THAT TRUSTY Washington cliche -- "multifaceted" -- seems, for once, apropos when pondering the energy dilemma. There is the economic facet: traditional fuels (notably oil and natural gas) are becoming scarce and costly, while promising sources for the future have yet to demonstrate commercial attractiveness. There is a geopolitical facet: how to deal with acutely insecure energy supplies from abroad. There is the environmental facet: which types of energy are least inimical to public health and safety, and to natural surroundings. There is the technological facet: what works in principle or at laboratory scale may not work in practice and at commercial scale. There is, finally, a pervasive emotional and ideological facet: society is deeply divided in its values regarding energy and the economic benefits energy is supposed to confer, as a result, people's views of energy "realities" are strongly colored by these values. The balancing act involved in building a national consensus and fashioning sensible public policies out of this complex array of factors is understandably something to behold -- to which anyone privileged to witness a Congressional energy drafting session or debate can attest.
All this by was of suggesting that treating these topics with the evenhandedness appropriate to an audience of 10-to-15-year-olds is not a trivial undertaking. On the whole, the books under review meet the challenge quite well.
Feast or Famine sets out to explore the range of alternatives available to meet future energy needs but, in fact, confines itself largely to showing how we can use energy more efficiently in homes and transportation and exploring the prospects for innovative conversion and delivery systems. Author Franklyn Branley believes we can achieve more efficiency through the use of electricity -- conceivably based on nuclear fission or fusion. (He acknowledges nuclear risks but remains basically optimistic.) He describes Swedish conservation practices in some detail and finds them worthy of emulation. The discussion is instructive, but lessons for the United States are somewhat overdrawn. For example, much of our residential pattern is too dispersed to take advantage of the district-heating methods used by the more concentrated Swedish population. Also, the author should -- without choking off the youthful idealism he obviously seeks to tap -- recognize that it may take decades to convert America's buildings, equipment, transport network, etc., to use energy more efficiently. This affects the rate at which we can adopt new ideas and practices. But Branley voices his message undogmatically and with restraint.
The production and combustion of coal can have some detrimental consequences. So it is difficult to be rhapsodic about its enduring, large-scale use. It does, however, figure to be a significant transitional energy source, as conventional oil and gas resources diminish during the next several decades and while solar and other renewable energy sources gain a more secure position. Charles Coombs' book does a nice job of describing, with considerable sophistication, the mining, transport and utilization of coal. Although Coombs recognizes the environmental dangers of coal use, he does not cover two principal threats -- acid rain and climatic effects of carbon dioxide release. Nor do the high risks of the miner's occupation get their due. The book seems much more suitable for the high rather than low end of the publisher's suggested age range of 10-14.
Earth Power tells youngsters about an energy phenomenon which those who have visited Old Faithful, read about Mt. St. Helens, or used electricity in San Francisco may already appreciate. (But Madeleine Yates' assertion that geothermal energy from the Geysers, near San Francisco, electrifies 1 million homes is wildly exaggerated.) This short book clearly describes the various forms of geothermal heat, its actual and potential use in the United States and elsewhere, and the drawbacks (contaminants, noise, smell, location, cost) that presently prevent widespread adoption.
Children now in elementary grades could reach middle age in a world lacking conventional petroleum resources and depending, instead, on substitute liquid fuels derived from other raw materials. In the meantime, the traditional product remains a critical part of our life and Isaac Asimov's little book -- the 16th in his "How Did We Find Out . . . ?" series and God knows which hundredth in his total output -- traces the history of oil (and gas) informatively and with flair. His emphasis is on geological origins, geographical occurence, refining and major uses. I found few factual lapses: one slip describes U.S. oil needs as having been met entirely from domestic supplies as recently as 1969. In fact, the country has been a net importer of oil since 1947.
The four books above concentrate on particular aspects of the energy scene. For a book which presents, within a single volume, an across-the-board, comparative look at the variety of resources, our options and our choices for the years ahead, a young reader would benefit from Irene Kiefer's Energy for America. The book presents a good account of historic, contemporary and prospective energy sources -- renewable and nonrenewable -- and underscores the critical role of conservation. (Kiefer does repeat the frequent mistake of ascribing the 1973-74 oil price explosion to the Arab producers rather than to OPEC as a whole.) No preferred course is offered -- anyway, we've had enough of "the only answer is . . . " books -- but the author's historical perspective (recounting successive shifts from fuelwood, whale oil, and other sources) ought to tell the reader something about mankind's knack for adaptation and change.
Graphics in these illustrated books are adequate, not inspiring. The standard set by, say, the National Geographic or Time-Life series in illustrating scientific principles and technical processes is not approached. That's a bit unfortunate, since these books may have to serve as "self-teachers." Although children have not been spared exposure to energy problems -- think of the gasoline lines, Three Mile Island, and the enduring Middle East tension -- energy doesn't yet rate much, if any, attention in the public schools. Teaching revolves around specific, traditional disciplines, and when a new multidisciplinary subject surfaces and demands new training, fresh materials and a reordered curriculum, inertia asserts itself. For now, those youngsters independently motivated to probe the world of energy will find here a respectable collection to encourage their interest and beef up their knowledge.