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5.0 out of 5 stars How and why "the infinite power of ideas" can help the human race to manage finite natural resources, 9 April 2013
By 
Robert Morris (Dallas, Texas) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet (Kindle Edition)
I agree with Ramez Naam that "the choices societies make affect their rate of innovation." That helps to explain why, from the Fall of Rome early in the 5th century until the Renaissance, the Chinese, Japanese, and Ottoman people were far more advanced culturally and technologically advanced than were the Europeans. Since then, major developments that include Johannes Gutenberg's introduction of s moveable type printing press and Roger Bacon's refinement of Aristotelian empiricism to what we now view as the scientific method (based on observation, hypothesis, and experimentation), "Europe soared through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution" while the nature, extent, and pace of change elsewhere "was far less impressive...The explosion of new ideas in Europe, and later in North America, led to the incredible prosperity of our current age." But there are problems of unprecedented severity that must be solved.

For example, as Naam explains in Chapter Four, a single "ecological footprint" can be used to measure human consumption of the earth's finite resources. "The world has about 1.8 hectares of useful living land per person on it. Yet the average citizen of the world uses up 2.7 hectares of that land via that lifestyle. (A hectare is around 2.5 acres, so that's around 6.7 acres.)...[At estimated] levels of per capita consumption, the planet can't support the 7 billion people it has on it, let alone the 9 to 10 billion it will have by mid-century. It can support only about two-thirds of the current population of the planet, or around 4.7 billion people. So what becomes of the 2.3 billion people the planet can't support today? The 4 to 5 billion surplus people we'll have by midcentury?" Ominously, high-income countries averaged 6.1 hectares per person in their ecological footprint. And the United States comes in at 8.0 hectares per person. "To sum this up another way, the world's population right now is using up 1.5 planets' worth of natural resources. If everyone on Earth lived like an American, we'd be using up 4.4 planets' worth of natural resources."

Naam offers a research-driven analysis of problems such as these, duly noting meanwhile that he is dealing with degree of probability rather than with certainty insofar as current trends and future realities are concerned. His rhetoric is by no means overheated but he does have a gift for figurative language. For example, he observes, "In short, as a planet, we're sitting on a keg of gunpowder, and we're enjoying a smoke. Maybe we'll finish the cigarette, put it out, and nothing will happen. People get away with foolish risks all the time...[That said], no matter which numbers you choose, the risk is too high...Until we step away from the explosives and put out our cigarette, we -- the whole human race -- won't be truly out of the danger zone."

These are among the dozens of other passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of the material that Naam examines:

o The Catalysts (Pages 10-13)
o Market Forces, Hubbert's Peak, and, Faster Than We Think (40-47)
o A Very Large Footprint (59-60)
o Are Humans Responsible? (67-71)
o The Methane Bomb (81-86)
o Zero Sum World (93-95)
o Solutions, Problems, Solutions (115-118)
o Nylon Mania, or How to Support an Elephant Balancing on a Pencil (123-126)
o Substitution Everywhere (133-135)
o The Fallacy of Futureness: Part 1 (155-156)
o The Fallacy of Futureness: Part 2 (158-162)
o Innovation Nation (181-187)
o The Problem with an Inconvenient Truth (218-221)
o The Virtue of People (280-283)
o Coda: Living in the 21st Century (303-308)

Before concluding this book, Naam acknowledges, "The world I've just described to you isn't guaranteed to be the world we'll have. But it's not a world out of fantasy, either. It's the world we [begin italics] can [end italics] have, if we work hard and smart to bring it into being." I agree. He then adds, "The human mind is the ultimate source of all wealth. We stand poised on the brink of the largest-ever explosion of human mental power, a second Renaissance, more transformative, more far-reaching, and more inclusive than the first. [begin italics] If [end italics] we make the right choices to empower human minds and encourage innovation, to steer innovation toward the solutions for our planet's problems, and to embrace the fruits that it offers, then the future will be one of almost unimaginable wealth, health, and well-being."

That is indeed a compelling vision. I hope I live long enough to see it.

No brief commentary such as mine possibly do full justice to the quality and value of the material that Ramez Naam provides. However, I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read my commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not to obtain and read this book. In that event, I hope what it offers will help you to gain a better understanding of how the infinite resource between our ears can help us to become more enlightened as stewards as well as consumers of our planet's finite resources.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, 24 April 2013
This review is from: The Infinite Resource (Hardcover)
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world's wealthiest and most powerful people.

However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What's worse, many of the earth's resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.

Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).

So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).

For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. To begin with, Naam argues that the natural resources on our planet are far from running out. He assures us that there is enough water and arable land on the earth's surface, minerals in the earth's crust, and energy from the sun to feed the demands of the planet's plateauing population for time out of mind (especially when we reuse and recycle these resources, which is what we are increasingly doing).

The problem, at present, is our relative inefficiency in accessing these resources. Even here, though, Naam argues, there is room for optimism. For our saving grace is our ability to innovate. It is our ability to innovate, Naam maintains, that is responsible for virtually all of our progress and economic growth to this point. It has brought us everything from the first stone tools and the ability to harness fire, to phones that fit in our pockets and allow us to access a world of information and all the world's people. Along the way (and more to the point), our ability to innovate has allowed us to access an ever greater percentage of the earth's resources (while at the same time decreasing the relative amount of resources that each of uses to achieve an increasingly affluent lifestyle).

And the really wonderful thing about our ability to innovate is that, unlike natural resources, it does not shrink over time. Rather, it only expands. This is because innovation is built on ideas, and ideas themselves only grow and multiply. Ideas can even be shared without ever being diluted. Instead, the sharing of ideas often generates even more ideas. The power of ideas--and the innovation that goes along with it--truly is an infinite resource.

Now, wherever there has been an incentive to innovate, innovation has come, and this helps explain why the market economy has been the single biggest spur to innovation ever invented. The market economy harnesses innovation by way of tying useful inventions to economic gain, thus exploiting self-interest for the benefit of all. Up until recently, a relatively small proportion of the world lived under a market economy. Not coincidentally, these were also the most inventive and affluent parts of the world. In the past 40 years, though, an ever increasing portion of the world has switched over to a more market-oriented economy, and this has greatly accelerated both economic growth and the speed of innovation. For Naam, this trend bodes very well for the future.

Now, as powerful as the market system is, Naam does concede that it has one fatal flaw. And this is that it does not put an accurate price on the degradation of communal goods, such as the environment. The end result is that the environment is not cared for as well as it might be (this phenomenon is known as `The Tragedy of the Commons'). Nevertheless, a market economy can be tweaked to ensure that a price is put on environmental degradation. Indeed, this has happened before, and it has helped put an end to several environmental crises (including, recently, both acid rain and the ozone-hole threat).

For Naam, this approach is also the best way to deal with the greatest environmental threat we now face: global warming. Specifically, Naam argues we ought to put a price on carbon dioxide (and return the tax proceeds to the people). This would not only help ensure against global warming, but also hasten the inevitable transition to the use of solar power and clean fuels to meet our energy needs.

With the right approach and policies, Naam argues, we can live in a world of plenty for all (and one that is clean to boot).

This is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent, the logical flow is superb, the supporting evidence is well-chosen and extensive, and the argument is air tight. In a world that is dominated by fear-mongering on the one hand, and blind optimism on the other, Naam is a shining beacon of sober and rational thought. If you are looking for a big-picture view of the challenges we face and how best to meet them, this book is for you. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now we need the politicians to read it!, 2 May 2013
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This review is from: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet (Kindle Edition)
This is an exceptional book, of importance not so much for its literary style (though it is highly readable) as for the logical well founded way it sets out the problems we all collectively face AND provides some solutions that give real hope AND a strawman roadmap to implementation of those solutions. THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK.

Ramez for global President/CEO? I am sure he is much too sensible to take on such a thankless task but the biggest challenge is how to get a book that makes this much sense and is in no sense party political into the hands and minds of every politician and key influencer and decision maker so that the necessary actions start to be taken - primarily around fixing the market so the problems we face become a major focus fo the combined brainpower of 7 billion. Gosh - it doesn't even sound that hard! The ill effects of smoking was a battle that has been won in many countries around the world against corporate vested interest for overwhelming common good and the challenge here is similar and even more important.

The thing that really cheered me is that there ARE very likely solutions which are workable and achievable at the necessary scale if we apply ourselves. I get so fed up with "token greenism" which does nothing to address the scale of the problem we all face, and the divorced from reality stance that the Green Party takes.

Ramez does not come across as a zealot or extremist, nor does he try to solve all the problems of the world, and this allows the central issues to be examined with thoroughness, impartiality and credibility.

Well done - I will buy a copy for my MP as a start, buy a copy and one for your MP too!
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