I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?
I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.
But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.
I should have done it right the first time. I now realize that I’m hungry for a tiny bit more information in relation to personality type. I have had almost 500 responses to the previous query (see previous post, below). The results are fascinating. I have added two quick questions that will give me a fair bit of insight into some key systematic issues.
Even if you have answered the poll already, I would appreciate a quick moment of your time to answer two additional questions (click here). It requires very little time: especially if you responded to the first survey request.
If you did not respond to the first survey, please do this one.
Instructions appear on the survey page for how to determine your Myers-Briggs type, if you do not already know it. Thanks for your patience, and look for a post in mid-April with the jaw-dropping results.
I have a new post written up, but thought that before I release it I should get some delicious new data.
To that end, please take this single-question bare-bones survey (link decommissioned; see this post) about your personality type. There are sixteen choices in a drop-down menu according to the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator. If you do not already know your type, you can find free online versions. While I have no particular affinity for this specific one, it may be good for the sake of uniformity that you go take this one. It’s 72 yes/no questions (should take 5–10 minutes).
Just remember to be honest and answer for the person you are, rather than the person you may aspire to be (if different).
And don’t forget in your excitement to indicate the outcome on my lighting-fast survey (link decommissioned; new survey here).
I’ll let you know what it’s all about shortly.
Theo Leggett of the BBC interviewed me in late January as part of a program asking: “Can the World Get Richer Forever?” You can listen to the show here. My part begins about eleven minutes in.
I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself. But here is what I sent him. I was asked to answer the question:
Can the World Get Richer Forever?
Shame on you for even asking. Of course not. At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources. We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet. The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects. We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels. But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years! Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams. The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely. This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free. And tell me how that makes sense.
(you’ll see larger later)
I’ve been maintaining “radio silence” for a while—mostly on account of an overflowing plate and several new new hats I wear. All the while, I have received a steady stream of e-mail thanking me for Do the Math, asking if I’m still alive, and if so: what do I make of the changing oil situation? Do I still think peak oil is a thing?
Let’s start with the big picture view.
I was wrong about everything. Oil is not a finite resource: never was and never will be. We will employ new technologies and innovate our way into essentially perpetual fossil energy. We’ve only scratched the surface in exploration: there are giant deposits (countless new Saudi-Arabia-scale fields) yet to be discovered). The shale oil tells us so—and it won’t stop there. Shale first, then slate, marble, granite: just squeeze the frack out of rocks and we’ll get oil. Meanwhile, whole new continents are being discovered, rich with resources. The most recent was hiding behind Australia. And naturally it doesn’t stop there. We have now discovered thousands of planets just a hop away, most of which are likely to contain fossil fuels of their own. So game over for the resource limits crowd, yeah?
It’s a bit off-topic for the series, but I can’t even go to Google now without being reminded of the World Cup and soccer this, soccer that. (Apologies to non-Americans who know the sport as football—but don’t get me started on football!) I have often wondered: given characteristic low score values, is soccer anything more than Poisson noise? When discussing this with colleagues, one pointed me to this XKCD comic, reproduced at right.
Any random process that produces discrete events in some time interval, with uniform probability per unit time follows a Poisson distribution. When the number of events becomes large, the distribution tends toward a Gaussian (normal) distribution.
My thesis is that soccer is an amalgam of random processes whose net effect produces rare events—those more-or-less unpredictable events spread more-or-less uniformly in time. Whether a good or bad bounce off the bar, a goal keeper who may or may not prevent a goal, a referee who may or may not see an illegal action, a pass that may or may not be intercepted, and on and on: the game is full of random, unpredictable events. So I expect soccer to behave similarly to a Poisson process and follow a Poisson distribution. By extension, I will claim that the attention devoted to the World Cup is founded on flimsy numerology and might even be called a tremendous waste of time and money.
Normally I allow comments on Do the Math for ten days after each post. I’ve tackled some controversial topics and stirred up emotional responses. Yet I predict that the outrage generated by my insinuation that watching soccer is a waste of time will absolutely dwarf the reactions to my saying that we may not be looking at a space-faring future, or that indeed we may face collapse of civilization. To the extent that this (untested) prediction is true, it would seem that soccer is more important than the fate of the world, in the eyes of many. Scary, if true. [After reconsideration, I enabled comments, but I won't have time to vet and respond with my usual level of attention.]
But getting back to soccer numerology, my question becomes: given a final score (which is taken to be the ultimate “truth” of the match) how likely is it that the victor is actually a better team?
A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.
In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.
The cessation of regular blog posts has prompted a number of folks to ask if I still live and breathe. Several reasons contribute to the silence. Primarily, most of what I set out to do and say on Do the Math has been covered. How many times can I calculate total tidal power available? I’ve expressed views on our precarious trajectory with respect to finite resources, touched on the psychology of major change and sacrifice, and shared personal explorations in reducing energy/resource footprints at home. While some of this continues (look for a post on nickel-iron batteries soon), for the most part it’s already all there.
The second factor is that the research, education, and administration components of my life (i.e., my job) are demanding significant attention. This has generally been true all along, but the administrative burden has skyrocketed of late due to my role as vice chair of the physics department at UCSD since July 2013. Perhaps as I climb up the learning curve, I’ll find more “hobby” time in the months ahead.
While I am sharing personal news, two things of note: 1) My efforts to write and speak about energy and resource use to a broad audience has resulted in UCSD awarding me the Outstanding Faculty Sustainability Award for 2014. This despite the fact that I don’t know what sustainability means (suspecting that none of us really do), and that very little of my efforts have been directed at the UCSD campus. All the same, I am as pleased as I am surprised by the recognition. 2) While not related to Do the Math, I encourage you to check out this stunning photo taken by Dan Long capturing our recent laser ranging efforts during the April 15 lunar eclipse. This is a real photo, taken through a C-11 telescope with a focal reducer (700 mm, f/2)—the outgoing laser beam has not been artificially superimposed. Normally it is really difficult to get a picture of our faint beam heading toward the Moon, because the Moon is so glaringly bright. The eclipse provided a great photo-op, and also a means to test the hypothesis of dusty reflectors. To me, this shot is just gorgeous. But I have more invested in it than the average Joe: this picture serves as a visual representation of a key focus in my life over the last 14 years—so of course I’m enamored.
The holiday season is upon us, and for many, this translates into a marked uptick in the consumption of tasty food treats. I’m no different, and can really pack it in on such occasions. For instance, the day after Thanksgiving this year, I stepped on the scale to find myself about 5 pounds (~2 kg) above normal weight. I kicked in my diet plan, and by Monday morning (3 days later) I was back to normal. Resume course. I use a simple formula, backed by physics, that works every single time. The topic is Do-the-Math-relevant for two reasons: it applies quantitative physics to everyday life, and it touches on attitudes relevant to energy/resource conservation.
thumbnail from NYT
As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”
Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.