The cover for Robert Bryce’s book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, repeats its title five times in different sized font. Within the pages of the book, this mantra is continuously emphasized by capitalizing the words of the title wherever they appear—smaller is always Smaller, faster is always Faster, and so on. This stylistic trick is very revealing. Bryce’s book is a quick, easy-to-understand read, with clear signposting and a modern style. Its central thesis is also somewhat simplistic.
Bryce provides many examples of the human tendency to move toward smaller, faster, lighter, denser cheaper products, communities, and methods of production. We get quick walk through history with a look at everything from the printing press to digital communications to the movement of people into cities. This information is uncontroversial. Human progress and wealth is undoubtedly correlated with increased efficiency. However, the second part of Bryce’s thesis—that our ability to do more with less “continually proves catastrophists wrong”—is less well supported.
In order to justify his optimistic view, Bryce would have needed to prove that our collective drive toward Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper will minimize environmental damage by either:
Instead, his only argument to prove his thesis is to say that “density is green” and we have a tendency to move towards dense technologies.
Bryce spends much time arguing why various other “green” solutions won’t work. Specifically, he focuses on why any approach to energy that is not smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper will fail, both for environmental and economic reasons. Solar and wind power only produce 1 watt per square meter. Enormous quantities of land would have to be set aside in order to effectively replace fossil fuels. Additionally, turbines are loud and kill birds, and there is something ironic about the growing food crops for fuel in countries that have problems with hunger. Therefore, while various green groups may champion renewables, they do so without acknowledging their crippling and wasteful inefficiency.
Meanwhile, oil is dense. Natural gas is also dense. Nuclear power is the densest. The areal power density inside the center of an average reactor is about 338 megawatts per square meter. That’s huge! If we embrace these solutions, energy use will become increasingly efficient. The one hiccup in the plan? Coal. Since we embrace cheaper even more than we embrace denser, and coal is cheapest, coal continues to dominate, despite being heavy and polluting. Therefore, we must make other options cheaper as well. This is quite feasible as long as excessive legislation does not stand in the way. In fact, the combination of natural gas and nuclear energy has already reduced America’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 54 billion tons over the last six decades.
Bryce declares himself an agnostic when it comes to climate change, writing only that carbon dioxide levels are rising. His emphasis on efficient energy has more to do with spreading smaller faster lighter denser cheaper ways of life to developing countries than saving our ecosystems. However, the question still stands: can density alone minimize environmental damage? Bryce does not attempt to answer.
Divergent Technologies is certainly smaller, faster, lighter, denser, and cheaper. Considering humankinds preferences and economic trends (as discussed by Bryce), we feel optimistic about the future of DM, even if we remain more concerned about the future of the planet.