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.
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.
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.
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
- Galactic Scale Energy—absurdity of continued physical growth
- Can Economic Growth Last?—impossibility of indefinite economic growth
- 100 MPG on Gasoline: Could We Really?—physical limits to arbitrary fuel economy
- A Nation-Sized Battery—lead acid can’t scale to solely supply our nation
- Does the Logistic Shoe Fit?—falling away from exponential energy growth
- Personal Energy Cubes—visualizing your energy footprint; solar comparison
- A Recipe for Climate Change—it’s obvious climate change is anthropogenic
- MPG for Electric Cars?—proper measure is kWh/100 km (or the like)
- Garbage In, Garbage Out—energy from waste streams is small beans
- Discovering Limits to Growth—distillation of landmark 1972 work
- Power Out, People Out—the San Diego blackout, and lessons learned
- Got Storage? How Hard Can It Be?—home storage is not easy without FF
- Don’t be a PV Efficiency Snob—15% is just fine for what we need to do
- Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube—carbon capture & storage
- Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me—the daunting scale of the steady state
- Why Not Space?—space does not solve our finite world problems
- The Energy Trap—up-front energy investment cripples new energy infrastructure
- Stranded Resources—inaccessibility of space resources for energy or materials
- Peak Oil Perspective—why I think peak oil is a serious issue
- Growth Has an Expiration Date—a pointer to a talk covering posts 1, 2, 15, and 17
- The Biofuel Grind—the hard work and difficult-to-scale nature of biofuel options
- Pump Up the Storage—explores the scale of pumped storage for a national battery
- A Solar-Powered Car—looks at the practicalities of solar-powered personal transport
- MPG for a Human—how efficient are humans at moving ourselves about?
- Wind Fights Solar; Triangle Wins—evaluates potential scale in both solar and wind
- Can Tides Turn the Tide?—the potential scale of tidal power (wimpy)
- How Much Dam Energy Can We Get?—how much hydroelectric potential awaits?
- The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment—tantrums don’t help: more adults needed
- Nuclear Options—an intro to nuclear fission and some pros and cons
- Warm and Fuzzy on Geothermal?—how much power/energy is in the hot Earth?
- Basking in the Sun—getting heat from our sun for home, water, and electricity
- The Motion of the Ocean—energy from ocean thermal gradients, currents, waves
- Nuclear Fusion—what it is, why it’s so hard, and why it’s unlikely to save us
- Alternative Energy Matrix—a summary table of all this hard work
- Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet—can unconventional FF replace waning liquids?
- The Way is Shut—we’re in a box, and the best option may be to go backwards
- My Great Hope for the Future—dare we think about slowing down, using less?
- Pilot Lights are Evil—70% of my warm-season gas use was in pilot lights!
- Home Heating for the Hardy—gigantic energy savings possible, totally tolerable
- Space-Based Solar Power—why make solar vastly harder for little gain?
- The Phantoms I’ve Killed—factor-of-five reduction of electricity usage
- Heat Those Feet!—an energy comparison of foot-heating strategies
- Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist—a dinner conversation
- Easing Off the Gas—schemes to reduce personal use of liquid fuels
- Flex-Fuel Humans—diet choices can have a big impact on energy use
- My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy—recap of savings, and how to export
- Supermoon Disappointment—not about energy, but doing the math on astro-hype
- Spectral Extravaganza: The Ultimate Light—how efficient can lighting possibly be?
- Chris Martenson podcast—a recap of my thoughts in audio format
- Burning Desire for Efficiency—how much energy does it really take to heat water?
- Heat Pumps Work Miracles—how we get better than 100% efficiency from pumps
- Ruthless Extrapolation—we’re accomplished at assuming recent trends continue
- TED-Stravaganza—what we learn about the secret electrical lives of our devices
- My Modest Solar Setup—a small stand-alone, off-grid installation I whipped up
- Solar Data Treasure Trove—the 30-year NREL database rendered graphically
- Battery Performance Deficit Disorder—battery research stalled, short of goals?
- Rocking the AC—an air conditioning experiment exposes alarming consumption
- Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency—how my off-grid solar setup performs
- The Energy-Water Nexus—water needs energy and energy needs water
- When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News—do we kill the messenger?
- Futuristic Physicists?—Do physicists think we’ll get our sci-fi future?
- Crippling Intellects—Sometimes people are so smart as to be dumb
- This Thermal House—Explores thermal properties of houses, insulation
- Death of a Battery—Lead-acid batteries stink, except they’re the best option
- Let’s Blow this Joint—Using a blower door to ferret out drafts
- Elusive Entropy—not the disorder your grandfather went on about
- Man Bites EV—EVs still have fundamental problems, despite my buy-in
- The Real Population Problem—does surplus energy grow babies (somewhere)?
- The Already-Written Future?—short comment on nonsense population article in NYT
- A Physics-based Diet—mass in equals mass out: eat less, breathe more
- Putting PV to Pasture?—is solar’s goose cooked?
- Tuning in in Noise—a rant about Poisson statistics in low-score sports
- Peak What?—is peak oil even a thing?
- BBC Questions Indefinite Growth—an interview about growth perspectives
- Programmed to Ignore—personality types bake in resistance to message
- My Chicken of an EV—helplessly watching my PHEV battery decline
- You Call this Progress?—examining myths about breakneck speed of change
- Textbook Debut—I wrote a book! I’m excited; are you?
- Textbook Tour—what’s new for Do the Math readers?
- Sir David Nails It—Attenborough digs deep and lands some killer quotes
- Earth’s Real Treasure—comparing the value of animals to that of gold
- Ultimate Success—a 10,000 year view of what success must mean
- In Breach of Contract—our perilous violation of evolution’s parameters
- Life Found on Mars—such news might actually have a grim implication
- To What End?—explores the ultimate failure inherent in most human activities
- While We Wait…—encouragement to look at textbook and spread the word
- Why Worry About Collapse?—an exhaustive run-down of credible collapse concerns
- Let’s Put On a Video, Shall We?—link to interview video by UCSD
- Growth is Our Old Yeller—our “friend” has gone rabid, and is now a major threat
- Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy—if it’s hard for even me to give up, god help us
- Talking to Other—tips on connecting across polarization divides
- Crazy Town Podcast—a lively in-person conversation
- Finally, a PLAN—announcement of Planetary Limits Academic Network
- Caught Up in Complexity—physical realities should come before human constructs
- My Brainwashing—how we get information: my way seems better
- Don’t Look Surprised—a reflection on the movie Don’t Look Up
- Human Exceptionalism—a root problem: we think we’re at the center of it all
- Shedding Our Fossil Fuel Suit—what are we without our fossil-fueled super-powers?
- The Ride of Our Lives—we have not steered to this point: game theory made us do it
- Limits to Economic Growth—links to a “real” paper making the limits case
- Death by Hockey Sticks—a survey of out-of-control curves
- A Climate Love Story—why the “renewables fix climate change” dream is scary
- The Cult of Civilization—we accept some rather strange notions as “normal”
- A Random Fix to Polarization—how a “coin flip” in voting eases polarization
- Finite Feeding Frenzy—building an enormous population on fossil fuels will bite back
- The Simple Story of Civilization—putting our civilization’s bender in perspective
- Holiday Haiku—a pair of haiku illustrating the gulf between limits and exuberance
- Keeping Up On Appearances—a grab bag of interviews/podcasts I’ve done
- Here We Are—a video/transcript (21 min) assessment of our state
- A One-hour Message—recording of my “farewell” colloquium at UCSD
- A Reading Journey—attempt to retrace my steps to a new awareness
- Call Me, Ishmael!—praise for the book and related synthesis
- Desperate Odds?—hunter-gatherer life could not have been frightful
- Fusion Foolery—putting the NIF fusion headlines into quantitative context
- Ecological Cliff Edge—only 2.5 kg of wild mammal mass per living human; falling fast!
- Our Time on the River—a metaphorical river map of the system that delivered us here
- Learning to Walk Again—extending the river metaphor to how we break free
- Married to an Axe Murderer—why do we love modernity when it murders the planet?
- The Dawn of Everything—what the Graeber & Wengrow book missed, big time
- Was Modernity Inevitable?—what is modernity and did it seem fated to happen?
- Can Modernity Last?—reasons why I believe modernity to be self-terminating