While We Wait…

I had planned to drop a rather large post today on the thorny topic of collapse. But it’s important enough that I should not rush it and make sure it has all the key pieces I want to convey, and that no sloppiness on my part results in misinterpretations that I later regret.

So what shall we do instead? Hey, I know! Have I mentioned the free textbook I wrote? A few times? Are you getting tired of my plugs? Apologies if so, but what feedback I have received thus far encourages me to believe that it’s a valuable contribution to the world and not intrinsically a flop. People are loving the margin notes, somewhat to my surprise.

However, in order to have a meaningful impact, I would want to do substantially better than the (currently) 7,000 site visits and 3,000 PDF downloads. Sure, many textbook authors might jump for joy at such numbers in less than two months. But millions of people would likely appreciate the message and have enough background to get something out of reading it. From the statistics, it is clear that even most Do the Math visitors have themselves not checked it out yet. I get that it’s a textbook, so: ugh. Who wants to take on that kind of chore? But A) it’s free, B) people report being surprised at how readable it is, and C) the intro provides a graphic (below) that offers a few reading paths that may make it less daunting.

Suggested reading paths through the textbook

Also, no one has yet submitted a review on Lulu. Even if you have not ordered a print copy, the free PDF material is the same so that a review on Lulu based on the electronic version would be perfectly appropriate. Here is the corresponding to-do list to help encourage a larger readership:

  1. Check out the PDF online.
  2. Download a local copy for keeps (from same site).
  3. Tell others about it who you think could be interested (tweet, facebook, e-mail, etc.).
  4. Consider helping others appreciate the pros and cons of the book by reviewing it on Lulu.
  5. If using it in a classroom context, also consider reviewing for the Open Textbook Library.
  6. Leave feedback for me on any errors or suggested improvements so the next release is better.

Hopefully, you’ll have the bandwidth to do something on the list while waiting for the big post next Tuesday. Thanks so much for your support!

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To What End?

Image by naturfreund_pics from Pixabay

Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.

As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:

To what end?

This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.

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Life Found on Mars


No, life has not yet been found on Mars, but imagine waking up to that headline. How would you react? The headline’s font would be huge on print newspapers—maybe one word per page, occupying the first four pages. Some bold papers might even put one letter per page and go so far as to have blank pages for the spaces. The point is, it would be big news.

So I ask again, what would this stir for you?

For me, the swirl would be thick with competing thoughts and feelings, tripping over themselves to get out. First would be the raft of questions stemming from pure curiosity. Is it DNA-based? Is it a separate start, or do we share some ancient microbial ancestor—possibly shuttled from one body to the other following a meteoric impact? What lessons can we learn about how life forms? Can we get the discovered lifeforms to call us Mama or Dada? Will they make good pets?

One can imagine the discovery team, whether at NASA or elsewhere, ecstatic with joy. The entire exploration establishment around the planet would likely be giddy. SETI folks would probably be unable to chew for a while, wearing fixed grins.

I would share many of these same reactions, for the pure joy of discovery and the novel opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a part of life on Earth. But then it dawns on me just how devastating the news might actually be for the human race.

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In Breach of Contract

Image by Edar from Pixabay

Evolution is like a lengthy job application process. Each new species endures a long and harsh vetting procedure to judge what role it plays in the ecosystem, how prepared it is to deal with lean years, predators, disease, climate variations, and anything that might reasonably be expected to arise even once in a thousand generations. Those species not able to satisfy the impartial judges of nature are voted off the island. It’s a tough crowd.

The successful species—the ones that have held on for many thousands of generations—essentially have signed a contract with nature. The contract is implicitly a “common law” arrangement: if you’ve stayed with us this long, you’re (indifferently) accepted as part of the family.

The terms of the contract are also implicit: as long as you continue to operate within the parameters by which you were judged to be adequate members of the ecosystem, you enjoy the built-in protection of that same ecosystem to continue survival, having carved out a role integrated into the rest by a complex web of interdependencies.

Humans signed our contract with evolution based on a primitive lifestyle that persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. We also inherited clauses from ancestor species, whose capabilities we incrementally altered, thus extending the vetting span to millions of years.

Humans today stand in gross violation of our pact with nature. We are egregiously in breach of contract. Our protections are thereby revoked.

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Ultimate Success

What success might look like? Image by Emma Farley from Pixabay.

In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.

One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.

Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:

Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?

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Earth’s Real Treasure

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A 2018 paper by  Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.

But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.

What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.

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Sir David Nails It

David Attenborough for A life on Our Planet

This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)

If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.

I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.

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Textbook Tour

Energy Ambitions textbook coverLast week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.

In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?

The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.

Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book.  References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…

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Textbook Debut

Energy Ambitions textbook coverHello, all, and welcome (me) back! After years of radio silence, I am popping back up and have more to say in the coming months as I re-engage on topics relevant to this blog.

The first thing is to announce the launch of a textbook at eScholarship that is free to access electronically (can download PDF), or is available in paperback form for the cost of printing (royalty-free; at Lulu). Over the years, I received a number of encouragements to write a book collecting the ideas and analysis from Do the Math posts. I appreciated the sentiment, but given the substantial effort required to produce something that was already available for free on this site never rose to a high priority in the competition for limited time.

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Eclipsed, Lately

HDR composite of eclipse (Tom Murphy)In the event that anyone still checks this site for new posts (not sure whether to be proud or concerned), here’s an update. But mostly it’s a pointer to some photos I think some may enjoy.

While I remain concerned about the collision course between growth and resources, I have found ample distraction these past few years: research, teaching, administrative duties, bike commuting, and starting a company to make aircraft detectors. Oh, and politics. What a spectacle!

Speaking of spectacles, ever since traveling to Mexico in 1991 to see my first total solar eclipse, I’ve wanted another one. Just afterwards, a consultation of upcoming events suggested that the next one I was likely to see would have me waiting until 2017! As a 21-year-old, I wondered if I would even still be alive in that distant year, inconceivably old. I made it. And what was I thinking—old?!

So after much anticipation and preparation, I traveled north with a college friend, remote-camping/mobile and ready to pounce on the best weather prospects. We ended up in far eastern Oregon, on BLM (our) land. The experience was amazing: I automated my cameras so that I could largely just gawk. It was all too short: I needed a pause button to really take it all in. I’ll have to settle for future eclipses. And to that, I say Mexico (not the U.S.) in 2024—based on likely weather. Besides, it’s unclear whether the eclipse shadow will be able to get past the wall we keep hearing so much yakking about.

But you can see highlights of my photos from the recent glorious event here.

In other news, my Nickel-Iron batteries seem to be holding up well (I owe a post on some real analysis of these). I am “living the dream” in my daily commute. After 12 years off a bike (obvious routes are dangerous; hilly profile would require time-inefficient shower), I finally solved the problems: (longer) trail route and an e-bike (off-grid-solar-charged). Purists would say I’m cheating, but I say I’m back on a bike and working plenty hard. The rough-hewn route exposes me to wildlife (the occasional coyote or bobcat, even), has a few stream crossings, and enriches my life by offering a daily connection to the natural world. My propulsion energy is now free of direct contributions from fossil fuels, which I find to be rewarding—even if the materials/manufacture are still utterly dependent.

So that’s it for now. I haven’t given up on Do the Math, but have not had much new to say, and little available time in any case. I hope all is well with you all.

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