Keeping Up On Appearances

Over the last year or so, a number of audio/video productions have accumulated in which I have had an opportunity to express my evolving thoughts. Being challenged in the art of self promotion (Do the Math is the closest I come to social media), I tend not to link to everything that comes along. Yet, I recognize that some readers may value pointers to these other formats. So this brief post is an aggregation of recent appearances, to put it all in one place, arranged by context. Still feels a little gross.

The first—and most recent—pair of links relates to the latest Do the Math post on The Simple Story of Civilization. This post started as one page on a bedside note pad, scribbled by coincidence the night before a scheduled podcast interview with Hart Hagan. Although I did not connect the two, I did mention the outline to Hart when we began the zoom session, in case he found it interesting. To my surprise, he launched the conversation with a rough run-through of the script. Here is the video chat:

Shortly after this recording, I wrote up and released the post—which inspired Nate Hagens to record a targeted “Frankly” that follows the thread of the post:

About a year prior to this, I dropped in on the Crazy Town podcast trio on a road trip, and recorded this episode with them (also can try this link). It was a fun discussion about physical limits and what features future success must have (I did link this previously on Do the Math). Update 2023.02.21: In the initial posting, I forgot to include this podcast episode (51) from Breaking Down: Collapse from September of 2021.

Early in 2022, Nate Hagens included me on his new podcast called The Great Simplification, as episode 18. I am pleased to be in such good company: the other guests on the podcast have been insightful and thought-provoking. In episode 18, Nate and I explore physical limits to growth—echoing some of the foundational posts of the Do the Math blog.

Update 2023.02.21: Hart Hagan recently did a second podcast interview with me:

The next video is a relatively high production-value interview by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences about my free textbook. (I put this up before, but also include here for completeness.)

This next pair relates to my involvement in the formation of the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; see post about it here). First I’ll point to a radio interview of myself and PLAN co-founder Melody LeHew, in which we discuss the predicament, and what PLAN might do in this context. Next is a video interview for Scientists’ Warning along with PLAN instigator Ben McCall, in which we address the challenges associated with radical change in our academic trajectories:

So I think that’s all I want to point out here. Anyway, I hope at least some of these provide value.

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Holiday Haikus

I’m no poet, preferring prose for its clarity and completeness. So please forgive this amateur attempt to capture two opposing views on planetary limits in haiku form. One gracefully respects constraints, while the other…well, you’ll see.

Just as in haiku
Earth imposes hard limits
We must live within

And in the red corner:

It’s preposterous
To think that human imagination is lim…

Buzzer. Disqualified. Nice try. And the winner is…

Wishing you peace and meaning this holiday season.

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A Random Fix to Polarization

From the New York Times; 2022-11-13

Following the midterm elections in the U.S. this week, the punditry is ablaze with stories about how voters have rejected the lies, spoken out about abortion, indicated that this inflation spike is not a primary concern, and that perhaps we are finally shaking off this fever-dream and turning a corner.

Really? By what margin? The mere fact that the balance of power has taken so long to determine (still not settled in the House, as of this writing) indicates to me that we are not collectively on the same page about these issues. The main story, to me, is that the deep polarization pattern continues to stymie our political system.

I have an idea that could make a huge difference. It’s an idea that has essentially no hope of gaining traction—especially since: who the hell am I? But I will put it out there all the same. Maybe others will see the logic.

Continue reading

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Limits to Economic Growth

Readers of Do the Math will be familiar with my line of argument that economic growth as we know it is destined to end. It was the second post of the whole series, and the basis for one of the more popular posts recounting a conversation I had with an economist. I also adapted the same reasoning into Chapter 2 of my recent textbook. Already, I sound like a broken record. Yet I write this update to announce the publication of this idea in a “real” article in Nature Physics. Unfortunately, Nature Physics does not allow open access for Comments, but this Share link should allow you to read the content without a subscription. If the link does not work, here is a link to the PDF. Anyway, that’s all. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.

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Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

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Crazy Town Podcast

Crazy Town Podcast Logo

If you’ve enjoyed Do the Math even just a little bit over the years, you have Asher Miller to thank, in part. Asher is the Executive Director of the Post Carbon Institute, whose work I had been following for a few years when I reached out in 2011. I reported that I was going to be passing through their neighborhood, and asked if they would be up for a meeting. I spent a few hours with Asher, and he encouraged me to commit some of my ideas and analyses to writing, suggesting a blog format that could be re-posted to the Energy Bulletin, which is now Resilience.org.

So I took his advice. Within a month, I created Do the Math, and the Energy Bulletin promptly picked up my first post on Galactic Scale Energy, which then found its way to reddit. Thus, within a few days of publishing my first blog post, I had hit the 100,000 page view mark. That strong start—and even the fact that it started at all—is due in no small measure to Asher’s encouragement, suggestion, and the close connection between PCI and the Energy Bulletin.

Fast-forward a decade, and I again was set to pass through PCI’s (relocated) haunt. I again reached out to Asher, who suggested that I stop in for a podcast recording of Crazy Town, which he does with Jason Bradford (PCI Board President; on his farm) and Rob Dietz (PCI Program Director). We had a fun time together, and an enjoyable conversation, which you can listen to on your podcast app of choice by clicking this link, or you could try this semi-permanent link to the “bonus” episode in question.

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Let's Put on a Video, Shall We?

Most of us have seen it happen. An exhausted school teacher, sometimes suffering from what we recognize in hindsight as a hangover, announces to the class that instead of the usual lesson plan, we’re all going to watch a video.

That’s what I’m doing today, in effect. Last week’s post about factors facilitating collapse was of beastly proportions. This week, I’m taking a breather and pointing you to a five-minute video and a write-up of an interview relating to my recent book.

The pieces were put together by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences (Mario Aguilera and Sherry Seethaler coordinating the interview and Debbie Meyer constructing a quality video). I’m sporting the outgrown late-COVID haircut that lopped off my ponytail of 28 years (performed by my terrified wife). It also appears that I failed to prioritize shaving for the interview day, which was scheduled weeks in advance, so did not exactly catch me by surprise. Oh well. Appearances only count for so much.

And since this video is short, I would hate for you to feel ripped off. I might, therefore, recommend another recent video by Nate Hagens that has a slightly longer run time (approaching three hours; I suggest taking it in doses). In an approach somewhat similar to the collapse post, Nate has put together a long list of factors, cast as societal myths, that contribute to our collective miscalibration about how we might expect the future to go. Many of the themes will be familiar to and resonant with Do the Math readers, but from a usefully alternate angle.

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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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