The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Hardcover – April 9, 2013
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"Brilliant. Naam shows that innovation is the only force equal to the global challenges that face us, and that we can prosper if we harness it."
"A refreshingly thorough roadmap of solutions to our energy and climate crisis."
“Brilliant. Ramez Naam shows that innovation is the only force equal to the global challenges that face us, and that we can prosper if we harness it.” (Ray Kurzweil, bestselling author of The Singularity Is Near)
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Granted, he does come out with brutal honesty in the second section of the book that packs a wallop. He makes it clear that the current situation on earth cannot sustain itself. If he'd ended the book there, it would read like any other panic-inducing, end of world book. However, he goes on to say that we as humans have the capabilities to not only survive on the planet we've made for ourselves, but also improve our situation. Mr. Naam uses a lot of scientific research to back up his argument that humans are ingenious and will find out a way to survive. But we need to do so now, and soon. We have it in ourselves to make a difference.
While that last sentence may seem like a bunch of hippie nonsense, I want to make it clear that Mr. Naam's book is far from that. It reads very scientifically and he not only presents a very solid argument, but also readily backs it up with scientific examples. Everyone should read this book, whether they're an environmentalist or not. The future of our planet concerns us all.
I just read another book on this same general idea, the critical role of innovation and the exchange of ideas. I really like "The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet" by Ramez Naam. Ideas and innovations truly are an infinite resource, and Naam believes (as do I) that in most situations, market forces are the most effective way to implement ideas and solve problems. He also believes that the major area where the market has failed is in "tragedy of the commons," situations such as pollution of air and water, over-fishing, and greenhouse gas emissions. When there is no direct cost for the use or abuse of such shared resources, these "externalities" cannot be affected by market forces. When such factors do have associated costs, these can drive innovation to find better solutions faster than (say) direct government regulation. Reduction of acid rain and the recovery of the Antarctic "ozone hole" are examples of the success of this approach. It could work for greenhouse gases, too, even if ideas like a carbon tax or carbon trade credits sound scary to some people. Even if some energy prices were to go up temporarily, it would provide the incentive for innovative people and companies to find ways to lower costs and gain a competitive advantage. Innovation needs something to work on, and when it has it, it can work fast.
Naam believes that we have plenty of resources on this planet to support 10 billion or more people in American-level affluence if we can learn to use resources more efficiently, especially the huge influx of solar energy that hits the Earth every day. Certainly "old solar" (fossil fuel) resources like oil, gas, and coal are finite. As he says, "Every solar panel built makes solar energy cheaper. Every barrel of oil extracted makes oil more expensive." He also advocates some innovations that are controversial, such as genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in the food supply and increased nuclear power as part of our energy solution. I agree with him on these points. The alternatives are worse - we need GMO's to improve yields and nutritional value, and to reduce pesticide use (and forest clearing) if we are to support billions more humans in the next 30+ years. And although we are everywhere bathed in more than enough solar energy to run the planet with safe, local, non-carbon-emitting power for billions of years, until innovation leads to more advanced storage systems for dark and windless times, solar and wind power can only be part of the energy solution. Burning more coal is bad for a number of reasons, including carbon emissions and radiation (coal plants release more radiation into the atmosphere than nuclear power plants).
I think this book is well worth reading for fresh perspectives on innovation, environmental issues, and much more. I will finish with a couple of quotes that I like:
Our problem in the near term is not that resources are in short supply. It's that we use those resources incredibly inefficiently, with side effects we have yet to eliminate.
For all practical effects and purposes, our growth is unbounded. If we choose wisely, and tap into the right resources, while acting together to put limits on the negative side effects and externalities of our actions, then we can grow for at least centuries to come, and perhaps longer.
Our only limit, for the foreseeable future, is our collective intelligence in innovating, and in putting in place the systems to guide our collective behavior.
Easier said than done, I know, and if you live in the US, such optimism may be especially hard to fathom at the moment, as the Republican controlled House of Representatives holds us all hostage in an ideologically driven federal government shutdown and threatened debt default. But I still believe that enough humans on this planet are sane and clever that we will probably make it through the next few hundred years, with more humans every year living better off than ever before. Just maybe not in the US.
The Infinite Resource builds a rigorous argument for substantial policy recommendations, and offers a shelter and a working space for everyone who cares about what happens next. FWIW, I also highly recommend his blog.
That said, I take some real encouragement from his sound, well reasoned arguments and have given second thoughts to some long-held positions.
I continue to worry that our exponential technological advancement is too rapidly outpacing our more gradual moral climb from our inner ape roots. Maybe I'm wrong. For those who seek evidence that it can be accomplished, Ramez Naam makes a strong case in this excellent book.
It would probably help if many more people of all political positions would read this book. If you read it and agree with me then pass this book on to others. I certainly will.
Top international reviews
Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.
However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What’s worse, many of the earth’s resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.
Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).
So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).
For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. To begin with, Naam argues that the natural resources on our planet are far from running out. He assures us that there is enough water and arable land on the earth’s surface, minerals in the earth’s crust, and energy from the sun to feed the demands of the planet’s plateauing population for time out of mind (especially when we reuse and recycle these resources, which is what we are increasingly doing).
The problem, at present, is our relative inefficiency in accessing these resources. Even here, though, Naam argues, there is room for optimism. For our saving grace is our ability to innovate. It is our ability to innovate, Naam maintains, that is responsible for virtually all of our progress and economic growth to this point. It has brought us everything from the first stone tools and the ability to harness fire, to phones that fit in our pockets and allow us to access a world of information and all the world’s people. Along the way (and more to the point), our ability to innovate has allowed us to access an ever greater percentage of the earth’s resources (while at the same time decreasing the relative amount of resources that each of uses to achieve an increasingly affluent lifestyle).
And the really wonderful thing about our ability to innovate is that, unlike natural resources, it does not shrink over time. Rather, it only expands. This is because innovation is built on ideas, and ideas themselves only grow and multiply. Ideas can even be shared without ever being diluted. Instead, the sharing of ideas often generates even more ideas. The power of ideas—and the innovation that goes along with it—truly is an infinite resource.
Now, wherever there has been an incentive to innovate, innovation has come, and this helps explain why the market economy has been the single biggest spur to innovation ever invented. The market economy harnesses innovation by way of tying useful inventions to economic gain, thus exploiting self-interest for the benefit of all. Up until recently, a relatively small proportion of the world lived under a market economy. Not coincidentally, these were also the most inventive and affluent parts of the world. In the past 40 years, though, an ever increasing portion of the world has switched over to a more market-oriented economy, and this has greatly accelerated both economic growth and the speed of innovation. For Naam, this trend bodes very well for the future.
Now, as powerful as the market system is, Naam does concede that it has one fatal flaw. And this is that it does not put an accurate price on the degradation of communal goods, such as the environment. The end result is that the environment is not cared for as well as it might be (this phenomenon is known as ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’). Nevertheless, a market economy can be tweaked to ensure that a price is put on environmental degradation. Indeed, this has happened before, and it has helped put an end to several environmental crises (including, recently, both acid rain and the ozone-hole threat).
For Naam, this approach is also the best way to deal with the greatest environmental threat we now face: global warming. Specifically, Naam argues we ought to put a price on carbon dioxide (and return the tax proceeds to the people). This would not only help ensure against global warming, but also hasten the inevitable transition to the use of solar power and clean fuels to meet our energy needs.
With the right approach and policies, Naam argues, we can live in a world of plenty for all (and one that is clean to boot).
This is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent, the logical flow is superb, the supporting evidence is well-chosen and extensive, and the argument is air tight. In a world that is dominated by fear-mongering on the one hand, and blind optimism on the other, Naam is a shining beacon of sober and rational thought. If you are looking for a big-picture view of the challenges we face and how best to meet them, this book is for you. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
Ramez for global President/CEO? I am sure he is much too sensible to take on such a thankless task but the biggest challenge is how to get a book that makes this much sense and is in no sense party political into the hands and minds of every politician and key influencer and decision maker so that the necessary actions start to be taken - primarily around fixing the market so the problems we face become a major focus fo the combined brainpower of 7 billion. Gosh - it doesn't even sound that hard! The ill effects of smoking was a battle that has been won in many countries around the world against corporate vested interest for overwhelming common good and the challenge here is similar and even more important.
The thing that really cheered me is that there ARE very likely solutions which are workable and achievable at the necessary scale if we apply ourselves. I get so fed up with "token greenism" which does nothing to address the scale of the problem we all face, and the divorced from reality stance that the Green Party takes.
Ramez does not come across as a zealot or extremist, nor does he try to solve all the problems of the world, and this allows the central issues to be examined with thoroughness, impartiality and credibility.
Well done - I will buy a copy for my MP as a start, buy a copy and one for your MP too!