The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planetby Published 09 Apr 2013
|The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.pdf|
|Publisher||University Press of New England|
The most valuable resource on earth is not oil, gold, water, or land. Instead, our capacity for expanding human knowledge is our greatest resource, and the key to overcoming the very real and enormous environmental challenges we face. Throughout human history we have learned to overcome scarcity and adversity through the application of innovation - the only resource that is expanded, not depleted, the more we use it. The century ahead is a race between our damaging overconsumption and our growing understanding of ways to capture and utilize abundant natural resources with less impact on the planet. The Infinite Resource is a clear-eyed, visionary, and hopeful argument for progress.
"The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet" Reviews
Although I am a clima skeptic and Ramez Naan is not I do not hesitate to recommend this book.
This book may be one of the most important written in our age. Here are basic, good and realistic advice on what to do to solve our problems on this earth. And Ramez shows that this is really possible without resorting to zero growth, instead he goes for increased growth through increased innovation.
Also, he does not fall in the trap of arguing against nuclear power, he wants to increase our reliance on this energy technology - for a while. His chapter on nuclear power may be one of the most interesting in this book.
Ramez is basically an optimist, like Matt Ridley. He even cites Ridley and his ideas on when ideas have sex in the book The Rational Optimist (also highly recommended)
“The core argument of this book is that the force that’s propelled us to our present well-being is also the most powerful resource we have to tackle out future challenges: innovation.” (preface)
Ramez Naam has done a remarkably good job of developing this thesis. The amount of research he had to have done to put his story together is daunting. It is well written, and interestingly and logically presented. It is a serious book, not suitable for a weekend read at the beach. I would have been inclined to give it six stars, but because of a few criticisms and lots of little nits, I cut my evaluation down to only five. Nits and all, it deserves five.
Mr. Naam begins by recounting the general story of how successive innovation has brought us to the modern world, and how much it has improved the lives of those of us lucky enough to be in the leading edge of that evolution. This serves to cement his thesis that human ideas and creativity are the Infinite Resource. He argues that since more people imply more innovation, we should welcome a large global population. Innovation already has demonstrated that the globe can support us all. And, intelligently directed, the higher level of future innovation afforded by more people to do the innovating can lead to even better lives in the future. (This is not without some qualifications which I will not try to enumerate.)
Mr. Naam paints a pessimistic picture of the global warming threat, emphasizing the danger of a little warming causing the release of much more the very potent greenhouse gas methane, thus accelerating the warming trend in a very positive feedback. Not uniquely, he champions the reduction of CO2. I do not fault his valuation, but I do fault his failure to cite that fact that there are responsible opinions that do not see the problem as bleakly as he does.
Quite correctly in my opinion, he places the availability of energy as a key determinant of the world’s future well-being. With enough cheap energy we can compensate for many other deficiencies; we can desalinate water, manufacture fertilizers, make up for other deficiencies.
He devotes some discussion to the notion of “peak oil”, which he considers to be either now or in our near future. He recognizes that the end of oil has been predicted many times before, and somehow improving technology of exploration and recovery has staved off any but short and artificial price peaks. But he seems to consider us now near the end of our rope, and the coming shortage from this source puts urgency into the development of other sources. Clearly someday it will peak—it is not infinite—but only parts of the world have been extensively searched, and I am less convinced the show is nearly over. In my perhaps poorly informed judgment a rising trend in price will be slow enough to allow reasonably deliberate substitution from other sources when it does happen to start downhill.
Mr. Naam discusses at some length three alternate sources of energy: solar, wind, and nuclear. He devotes considerable attention to solar, and obviously sees great potential here. He notes the need for better methods of storage to accompany solar and wind—production patterns do not match usage patters—but doesn’t address anything but batteries. In my view, he underestimates the storage problem or perhaps overestimates the potential for further battery improvement. First, batteries as an energy source for vehicles are at a huge technical disadvantage to fossil fuels. That is very apparent when one compares the range of a conventional car with an all-electric one (and the comparisons I have seen assume the batteries are not also cooling or heating the vehicle. Heating comes for essentially free with an internal combustion engine).
This range deficiency in the all-electric vehicle comes from the fact that a conventional vehicle produces energy by burning carbon and oxygen, producing CO2. It carries the carbon, about 20% of the weight of a CO2 molecule, in the form of a fossil fuel in its tank; it gets the oxygen part, about 80% of the weight, from the air around it. Current batteries do not use a gas from the air, so have to carry all the fuel that produces the electricity. This puts batteries at a roughly 5:1 energy per pound disadvantage that is very difficult to overcome, and is the reason that the range of electric cars is so restricted.
A much more hopeful prospect discussed by Mr. Naam is nuclear. The technical picture is very bright, and it, in my opinion, is by far the best prospect for fulfilling our future energy needs. He explains that nuclear is being held back by both public fear and a failure to understand its promise of much lower costs than current experience would suggest. These fairly pervasive fears will have to be alleviated for it to reach its potential.
The criticisms and differences of opinion expressed above are trivial in the larger picture of Mr. Naam’s discussions of a host of other considerations: feeding the multitudes, the impact of the urbanization trend on innovation, longevity, market behavior, government actions, and coda for the future. He is an optimist, and I found it a delight to read his very thoughtful analyses.
*Attention: This Review has an Explicit Language/Content Warning!Before I get too far in I owe heartfelt thanks to Ramez Naam and GoodReads for providing me with a FREE COPY of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, which I won in a giveaway. I am usually the one giving things away on my blog (DJ6ual: An Irish Girl’s Blog) so it was a nice change of pace for me.When I receive a book I try to clear my mind and open myself to its mysteries before I even crack the spine. Rarely do I dismiss a potential masterpiece because it could vary from my point of view or even due to my lack of interest in its jacket. I quite literally try not to judge a book by its cover! Being that The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet was not at all what I was expecting, this practice came in handy. Had I gone in with any preconceived notions, or not checked my personal beliefs at the door, I don’t think I would have made it past page two!When I find myself wavering from interest while reading I try to ask myself what I can do to re-spark my enthusiasm in the story, instead of what the author has done to leave me behind. In short, I give all the chances I can to a book before I deem it a D.O.A.! No matter how you relate to the overall subject matter of the book Ramez Naam has an incredible affinity for historical prose. Dark and dystopian as the periods he chose to make his points, Ramez Naam takes you on a journey down a rabbit hole that will leave you feeling like you will be living in 1984 if we don’t listen intently to his solutions. I would expect nothing less from an H.G. Wells Award winner (2005 H.G. Wells Award/non-fiction/More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement).Unfortunately, although Ramez Naam takes on a lot of important issues in the book Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, along the way he references ideas and praises people I am not sure he is even aware of that are offensive and downright dangerous! I would blame it on a cultural difference, but Ramez Naam while born in Cairo, Egypt came to the US at the age of 3. I think it has more to do with his own environment; working with a world-renowned eugenicist (Bill Gates) at Microsoft has to have influenced his thinking. A great example of this is an intense story that Ramez Naam tells about how the disease of polio has affected his family and his view on the progression of modern medicine. It is well written and gripping, sure to make any bleeding heart weep with compassion. What you don’t read are words like; forced vaccinations, Jonas Salk, and Big Pharma but they are all there between the lines. Now I doubt this was the author’s intent, at least I would hope not, but never the less this is a theme that replays throughout the book.Less than 50 pages through you will encounter tales that will leave you reminiscent of; Communism, Eugenics, Georgia Guidestones, Global Compliance, GMO, Global Warming, Illuminati, Sustainable Living, Monsanto, Muslim Brotherhood, New World Order, Occupy Wallstreet, One World Government, Revolution, Rosicrucians, Rothschild, Sterilization, Slavery and even Socialism. You will (in most cases) never see these words in print within the pages of this manuscript, however; I fear you shall recognize them, and more, as you read between the lines!Excerpt:“The few genetically engineered crops we’ve deployed so far are already proving themselves to be environmental wins.”Promoting the use of GMO Foods in any capacity is a nightmare, but Ramez Naam seems to champion the sales quota of these killers all by himself! He even suggests RoundUp Ready crops are healthier and superior to real food. I hope when the trials begin, for the murderers who sold the world the empty shells of disease and called it nutritious food, Ramez Naam has a good lawyer on retainer!At many points the text talks directly to an audience other than the reader. Again, this may not be intentional, but is glaringly obvious. It as if the words want to jump off the page and tickle Al Gore’s balls or stroke George Soros’ cock. I doubt my language will offend, being that we spend a long time talking about “idea sex” in the book. A theory I quite enjoyed, for the most part. I wish the reader had been better caressed instead of the sources pandered to.Excerpt:“Innovators are good, and innovators are people. A larger market encourages even more innovation, and markets are made of people. So would having more people on the planet be better? Of course, there’s huge untapped brainpower in the world already.”At least we know that Ramez Naam is not a Rosicrucian. It is commonly accepted that Rosicrucians follow the advice of the Georgia Guidestones to limit the overall population. If there is one point Ramez Naam tries to drive home in his book, besides his love for poisoning the world with hybrid produce, it’s filling it up with as many people as possible. I am not too far away from him on this point. We have a lot of undeveloped land that the “green” movement freaks out about, a little too much, whenever someone wants to build a house on it. Funny, how they are the same people to scream about how we have too much homelessness in this Country. Just sayin’.Excerpt:“Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence. I’m claiming in this book that it’s possible for humanity to live in higher numbers than today, in far greater wealth, comfort, and prosperity, with far less destructive impact on the planet than we have today.”Ramez Naam does not successfully back up his claims that he lays out in the beginning of his book. His exploration into various cultures’ progress in science and technology, as well as the market economy as a whole, is fascinating but offers no concrete solutions. The only thing discussed read like infomercials for products that scientists are learning are toxic and hazardous (GMO/Hybrid Foods).In the end I am glad I got the chance to read The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet because if you weed through all of the hokum I really think there is a good writer in there. I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it either.Buy and read your copy of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet today.
The free market is such a powerful catalyst of innovation that we need to be very careful about where we fail to employ it. The inventions of the industrial revolution, telephones, electric light bulbs, cars, airplanes, radio, television, computers, DVDs, iPods, and iPhones are all innovative products, encouraged by the free market, that improve our lives. But we are once again living in the best of times and the worst of times. We are approaching peak oil—the point in time when global oil production will decline forever, food prices doubled between 2002 and 2010, catches of wild fish have plateaued, fresh water shortages are becoming more common, and deforestation continues. Today’s population is consuming 1.5 planets’ worth of natural resources, yet we have only one planet. Resource consumption will continue to get worse, if everyone on earth lived like Americans we’d be using up 4.4 planets’ worth of natural resources.
Perhaps the most ominous warning of all is that our planet is warming. Even former skeptics now recognize that global warming is real. While many factors contribute, it is clear that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are now higher than at any point in the last million years. The warming we are seeing is almost entirely man made. Forecasts now show seas rising three to six feet by the end of this century, enough to displace millions of people from coastal cities and villages. Extreme weather, pressures on agriculture, rapid species extinctions, and ocean acidification are all likely.
The evidence and the consequences are clear. We must find ways to produce food and energy that sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How can free market mechanisms help?
There is a giant loophole in how we apply the free market today, it is called The Commons. The commons refers to those resources used freely by many, yet excluded from typical financial calculations. The oceans, rivers, lakes, and the air we breathe are now available free to any and all comers. This leads to the “Tragedy of the Commons” where waste and distortions occur from overuse of these essential resources. This market error is manifest today as overfishing, many forms of pollution, and the free emission of greenhouse gasses. The market isn’t just neutral to pollution. If polluting saves companies money, the market encourages it.
“The key to that—to all of that—is to make sure the market directly values the natural resources we care about. . . . Pricing carbon isn’t a big-government initiative. It’s a way to improve the market by giving it access to information it doesn’t have—the external costs of carbon emissions.”
The author proposes this simple plan for creating a carbon dividend:
1. Tax carbon. For the first five years the tax is zero.
2. Raise the tax periodically and predictably until the emissions goal is met.
3. Tax imports from countries that don’t have a carbon price, to level the playing field.
4. Give all the money collected back to the taxpayers. This is the direct dividend.
This is a tax on the bad rather than on the good, and it can be tax and revenue neutral. This simple plan provides insurance against the risks of peak oil, rising coal prices, and climate change.
With effective market incentives, innovation can unleash solar energy, desalinization, recycling, and continued increases in efficiency of materials and energy used. Our challenge isn’t that we’re running out of energy, it’s that we’re using the wrong source. To collect enough energy to provide for all of humanity’s current needs, using current consumer-grade solar technology, it would take only 0.6 percent of Earth’s land area. Because of the learning curve, every solar panel built makes solar energy cheaper. Every barrel of oil extracted makes oil more expensive.
This immensely important book is a joy to read. It is innovative, well written, clear, well researched, and scrupulously balanced. The author presents and examines the traditionally conservative viewpoints, the traditionally liberal viewpoints, the big business arguments, and the environmentalist arguments, clearly, factually, fairly, and completely. He embraces capitalism, free markets, nuclear energy, and genetically modified crops, along with government regulations and the imperative to shift to solar energy sources and reduce greenhouse gasses. He particularly courts conservative thinkers with appeals to free markets, highlighting successful ecological actions of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and the opportunity to return money to taxpayers. He identifies the free exploitation of the commons as a form of socialism, rather than an example of free market forces at work.
The author is not only innovative and practical, he is optimistic. Throughout the book he identifies many available alternatives that can improve the lives of all future generations. The last chapter identifies four changes that we as a society need to make:
1. Fix our markets to properly account for the value of the commons.
2. Invest in research and development to fund long-range innovations.
3. Embrace the technologies that stand poised to improve our lives while bettering our planet.
4. Empower each of the billions of minds on this planet, to turn them into assets that can produce new ideas that benefit us all. Add to the Knowledge Commons.
The book ends with two very different tours of the future. One describes affluence and well-being for all, the other is quite grim. The choice is clearly ours, and this book clearly informs our choice.
"The Infinite Resource" simply describes the environmental issues that exist today and offers hope that the world's intelligence and market forces will provide solutions. The first third reads like a dystopian novel, focusing on the resource and climate issues the world has and really not offering answers. You've probably heard this all before, but put together it is quite depressing. The rest of the book, though, focuses on the solutions. The author takes on energy, food, climate change, and overpopulation, suggesting that the markets have a history of coming up with answers that are less costly than expected. But often they need a push, an incentive, a cost of doing the wrong thing needs to be added. He likens investing in advance in these solutions to insurance, and he makes a reasonable case. There are quite a few facts thrown around. Some, such as deaths caused by coal, are repeated often yet aren't explored as to validity, while other numbers are explored in depth. Some of the solutions offered were over-simplified, but I think that fit in with the aim of the book - to get the concepts out. The book can get repetitive and could have been shorter. The examples were interesting, in a wonkish sort of way, which I liked. Shout out to Flora, Illinois, where the author grew up. It's mentioned in the book (but not in the index!). I've been through there.
Book won in Goodreads First Reads contest.