the prediction of Jeremy Rifkin, author of entropy (New York: The Viking Press, $10.95) [reviewed in more detail in the Monitor's Monthly Book Section Nov. 10, 1980]. Entropy is a concept in thermodynamics, the science of how heat acts. It involves the fact that energy flows only from ordered, concentrated states to disordered, diffuse states. Mr. Rifkin reads much, much more into this: "The Entropy Law destroys the notion of history as progress. The Entropy Law destroys the notion that science and technology create a more ordered world," etc.
As suggested by these statements, "Entropy" is a polemic. In his enthusiasm, the author has exaggerated and, in a few cases rewritten, history. Nevertheless , the throught-provoking ideas he presents merit consideration. Even if it does not have the over-arching implications with which Mr. Rifkin imbues it, entropy does have some immediate relevance to our current energy situation.
This relevance is spelled out in Our Enery: Regaining Control, by Marc H. Ross and Robert H. Williams (New York: McGraw-Hill, $16.95). The authors argue that "the present emphasis on developing high- cost energy sources to support growing energy demands is fundamentally ill-conceived." america's supply-oriented energy policy has led to increasing centralization, the economists argue. Moving toward greater reliance on market mechanisms involves increasing the energy efficiency of our economy, i.e., energy conservation.
Considered from the point of view of entropy, the US economy is incredibly inefficient. " . . . The opportunities for improving energy efficiency are so great that total energy demand could actually decrease over several decades without adversely affecting the economy," they say.
Now, if Mr. Reagan can only turn the wisdom of the experts into action.