Post Index

Suggested Reading Paths

Not all posts are the same quality or have the same impact.  If you are new to Do the Math, I recommend the following paths.  A chronological list appears at the bottom. But if starting fresh, one approach would be to read the 2021 textbook, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (the link is to the top-level permanent location; one more click to get to the first edition as a free PDF).  The textbook is a polished synthesis of the Do the Math arc plus some new thinking.

The New Stuff

After a long dormancy, I released a textbook and started putting out new posts reflecting new insights.  The highlights can be followed in a praise of Attenborough’s witness statement, followed by insight into what success would have to entail (and how most of our activities today only promote failure).  Breaking our evolutionary contract may spell trouble, and I lay out the many factors that lead me to take worries of societal collapse seriously.  The root of the problem may be human exceptionalism.

This line of thought evolved, aided significantly by my reading journey.  I began to see modernity as essentially inevitable, and like being caught in a river current, now a torrent heading toward a waterfall.  I ask about the reality of the waterfall in Can Modernity Last, a more Distilled take on why it almost certainly can’t, and why it’s almost crazy to think otherwise.  The absurd timeline of modernity is playfully explored in a tale of animals watching Humans: the Movie.

On the technical side, I look at the myth of renewable energy representing an inexhaustible flow, and the unusustainable goose chases it inspires.  On a more spiritual side, a pair of posts explores how one might find godly wisdom in our evolutionary history, leading to what essentially is a proposed religion that might put humility back in humans.  Tangled up in this exploration were two posts relating to free will, and one on emergent complexity.

Growth and Sustainability

Backing up to the launch of the site, one of my most important messages is that we need to shake the religion of growth.  We simply can’t continue growing indefinitely.  Either we use our brains to plot a trajectory into steady-state and hope it’s smooth, or we let nature decide how to deal with us.  So start with the inaugural pair of posts: Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last? (perhaps also see the dinner conversation with an economist on this topic), then follow-up with Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me. In the same vein, you may want to check out Discovering Limits to Growth.  Perhaps one of my more important contributions is The Energy Trap, describing the dis-incentive we will face in trying to pull out of an energy decline with renewable infrastructure.

A common reaction to my statements of limited growth take to space as the answer.  I am less convinced that this is a viable path.

A major impetus for my interest in energy topics is peak oil.  My views on the subject are described in Peak Oil Perspective (and 2015 update).  Our attitudes toward the possibility of decline/collapse put us in greater jeopardy—we may need an attitude adjustment.  In fact, we’re so boxed in that we would do well to settle for a slower, simpler life. Yet we have a tendency to engage in ruthless extrapolation, assuming that our recent tear of progress will launch us into an ever-more-glorious future. When science tells us we can’t have all we want, we tend to dismiss it.

An audio recap of many of these themes can be found on the Chris Martenson podcast.

Alternative Energy

How do we get out of the fossil fuel box?  The first step is to establish the scale at which various sources might contribute.  By the numbers, solar is a can-do resource, and wind has large-scale capability as well. Tidal is cute in special locations, but cannot be a major player. Hydroelectric has been an important renewable resource, but its reach is very limited, and the low hanging fruit is plucked.  Nuclear fission is complicated, but certainly a strong possibility—fusion less so.  Additional posts cover biofuels, geothermal energy, solar thermal, energy from ocean thermal, currents, and waves, etc. Future posts will explore other options as well.  You may also be interested in the post assessing the scale of energy use, in visual form.

Then I have the alternative energy sources from the previous paragraph summarized into a scoring matrix that highlights the difficult path ahead, and the comparative inadequacy of our current suite of alternatives to that of fossil fuels.  Unconventional fossil fuels may help soften the liquid fuel decline, but this is also hard.

Easier Said than Done

Many posts are technical assessments of why our future is easier said than done.  For energy storage issues, we have Got Storage? How Hard Can It Be?A Nation-Sized Battery, and one on Pumped Storage.  Overblown claims of energy “solutions” can be found in Garbage In, Garbage Out.  A review of why photovoltaics (PV) will unlikely get much better than 15% (and why this is good enough) is in Don’t be a PV Efficiency Snob.  The hurdles involved in space-based solar power are also evaluated.  A look at biofuels is at The Biofuel Grind.


One thread in the posts deals with transportation.  The first examines the feasibility of achieving 100 MPG on gasoline.  Next is a look at how to assess energy requirements of electric cars (also a look at battery development), and compare to the MPG measure.  EVs have their set of intrinsic problems that may keep them from exploding onto the scene.  We then look at what it would take to have a solar-powered car, and also evaluate personal transportation efficiency.  Finally, we turn the question to ourselves as humans as walkers and cyclers: what is the MPG for a Human?

Home Energy, Explored

Treating energy as precious across the board, we can make gigantic changes to the amount we use without dropping out of society.  Tracing my own path, we first look at pilot lights, and the dramatic impact this led to in home heating practices (now using a fifth of the gas I used to).  Likewise, I have trimmed my utility electricity use by a factor of five—thanks in part to an off-grid solar installation (efficiency report here, also untimely death of battery), and due to almost no use of air conditioning.  I have cut back on use of gasoline as well.  Dietary choices can also have a big impact on personal energy: especially meat vs. veggie choices.

I recap the various avenues of personal energy savings and compare this to the national average, musing also about ways to make this a more widely practiced endeavor.

In my quest to measure and understand energy use, I have detailed the maximum efficiency achievable by lighting, and have measured the efficiency of heating/boiling water by a variety of methods.  I am also a compulsive collector of data, and offer glimpses of electrical activities/devices in my home.  Most recently, I used a blower door to explore where the draft demons dwell.

Climate Change

I am frankly surprised that posts on climate change receive a collective “Meh.”  In truth, I’m with you.  But if climate change is your thing, read about how straightforward it is in A Recipe for Climate Change.  For carbon capture and storage, look at Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube.

Chronological Post Listing

  1. Galactic Scale Energy—absurdity of continued physical growth
  2. Can Economic Growth Last?—impossibility of indefinite economic growth
  3. 100 MPG on Gasoline: Could We Really?—physical limits to arbitrary fuel economy
  4. A Nation-Sized Battery—lead acid can’t scale to solely supply our nation
  5. Does the Logistic Shoe Fit?—falling away from exponential energy growth
  6. Personal Energy Cubes—visualizing your energy footprint; solar comparison
  7. A Recipe for Climate Change—it’s obvious climate change is anthropogenic
  8. MPG for Electric Cars?—proper measure is kWh/100 km (or the like)
  9. Garbage In, Garbage Out—energy from waste streams is small beans
  10. Discovering Limits to Growth—distillation of landmark 1972 work
  11. Power Out, People Out—the San Diego blackout, and lessons learned
  12. Got Storage? How Hard Can It Be?—home storage is not easy without FF
  13. Don’t be a PV Efficiency Snob—15% is just fine for what we need to do
  14. Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube—carbon capture & storage
  15. Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me—the daunting scale of the steady state
  16. Why Not Space?—space does not solve our finite world problems
  17. The Energy Trap—up-front energy investment cripples new energy infrastructure
  18. Stranded Resources—inaccessibility of space resources for energy or materials
  19. Peak Oil Perspective—why I think peak oil is a serious issue
  20. Growth Has an Expiration Date—a pointer to a talk covering posts 1, 2, 15, and 17
  21. The Biofuel Grind—the hard work and difficult-to-scale nature of biofuel options
  22. Pump Up the Storage—explores the scale of pumped storage for a national battery
  23. A Solar-Powered Car—looks at the practicalities of solar-powered personal transport
  24. MPG for a Human—how efficient are humans at moving ourselves about?
  25. Wind Fights Solar; Triangle Wins—evaluates potential scale in both solar and wind
  26. Can Tides Turn the Tide?—the potential scale of tidal power (wimpy)
  27. How Much Dam Energy Can We Get?—how much hydroelectric potential awaits?
  28. The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment—tantrums don’t help: more adults needed
  29. Nuclear Options—an intro to nuclear fission and some pros and cons
  30. Warm and Fuzzy on Geothermal?—how much power/energy is in the hot Earth?
  31. Basking in the Sun—getting heat from our sun for home, water, and electricity
  32. The Motion of the Ocean—energy from ocean thermal gradients, currents, waves
  33. Nuclear Fusion—what it is, why it’s so hard, and why it’s unlikely to save us
  34. Alternative Energy Matrix—a summary table of all this hard work
  35. Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet—can unconventional FF replace waning liquids?
  36. The Way is Shut—we’re in a box, and the best option may be to go backwards
  37. My Great Hope for the Future—dare we think about slowing down, using less?
  38. Pilot Lights are Evil—70% of my warm-season gas use was in pilot lights!
  39. Home Heating for the Hardy—gigantic energy savings possible, totally tolerable
  40. Space-Based Solar Power—why make solar vastly harder for little gain?
  41. The Phantoms I’ve Killed—factor-of-five reduction of electricity usage
  42. Heat Those Feet!—an energy comparison of foot-heating strategies
  43. Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist—a dinner conversation
  44. Easing Off the Gas—schemes to reduce personal use of liquid fuels
  45. Flex-Fuel Humans—diet choices can have a big impact on energy use
  46. My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy—recap of savings, and how to export
  47. Supermoon Disappointment—not about energy, but doing the math on astro-hype
  48. Spectral Extravaganza: The Ultimate Light—how efficient can lighting possibly be?
  49. Chris Martenson podcast—a recap of my thoughts in audio format
  50. Burning Desire for Efficiency—how much energy does it really take to heat water?
  51. Heat Pumps Work Miracles—how we get better than 100% efficiency from pumps
  52. Ruthless Extrapolation—we’re accomplished at assuming recent trends continue
  53. TED-Stravaganza—what we learn about the secret electrical lives of our devices
  54. My Modest Solar Setup—a small stand-alone, off-grid installation I whipped up
  55. Solar Data Treasure Trove—the 30-year NREL database rendered graphically
  56. Battery Performance Deficit Disorder—battery research stalled, short of goals?
  57. Rocking the AC—an air conditioning experiment exposes alarming consumption
  58. Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency—how my off-grid solar setup performs
  59. The Energy-Water Nexus—water needs energy and energy needs water
  60. When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News—do we kill the messenger?
  61. Futuristic Physicists?—Do physicists think we’ll get our sci-fi future?
  62. Crippling Intellects—Sometimes people are so smart as to be dumb
  63. This Thermal House—Explores thermal properties of houses, insulation
  64. Death of a Battery—Lead-acid batteries stink, except they’re the best option
  65. Let’s Blow this Joint—Using a blower door to ferret out drafts
  66. Elusive Entropy—not the disorder your grandfather went on about
  67. Man Bites EV—EVs still have fundamental problems, despite my buy-in
  68. The Real Population Problem—does surplus energy grow babies (somewhere)?
  69. The Already-Written Future?—short comment on nonsense population article in NYT
  70. A Physics-based Diet—mass in equals mass out: eat less, breathe more
  71. Putting PV to Pasture?—is solar’s goose cooked?
  72. Tuning in in Noise—a rant about Poisson statistics in low-score sports
  73. Peak What?—is peak oil even a thing?
  74. BBC Questions Indefinite Growth—an interview about growth perspectives
  75. Programmed to Ignore—personality types bake in resistance to message
  76. My Chicken of an EV—helplessly watching my PHEV battery decline
  77. You Call this Progress?—examining myths about breakneck speed of change
  78. Textbook Debut—I wrote a book! I’m excited; are you?
  79. Textbook Tour—what’s new for Do the Math readers?
  80. Sir David Nails It—Attenborough digs deep and lands some killer quotes
  81. Earth’s Real Treasure—comparing the value of animals to that of gold
  82. Ultimate Success—a 10,000 year view of what success must mean
  83. In Breach of Contract—our perilous violation of evolution’s parameters
  84. Life Found on Mars—such news might actually have a grim implication
  85. To What End?—explores the ultimate failure inherent in most human activities
  86. While We Wait…—encouragement to look at textbook and spread the word
  87. Why Worry About Collapse?—an exhaustive run-down of credible collapse concerns
  88. Let’s Put On a Video, Shall We?—link to interview video by UCSD
  89. Growth is Our Old Yeller—our “friend” has gone rabid, and is now a major threat
  90. Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy—if it’s hard for even me to give up, god help us
  91. Talking to Other—tips on connecting across polarization divides
  92. Crazy Town Podcast—a lively in-person conversation
  93. Finally, a PLAN—announcement of Planetary Limits Academic Network
  94. Caught Up in Complexity—physical realities should come before human constructs
  95. My Brainwashing—how we get information: my way seems better
  96. Don’t Look Surprised—a reflection on the movie Don’t Look Up
  97. Human Exceptionalism—a root problem: we think we’re at the center of it all
  98. Shedding Our Fossil Fuel Suit—what are we without our fossil-fueled super-powers?
  99. The Ride of Our Lives—we have not steered to this point: game theory made us do it
  100. Limits to Economic Growth—links to a “real” paper making the limits case
  101. Death by Hockey Sticks—a survey of out-of-control curves
  102. A Climate Love Story—why the “renewables fix climate change” dream is scary
  103. The Cult of Civilization—we accept some rather strange notions as “normal”
  104. A Random Fix to Polarization—how a “coin flip” in voting eases polarization
  105. Finite Feeding Frenzy—building an enormous population on fossil fuels will bite back
  106. The Simple Story of Civilization—putting our civilization’s bender in perspective
  107. Holiday Haiku—a pair of haiku illustrating the gulf between limits and exuberance
  108. Keeping Up On Appearances—a grab bag of interviews/podcasts I’ve done
  109. Here We Are—a video/transcript (21 min) assessment of our state
  110. A One-hour Message—recording of my “farewell” colloquium at UCSD
  111. A Reading Journey—attempt to retrace my steps to a new awareness
  112. Call Me, Ishmael!—praise for the book and related synthesis
  113. Desperate Odds?—hunter-gatherer life could not have been frightful
  114. Fusion Foolery—putting the NIF fusion headlines into quantitative context
  115. Ecological Cliff Edge—only 2.5 kg of wild mammal mass per living human; falling fast!
  116. Our Time on the River—a metaphorical river map of the system that delivered us here
  117. Learning to Walk Again—extending the river metaphor to how we break free
  118. Married to an Axe Murderer—why do we love modernity when it murders the planet?
  119. The Dawn of Everything—what the Graeber & Wengrow book missed, big time
  120. Was Modernity Inevitable?—what is modernity and did it seem fated to happen?
  121. Can Modernity Last?—reasons why I believe modernity to be self-terminating
  122. Are WE Lucky?—how does the answer change if “we” includes all life?
  123. Deer in the Headlights—a test for human supremacist leanings
  124. Cheaters!—we don’t play by the rules, to the detriment of all life
  125. Our Ugly Magnificence—modernity’s underlying extremism and self-delusion
  126. Context is King!—taking in the whole as a counter to abstraction tendencies
  127. Nothing, Without Bugs—we can’t have an economy without biodiversity!
  128. The Intransigence of Now—it’s hard to shake beliefs: especially that now is not normal
  129. And Why is That Desirable?—getting at the anthropocentric values underpinning science
  130. Putting Science in its Place—limits to what science can do, and demoting its role
  131. Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist—my reaction to a career on the wrong team
  132. Wasp Wisdom—how wasps taught me to chill out
  133. A Story of Mice (and Men)—allegory of prairie mice in a Faustian bargain
  134. Text Substitutions—oft-heard phrases that I do not interpret at face value
  135. A Lifetime Ago—a temporal perspective that makes the past seem recent
  136. Reasoning with Robots—how narrow, algorithmic thinking causes trouble
  137. Free Will: Good Riddance—taking a stand: enough with the nonsense
  138. Recommended Podcasts—five podcasts worth checking out (bonus post)
  139. My God: It’s Evolution!—hiding in plain sight, why not see evolution as god?
  140. A Religion of Life—a case for a religion built on science plus humility
  141. Mysterious Materialism—addressing distaste for materialist foundations
  142. Sustainable Timescales—in the end, ecology/evolution sets the relevant pace
  143. Inexhaustible Flows?—the myth of indefinite technology, vs. superior biology
  144. Unsustainable Goose Chases—pointless to double down on modernity
  145. Let’s Make a Deal!—what would you trade for all animal life on Earth?
  146. The Game of Life—emergent complexity, determinism, unpredictability
  147. Can’t Spell Fail Without AI—gallery of failed AI image creations (dumb AI)
  148. They Didn’t Stand a Chance—modernity ends life that has done nothing wrong
  149. Distilled Disintegration—summarizing the case for modernity’s impending failure
  150. Post-Modernity—constraints and possibilities for life after modernity
  151. Humans: the Movie—animals watch and react to a movie about humans on Earth
  152. The Biodiversity Principle—renaming the Anthropic Principle: why is it like this?
  153. Outside the Fishbowl—No, You’re Crazy: insane to think modernity is long-lived
  154. How Far are Stars?—a tangent to explore how far naked eye stars tend to be
  155. What’s the Point?—why this question often exposes the wrong cosmology
  156. Growth or Scale?—can we tell from data if the main problem is growth or scale?

Hits: 73764