Review: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet

Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet – Tom Murphy (2021)(free download)

The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources—a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet.

A few months ago, Joshua Spodek called this “the science book of the decade” on his blog. This got my attention. One thing led to another, and this August, I taught a free high school seminar on this book.

Before I get into my take, an urgent communication of important findings can be found in this blog post by Murphy, which refers to a lot of the math and research in the book.

For a public steeped in both climate denialism and climate anxiety, this book is a fantastically grounded tour of “the situation.” Sure, it’s a textbook, but don’t mistake it for the outdated, prescriptive tomes of yore. This might just be the most exciting nonfiction I’ve ever read.

Finite Planet dives headfirst into the facts, facing questions like:

  • Is climate change really “that bad”?
  • Will wind/solar/nuclear/etc save the world?
  • How much longer will fossil fuels last us?
  • Are we on track to transition to renewable energy?
  • What are the consequences of failing to transition?
  • How much population and energy demand can Earth support?
  • Will space colonization save us?
  • Why is it so hard to collectively mount a response to the energy and environmental predicament?
  • What can individuals do to address the coming change?

Relying on popular media (social media and news) is like spraying bricks (numbers, opinions, ideas) from a cannon and hoping they spontaneously build a house. Instead, in the expansive space afforded by a textbook, Murphy walks the reader through a toolbox of math to equip them to fully understand and reconstruct data-based conclusions on their own. The math is absolutely crucial. Without some tools, it’s virtually impossible to just intuitively grasp the size (tremendous) and trends (exponential) of global energy use, not to mention compare scenarios. The math is clearly explained and suitable for anyone with a high school education—even math-o-phobes. Sure, it may take a little more effort for some than others, but nobody said learning was supposed to be effortless. What it should be is welcoming and rewarding, which it is here.

The first key conclusion, backed by the rock-solid derivations of the first chapters, is that the exponential growth of population, energy use, and economy observed over the past decades/centuries are physically impossible to sustain indefinitely, and therefore will be a temporary phase in human history.

If the end of growth is inevitable, why does it remain our prevailing plan?

We then get into the specifics of the most alarming limited resource: fossil fuels. Murphy presents what we know about the world’s remaining fossil fuels—the types and their scarcity. This leads us to the next big conclusion: at currently projected usage rates, we will hit empty within about next century, or in mere decades, if “business as usual” continues. This places a hard limit on “business as usual”: if we don’t voluntarily turn the train around, it will crash when it meets the very solid, immovable physical limit. And the longer we want to make fossil fuels last, the sooner and more dramatically we have to start reducing our use.

In the middle of the book is a tour of the alternative energy options: hydroelectric, wind, solar, biological, and nuclear. The basic how-it-works physics of each method is explained, the current status presented, and the physical and planetary limitations evaluated. Out of pure curiosity, I found these sections really fun to read. The main conclusion from this section is that solar (not wind, hydro, or even nuclear) is only the option available and feasibly harvestable in large enough quantities to match our current (and growing) energy appetites.

Beyond putting together the facts, Murphy weaves in the essential connections to history, culture, politics, economics, and psychology that shape the past and future. Relevant stories are presented from history up to the present regarding energy and environmental law, collective action, population control, and more. This does a great deal to build understanding of the current state. These also serve as evidence for the reader to construct their own opinions regarding human capabilities for the future.

Throughout the book and especially in the last chapters, Murphy provides a frank yet motivating perspective on human nature. After the prior detailed explanation of why “business as usual” will be brought to an end by plain physics if it comes to that, we face the question of whether civilization is capable of creating a better future than the worst case. Obviously, the future can’t be predicted, but Murphy doesn’t just leave us to wonder alone. He introduces and comments on a variety of possibilities.

Wrapping up the book is a discussion of what individuals can do. When people are faced with global and middle to long-term concerns, a common reflex is to shrink away and shirk responsibility.

Oh well… I hope I’ll be dead before the worst of it.”

– An increasingly unlikely hope for new generations

But Murphy clearly doesn’t intend to promote powerlessness or despair. This section deals with translating concern into action, and in particular, individual lifestyle changes. Lifestyle is a very personal and something I think we get a little oversensitive about sometimes. But the reality is that the lifestyle of all humans, cumulatively, is what’s draining the environment. So if we aim for a future where people can thrive without fossil fuels, we ought to start getting good at that now. Murphy provides some excellent guidelines for that.

Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet is a years-long passion project of Professor Tom Murphy, and the culmination is tremendous indeed. I highly recommend anyone to try it for themselves.


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