Everybody thinks about the environment. Nearly everyone also gets bogged down in questions. Will this or that change make a difference? What does all the science mean? One of the great things about science is that there are answers to all these questions. Science is a study of nature. People associate it with going to the Moon or people in lab coats. But it’s about nature, sunsets, gravity, why is the sky blue and everything about global warming, pollution, resource depletion and all these environmental issues. Using computers, motors, eyeglasses and so on means your life relies on science. I find it beautiful which is why I got the PhD in physics. I also find it informative. Also, mathematics is the language of nature. You may associate it with hard tests in school and asking if you need it later in life. You may not use it in your life but it’s useful. Not understanding science or math means not knowing how to reach or understand these answers resulting from studying nature and its patterns. Even understanding science doesn’t mean knowing the answers. You have to do the experiments and calculate the results.
My guest today Tom Murphy created a blog called Do the Math where he calculates the main questions on environment â€“ solar, wind, nuclear. When someone says, â€œWe can’t grow forever.â€ Why not? What works? What doesn’t? Independent of how you feel about it. This episode is long but I believe it may be the most important conversation I have on understanding environmental issues. It’s certainly one that I enjoy tremendously. I’ve been waiting to have a conversation like this for years. We don’t talk about the math details which you can find on his site amid engaging conversation and also followed by debate by people who disagree with him among his readership. The point of understanding the math is to liberate you from arguing about opinion to learning priorities and what works to do in what order. I urge you to listen to it all the way through and read his wonderful blog Do the Math.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Tom Murphy. Tom, how are you doing?
Tom: I’m doing great. Thanks.
Joshua: If I make you blush, I am going to make you blush but I think your site is one of the top sites on the Internet and thereâ€™s a three-way tie in my view for my favorite site. So thereâ€™s yours which is to Do the Math blog, and we’ll say in a second what it’s all about. Then there’s Sustainability Without the Hot Air which is really more of a book but it’s similar. And your blog links to that one. Both of those are by physicists. I believe you both went to Caltech?
Tom: That’s right. Or at least David McKay spent time there maybe as a postdoc.
Joshua: And then you went off in the world and looked at the world and the environmentâ€¦ Everyone knows the environment is a big issue and people just kind of look at it and they don’t really like to talk about reducing straw use and they feel great about it. But does that really make much of a difference? Maybe it’s a good start. Who knows? So you know and actually there are answers because we can measure these things and we can figure these things out. And you actually do it and you do the math and you present it in, in my opinion, a fun engaging accessible way. And let me just say the third one. Do you know the Low-tech Magazine?
Tom: I do not know that. Sounds great though. I am a big fan of low tech.
Joshua: Then you’re going to like this site. Prepare that you’re going to get lost in it. Not lost in it but you’re going to enjoy it.
Tom: Let me just say that we’re on a Zoom conversation so you can see the background here. Of course, the listeners can’t do that. But I’m in a lab that has a lot of high-tech stuff and I’m sort of pushing at least my knowledge limits lately on some high-tech development. And yet I’m a huge fan of simple low-tech solutions. So I live in a kind of a dual world where I embrace this sort of cutting edge of high technology but I’m also skeptical of it and would often like to go simple. And so I like the sound of this magazine.
Joshua: Yeah. I think that you’re a part of a certain class of people that understands technology and values it for what it does but ultimately, if I readâ€¦ And this is like jumping to the end which I think hopefully we’ll get to but ultimately it’s about values and how you live by what you think is right and what you think is important. And when technology serves that great, when it doesn’t, you stick with the values. And I think a lot of people miss that. They can get lost in the science or the math.
Tom: Yeah. And I think the appeal you know technology is really miraculous in some cases. I mean it’s almost the definition of magic in some sense because if you took our technology to a primitive culture, it would look like magic. And so we’re also enamored of that same magical sense and owe over some of the things that we can create but we get a little carried away on that and it almost becomes a religion, a belief that technology can do anything and it can save any predicament. So that’s where I draw the line.
Joshua: Actually, if you just stop there, you might say well how could I pick one really up there? And what I find so engaging about your blog is that you ask the question and you actually answer it. Like would it work to put a giant satellite in space to get the energy from the sun and then beam it down to the Earth? Sounds too good to work. And maybe you should switch all to biofuels. And it’s not just opinion as to whether these things would work or not. And there’s a lot of uncertainty. But on some things it’s reallyâ€¦ The uncertainty is actually small compared to the answer. I mean you figure out based on physical principles like how lowâ€¦ If we can make things more and more efficient, what does that get us? Does that really get us that far? And if we are going to growâ€¦ You know some people say, â€œWell, we’ll just keep growing. Drill, baby, drill.â€ And some people say, â€œWell, we can’t grow forever.â€ What actually are the limits? And you present some basic, to me, accessible in simple ways of looking at things. I probably want to get to those… I’m also kind of curious how you got started. Maybe you can say a little bit about you how you got started asking these questions and answering them.
Tom: Yes, sure. OK. So I guess I was always somewhat interested in the story of our society, how we do things, how we get our energy, et cetera. And I remember as a postdoc I was at the University of Washington I became interested in this topic sort of marginally and dabbled a bit and when I arrived at UCSD, University California San Diego, in 2003 I got a teaching assignment to teach energy and the environment and I thought, â€œOK, that’s really neat.â€ This will be a great opportunity for me to learn what this business is all about, what our options are. I was vaguely aware that fossil fuels are not the forever solution. But I imagine that there are a lot of other interesting and cool new technologies that would step in and fill the void. I was definitely of the opinion at the time that you know the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones and the fossil fuel age is not going to end because we’re running out of fossil fuels. It’s that we will find better things.
And so I took this course assignment as an opportunity to dig in and understand what I thought the future was going to look like. Just kind of build a picture for how I imagined things might go andâ€¦
Joshua: Sorry to interrupt but do I read your right that when I read your stuff now it seems like you write the post after having done the math but before you did it what you describe sounds like everyone. You didn’t start off with a preconception or you just start off… I mean things were pretty good. There were some problems but we’ll work it out.
Tom: Sure. And I would say I even started out with optimism that you know we’re going to. I didn’t see a great looming crisis. I just saw that things are changing and we’re going to change with it and we’re going to adopt solar and wind and all these great things. But I wanted to sort of pencil it out and see, well, exactly what is that mix going to look like. Do I think? Of course it’s impossible to really be certain about anything in future developments of this magnitude. But I realize that you know a lot of these things pencil out in a mathematical sense that yes, there’s such an abundant influx of solar energy that what we use today as a civilization just pales in comparison. And so that would seem to be game over. That’s your answer. You can do solar. But when you look at the details and this is where I think my experience as a technology developer and user as a scientist can come in because I build things. I have an idea that I want to pursue some scientific purpose and I don’t instrument to accomplish this and it’s an instrument that nobody’s built before. And so you can’t just go order things off the shelf. You have to design it. You have to make a lot of choices and compromises and you realize that you can’t just get what you want all the time. Your dreams are good guidance on where you want to go but at the end of the day there are limitations from real world constraints.
And so I think I came at this from that perspective that you have to look beyond the just you know first back of the envelope calculation about how much solar energy is available for instance and look at OK, well, then what? What form is that energy? Is it photovoltaic, is it solar thermal? What do you do once you have that photovoltaic and solar thermal? How much is it going to cost?
Joshua: Or where can you put the arrays – [unintelligible] the ocean or [unintelligible].
Tom: Yeah, that’s right. So there are a lot of practical concerns that enter and I think that’s one thing that I’ve valued in my own experience is that I can balance a lot of things at once, a lot of concerns at once and in a very complex situation, in a complex world with many different elements tugging on the problem from one direction or the other and realize that there are a lot of sort of maybe little idiotic things that you might not think are problematic or they don’t occur to you and then when you dig into it or if you actually tried to build something, you run into all of these you know real concerns. So I came at it from that perspective and in doing so I really came out of this process confused. I wasn’t sure exactly how we were going to really work this problem. It didn’t look like a techno fix you know easy migration into the next phase of our glorious civilization.
Joshua: Yeah. Because now that I’m looking back at a lot of your posts, I mean mentally I’m trying to, and I’m seeing now that actually it’s more of an exploration. I read it as you would figure out the answers and now you were sharing the answers but you’re actually exploring yourself trying to find these answers. It makes it much moreâ€¦
Tom: Yeah. I was basically trying to reflect my process. You know I came to these conclusions that alarmed me, that concerned me greatly and I needed to share that. And in fact you know there were a number of calculations that I had done and things I’d explored in my personal effort to come to terms with our challenges. And so those became ultimately blog posts. You know this is many years later and it was very cathartic to finally you know flesh out these ideas but there were some that I hadn’t really covered yet that I just had left on the shelf. And the blog sort of forced me to turn to those things and kind of check off that box. And I guess a lot of those things I already had ideas that yeah, that’s not going to amount to much like geothermal. I didn’t really have to do a detailed analysis to realize that’s not going to do a whole lot. But the blog made me you know dot the i’s and cross the t’s on that. And that was useful because you know there were some places where I learned from doing this blog exercise and my use evolved during the process. And I think the most striking thing for me was at the end of all this exploration of what can you get from wind and from tidal and from you know solar, thermal or whatever I got to the end where I made this energy matrix to compare all the things I’d looked at and rate them on not just abundance but you know problems like intermittency, efficiency, how easy is it to make to do transportation with this source or how easy is it to do electricity so I would give points basically for all the attributes of each of these technologies and then deductions where they were poor performers. And what I came out with at the end comparing that exercise to the scores for fossil fuels was really stunning because there’s this giant gap between the ease and convenience andâ€¦
Joshua: A gallon of fuelâ€¦
Tom: The energy density. Right. And all of these amazing you know safety issues you can you know run this generator in your backyard for whateverâ€¦ You know it’s very accessible fossil fuels and relatively cheap. So what I hadn’t really appreciated until I came to kind of the end of that process was just how big the Gulf was and so that told me it’s not just a flip-the-switch transition over from one to the other. There are inconveniences and those translate to costs and hardships that you know make it it’s not… Just a turnkey kind of transition that we’re looking at.
Joshua: And yet there’s a few images. There’s one that comes to mind. It shows up a lot on your blog. It’s very easy to plot say amount of energy we have available to us over time. And if you look at it up until now, it’s always increasing. If you think of as a civilizational timescale of a few thousand years, you go into the future, it goes back down again. You know when you look over up until a few thousand years from now, all the energy we have now is like this little blip. It’s going to go active again.
Tom: It’s such an important image I carry in my mind all the time myself. And in fact, I think it’s important enough that if you don’t mind I’ll spend a couple of minutes kind of mentally guiding listeners through this graph. So imagine a graph that starts at ten thousand years in the past. So this is kind of the beginning of human history in a sense. And it goes all the way to 10000 years in the future and we have no idea what that looks like. But I’m just taking a large perspective stepping away back from the picture and we’re going to plot on that timeline how much energy the human endeavor has put to its use. And it basically starts out for the first almost full ten thousand years minus a couple of hundred years, it’s basically invisible on the 0 axis.
Joshua: [unintelligible] some sticks on fire every now and then.
Tom: Yeah. It’s just not much energy. Right. You know you’ve got some windmills in Holland and you’ve got some you know animals plowing fields but on the scale of what we do today it’s on a linear plot, you would not be able to see the energy for almost the entire plot.
And then in the last you know, let’s see, I guess a hundred years is 1 percent of that time, so in the last couple of percent of the horizontal axis suddenly this thing does jets off like a rocket just almost a straight up turn in this curve and that’s a phenomenal stunning development in human history. This is something I think we have a hard time recognizing from here in this moment that we’re living in this just truly unprecedented and almost alarming phase of human history. And it’s also then now that we have this image in mind worth recognizing that that large spike is fossil fuels. That is when we found coal, found oil, found natural gas and put that stuff to use as quickly as our you know practical kind of limitations would allow. And so we’re jetting up and now we’re you know arguablyâ€¦ Well, let me just continue this story then, it’s jetting up it’s very anomalous, it’s fossil fuels so now if we just transition and make this plot a fossil fuels plot and just say, â€œOK, well, since the main feature is fossil fuels what does that look like?â€ We know it’s a finite resource. We know that whether you’re optimistic and say that, â€œWell, we just find better things when we taper off.â€ or you say, â€œWe just run out of the resource.â€, either way the plot for fossil fuels looks the same. It drops back down to zero for the next 10000 years.
Joshua: And even if you think there’s a lot, on a 10000-year timescale it’s not a lot.
Tom: It’s not a lot. I mean there are hundreds of years of fossil fuel. But not thousands of years of fossil fuel. And so yes, it’s a spike. We’re looking at a spike. And we’re sitting near the top arguably of this spike on the leading edge and that should be alarming. This should reset people’s perception of what is it we’re doing here. What is going on? Then what happens is we have this tendency to extrapolate. And say well, for my whole lifetime, for my parentsâ€™ lifetime, for my grandparentsâ€™ lifetime we’ve been on this sort of technological tear and we’ve invented all kinds of different modes of transportation and forms of energy conversion and computers andâ€¦ It’s exciting to think about that because you think, â€œHoly cow. Two hundred years ago nobody could have imagined what our lives today look like. Nobody could have seen this coming.â€ And so they think let’s apply that same mentality to two hundred years from now. We can’t imagine what amazing Star Trek worlds we’re going to be living in.
Well, I kind of turned that on its head and say because we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future and we have you know legitimate challenges that we’re really not paying attention to or acknowledging as a whole, we should still apply that humility. We have no idea what we’re looking at two hundred years but allow yourself the mental flexibility to say, â€œIt might not be very good. It might be more primitive.â€ And you would still be correct in saying, â€œNo one today in 2019 would have seen that in 2219 we’d be you know beating each other over the heads with you know clubs of you know cow leg bones you know trying to steal each other’s food. Wow. It just seemed like things were going so well. What happened?â€
So yes, we need humility in understanding the future. But when you look at it from the perspective of this fossil fuels graph and realize that all of our assumptions about our trajectory are crudely extrapolative and not very reliable because the foundation of that big surge is not something we can count on going forward for that kind of timescale. And so it has me worried.
Joshua: Right. So now I want to contrast the worry with how you’ve actually implemented it becauseâ€¦ I don’t know if it’s because of your blog or because of the course or just because of curiosity but you’ve also like you got an electric car and then you keep track of all these things. You’re not likeâ€¦ Some people in Silicon Valley are huge on like keeping track of everything. But you do write on what your usage is and then you keep track of the heating in your house and you’ve gotten solar and attach it not just because but you take lots of measurements. And what I see is that by doing that, one, you have fun. I read that you have fun with this sort of stuff. Maybe your wife doesn’t [unintelligible] a little too much but I feel like you’re having fun and it’s changing behavior. And I read that your behavior isâ€¦ And maybe I’m projecting onto you what’s happened with me but the more that I think about this stuff, the more that I act on it, the more that improves my life. And I’m like, â€œWowâ€. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit and the more that I pick it, the more Iâ€™m like I’m glad I got rid of that. And I’m reading that, one, you’re finding a better life that uses a lot less fossil fuels. And you like sharing that and that it’s available to anyone like this wasteâ€¦ Thereâ€™s a lot of waste and it’s not helping us. It does not make us happier.
Tom: Yeah. I agree. And I do have fun doing this. Part of that is I’m just a data hound. I love you know collecting information but also the information it’s more than just numbers. It’s actually a call to action. It’s a challenge to yourself. You see what your baseline is and then you ask the question. What can I do about that? You know it’s that high? Is that low? But you know where can I trim and how much affect would that have? So you take ownership of your own sort of resource life and you don’t feel as beholding to the system and dependent when things happen.
I remember there was a striking event in San Diego and I guess it was 2011, September where the entire county lost electricity for twelve hours or so. And it was really an interesting window into what our dependencies look like because there were a lot of you know traffic was gridlocked because traffic lights didn’t work. So cars sitting idling would run out of gas and so cars were sitting on the side of the road. There were many cars at gas stations who had made it to a gas station. But there’s nothing they could do there. They couldn’t pump gas.
Joshua: All that source of power and they can’t actually pump the gas becauseâ€¦
Tom: They can’t pump the gas. So that whole place was really immobilized and you couldn’t buy candles if you needed to light your house because you can’t run your laser scanner on the barcode and you know nobody knows how to count cash without the machine. So it was really amazing. I got back to my house. I actually walked from where I work and it was about an hour and a half walk and some of my neighbors had come from basically the same place and it took them two hours by car and then you know everybody pulled out their ice cream to have a block party because ice cream was just going to melt. And so let’s go and eat it. And meanwhile I had this refrigerator that was doing just fine. And I had lights that were doing just fine because I’ve got batteries and I’m off grid. At least you know half of my house is off grid and the other half is still in the grid. So it’s this hybrid system that I kind of built up myself. But you know you feel this great sort of sense of independence and you’re less vulnerable really to whatever happens in society because not only do you through all the data and all the kind of tracking what you do and reduction, you realize that you don’t need that much. That’s part of it. And so when services are disrupted or curtailed or something unavailable you realize that, â€œI can deal with that. That’s OK.â€ And it’s not a psychologically jarring. If you’ve kind of adopted the mentality that you know is you should not just depend on what our world gives us.
Joshua: I am reading that doing the mathâ€¦ I don’t know what it’s like for most people. I think they are scared of math but I think that it’s actually the math as a means to an end or it’s liberating. Like once you get the mathâ€¦ If you don’t do the math, then it’s all nebulous, you’re not sure and â€œMaybe I should do this. Maybe I shouldnâ€™t do that.â€ But once you do the math you realize what works, what doesn’t work and then you do what works and likewise with the experimentation and the reducing consumption with finding out how little you need also feels liberating. It’s not work for you to use less. It feels like, â€œOh, I don’t need that. Iâ€™ll do without.â€ I guessâ€¦ In the history there’s always like people throughout time saying, â€œWealth is not how much you have. It’s how little you need.â€ And in that sense youâ€™re making yourself wealthier.
Tom: Yeah. It does feel like that. And I would say that there are two things to point out. One, it’s not really sufficient to give people a list of â€œHere are things you should cut out.â€ because now you’re bossing them. People don’t like to be bossed. If you give them the tools to be able to assess what they’re doing and let them figure out what to cut out, now they have ownership, now they have you know agency in the whole business and they enjoy it. It’s I think what youâ€™ve experienced, is what I’ve experienced and so that’s point number one is you’ve got to give people tools to at least understand and evaluate and you know I have some suggestions that we can get to.
But you know the other thing to point out is it’s counterproductive to be a purist on this stuff. A very good example I think is that I recognize that our food industry is kind of crazy in terms of how many calories of energy are put into delivering one calorie of food to a plate that we’re going to eat. It’s a 10 to 1 ratio in many cases and a lot of that’s driven by our meat consumption where you know beef might be a factor of five to 10 higher energy cost per nutritional value than grains or vegetables and things of this nature. So, if say half of your calories are coming from meat and the other half from vegetable matter, then you’ve got something like a you know let’s call it four times energy sort of footprint compared to if you’re strictly a non-meat eater. So you could say, â€œOh my gosh. Then the clear answer is I should just not eat meat.â€ and you could bring that factor four down to a factor 1. That’s a huge reduction in your energy footprint.
But then if you’re strict about it, it makes your life I think somewhat less fun. So if part of your tradition is to have you know turkey at Thanksgiving, well you should still do that. If you go to a friend’s house and they’ve made lamb, go ahead and eat it. You know it’s tasty. You’ll like it and it’s not really making a huge dent if it’s occasional. You know if the occasional slice of pizza has a few shreds of ham on it or something, you shouldn’t turn your nose up at it and say, Well, that’s against my principles. I can’t eat it.â€ You should be careful about saying â€œYou shouldn’t do this.â€ But my philosophy is just relax. You know as long as quantitatively and this is where the math comes in, if ninety-five percent of your meals don’t have meat, then you’ve taken that four times down to one point two times. And is going from one point two to one point zero when you’ve already come from four to one point two is that worth the inconveniences or the deprivation you know complete deprivation for a lifetime? I say no. Just relax. But the quantitative approach allows you, in my mind, to do that because I realize that if you cut out ninety-five percent, you’ve basically done the job. And you shouldn’t fret the small stuff.
Joshua: The quantitative approach makes that possibleâ€¦ I read in New York Times an article saying about how to reduce your energy use while traveling. And they’re saying you know close the laptop lid when you’re not using it. And you kind of took away like, â€œOh, if I close the laptop lid, then an extra flight isn’t that big of a deal.â€ That’s not based on the numbers.
Tom: Not even close.
Joshua: [unintelligible] point two. That’s itâ€¦ It’s like penny wise and pound foolish but like penny wise and like something a lot bigger than the pound.
Tom: Yeah, tons foolish. Yeah. That’s absolutely… You’re right.
Joshua: That’s why I love your blog so much. And I have no problem. If anyone’s whoâ€™s listening us right now and just turns it off, goes to dothemath.ucsd.edu it’sâ€¦ You stop writing it like something like I guess you’ve had a couple of posts in the past year or two but the bulk of it was a few years ago. I still go back to it all the time probably because of the graph that you described of the up and down of the fossil fuel, the energy matrix which ought to be pasted on most government buildings in Washington D.C. so that they know what works and what doesn’t work, the energy trap, thereâ€™s all thisâ€¦ And youâ€™re talking about your energy use. I love that you plot the energy use and when you start measuring it just drops and you didn’t drop it to make your life worse. You made your life better and as a result, [unintelligible] me if I’m misstating it, but I imagine now that you have the numbers that this isâ€¦ I am imagining youâ€™re like, â€œNow that I have the numbers I know what I can do.â€ You cut things out but you’re not cutting out things you like. You’re cutting out the fat. And then like a visitor visits and like it spikes again. And they just haven’t gone through the process. And they’re just like a bull in a china shop, I guess, just like, â€œWhatever, I’ll just turn this on, turn thisâ€¦â€
Tom: Right. I did a sabbatical quarter away from San Diego. We had a house there for three months and the energy use went up by you know five times or something like this for one person instead of two. You know one person uses five times as much energy as the two of us normally do. And it was stunning because that tells you right away it’s not the house, it’s not the insulation, it’s not you know the characteristics of you know does it have gas, he doesn’t have you know, it’s the person, it’s the habits, it’s the expectations andâ€¦ That’s the low hanging fruit.
Joshua: It’s also not the standard of living because the guest was presumably no happier than you. And because a lot of people I think associateâ€¦ So many people say, â€œHow are we going to get third world nationâ€¦. When Africa moves up to our standard of living, how are we going to handle that they’re all using energy like we are?â€ I am like, â€œWhy are we using so much?â€
Tom: Like why are we the target? Right. Why are we the goal?
Joshua: They can have our standard of living without our energy use. Because I’ve read somewhere I think it was in Low-tech Magazine that someone did a study of Germany they could drop like 75 percent of their energy use maintaining the same standard of living. And Germany has presumably dropped more than most of us which tells me, if I’m remembering the numbers right, we could probably drop like 85-90 percent of our energy use. Most of us would probably improve our standard of living because that’s what your blog is about Do the Math. But I feel like it enables life of more joy and fun and connecting with people and things like that. And thereâ€™s a lot of people like that because it’s like the Limits to Growth people, Low-tech magazine people that it ultimately liberates you understanding what’s going on the science and math behind it ultimately liberates you to enjoy your life more. Thatâ€™s what I feel like.
Tom: Yeah. And what I don’t know is how universal is that. That was my reaction, that’s your reaction. You know there’s a reward in taking stock of your situation and doing something about it and being in control. Now it’s not for everybody in the sense that you know one thing we do in San Diego is we tend not to heat our house and a lot of people in other parts of the country and the world would say, â€œBig deal. You’re in San Diego. I’d die to be in San Diego. You don’t have any problems.â€ But I can almost guarantee you that my house is colder than their house is right now. Okay, so there you know it gets down to fifty-five degrees that’s about twelve C in our house and then sort of cold as episodes and that’s chilly. Not everybody would be willing to deal with that. My attitude is at some level, â€œToughen up, people.â€ You know we did not always have central heating air. You know we evolved as a species and we guess what? We’ve had seasons before. We handled it. You know this is not like a new experience. So you know what? In the winter you can wear more clothes. You can have a blanket on the couch for when you’re watching TV. The goal really is to keep yourself warm. If I look at my bookcase and I look at the books on my bookcase, why do I care what the temperature of those books are? Why am I spending energy to heat all of my furniture, all of my walls? I don’t care what the temperature of those things are. I want to feel warm and you know there are simple low tech ways to do that. And you don’t have to have your whole house really blazing.
Joshua: And that’s just low-tech and comfortable and… I mean a friend of mineâ€¦ One of the things I do on this podcast is ask people to act on their values to do something that they weren’t already doing. And most of the time people haven’t really thought of it. But a friend of mine listens to my podcast and contacted me and said, â€œI really want to do this. I’m ready to do it.â€ And I was like, â€œI didnâ€™t know you’re thinking about it.â€ So his commitment was for thisâ€¦ He’s a principal of a school. And he says he’s going to ride his bike to school every day for the 2018-2019 school year. Sounds pretty cool, right? What I didn’t mention is he lives in Alaska.
Tom: Oh my gosh.
Joshua: And he just wrote me that he’d been riding his bike to school in minus 40-degree weather and he’s not like, â€œOh, poor me.â€ He’s just you know whatever. I mean. I presume it’s a matter of clothing mostly. We both know that minus 40 is like it doesn’t matter which one becauseâ€¦
Tom: That’s right. Yeah. That’s a beautiful crossing point. Yeah.
Joshua: And then when I’m in Europe I see like these 80-year-old people riding their bikes in the rain and they’re like it’s not a big deal. Like there’s a mindset shift that happens where the shift can’t happen or maybe if you grow up there, you don’t think of it but you say toughen up. But it’s also after you get used to it it’s not a matter of toughening. It’s just a matter of you know â€œI am going to ride my bike to school.â€ Something like that.
Tom: Yeah. And you know I can imagine that there are elements of that experience – biking in such cold weather – that might be unpleasant but at some point when you realize that you can do it, that it’s not going to kill you, you’re going to survive, you’re actually going to feel better about yourself for meeting a challenge and overcoming you know some of the curveballs that nature will throw you. You know I think you come out feeling as much better about yourself and more resilient and sort of a â€œCome what may, I’m going to be all right. If I can do this, what can happen that’s going to throw me off?â€ And if we’ve grown up to be princesses and we all have to have you know things just so, I don’t envy that person’s sort of experience when things don’t go well because you know they’re going to be running around like you know crazed chickens and just not know quite what to do or how to handle you know some major inconvenience. And I think that people who have taken control of their lives are just going to kind of roll with things a lot better and keep their heads and be able to follow opportunities as they come and just not whine.
Joshua: I am curious how did it all get started. Do you remember the first couple of calculations you started doing? I want to get a little more elaborate and complex. I mean The Energy Trap, that could not have been an early one.
Tom: That was a recognition sort of partway through the process and I think that’s also a really important concept so let me just explain that really quickly which isâ€¦
Joshua: Can we work up to that one and start with likeâ€¦
Tom: OK. Sure, sure.
Joshua: [unintelligible] some of the early ones.
Tom: Well, so I’m certainly fond of solar and understandâ€¦ That sort of closer to my background as a physicist and astrophysicist is understanding you know solar flux and photons and energy and the conversion and how that happens and [unintelligible] and all the processes in the semiconductor. And so you know I think my first start was kind of, â€œOK. What fraction of the Earth’s area would we need to cover in solar panels to cover our needs?â€ And at first you think. All right, that’s pretty good. Like I can draw that on a map and it’s not overwhelming.
Joshua: It’s the size of one state in the …
Tom: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. So you know that seems doable and tolerable. But then you know part of being I think a scientist is to use numbers and quantitative analysis to put things in perspective, to put things in context so that you can understand them because big numbers are just hard to understand. How do you comprehend? So either putting it on a personal scale. So OK. So it’s not so much land area but what fraction would I own you know would be attributed to me? Like how big is that? And now you can compare that to the size of your house or roof or yard or just you know putting that in perspective and realizing that â€œOK, that’s not insignificant.â€ Then you can also do things like OK, how much pavement exists in the US? And so you know this is part of being I think skillful at estimating and tackling a question like that. That’s kind of a fermi problem they’re called. And realizing that it’s actually kind of comparable to the amount of pavement in the US and that’s a little bit troubling because there is a lot of pavement. And pavement is kind of glorified dirt. It’s really cheap. So can we really put a pavementâ€™s worth of high tech photovoltaic panels?
Joshua: It would take a lot of time to [unintelligible] up those roads, centuries.
Tom: Exactly. Yeah. And if you’ve driven across the country, it’s almost mind boggling. Just one freeway crossing the country. How much pavement that is? Days and days and days. Endless pavement. And that’s just one of the freeways. So yeah, it’s really stunning.
Joshua: And even then if you haveâ€¦ So let’s say we did get all that solar. We canâ€™t just put it all in place because now you are going to lose it all in the transmission. But also it doesn’t reallyâ€¦ It doesn’t do some things very well. If you have electric cars, OK, youâ€™re going to get some transportation that way. If you want to melt steel to build things, I don’t know if photo is going to help very much. Also, fossils do that great.
Tom: Yeah. I mean you can do almost anything with electricity. It’s just that you might suffer efficiency. If what you want to do is heat something, well, I guess you know you can convert electricity heat at basically a hundred percent efficiency but that’s why things like coal and natural gas are great for industry because it’s just a direct conversion to heat so you get 100 percent of that resource in the form that you want whereas photovoltaic panel at 15 to 20 percent and then turning that to heat it’s a little bit weak tea compared to the fossil fuel.
Joshua: And people don’t get that. So then what’s another early one? And then I want to get to some later ones too.
Tom: Yes. So I think I try to hit the obvious things you know. OK. What about wind? The things that you hear a lot about. And hydroelectricity. So I think you know it started with the obvious well-trodden targets. And one thing I think is relevant and important to realize is that you know the Earthâ€™s system is really primarily fueled by the sun so sunlight comes in and it creates the winds. So the wind for instance is a derivative product of the sun. Hydroelectricity is a derivative product of the sun. So the sun driving the evaporation cycle and rain and then catching that in reservoirs. So all of those things are just from the outset going to be subpar compared to directly harnessing solar input. So that’s one thing to keep in mind is that whenever you hear about you know wind or hydroelectric a lot of other biofuels, you know this is a secondary solar process. So it certainly could not be expected to scale as well as solar direct. So I did a lot of those calculations.
Joshua: [unintelligible] planting corn to turn into biofuels youâ€™d probably be more effective to put solar cells there and not go through the middle step of corn and then refining ethanol out. But of course then once you do that you can’t use that area for making corn anymore. Because youâ€™re putting solar cells.
Tom: Right. That was another early one is corn ethanol has a big sort of political football in our politics and yes, how much land would we need to grow the corn that we would need to be energy independent. And even if you give it a positive energy return on energy invested which is questionable, it’s almost you know it’s painfully close to breakeven but it’s more than the arable land that we have in the US so that’s the kind of calculation I wanted to pursue is why are we talking about this. Is it even biofuel? Can it do the job?
And you know when it comes to biofuels one thing to recognize is that photosynthesis at its best, an algae pond, might get 5 or 6 percent of the incoming solar light converted into biomass. And you know when you compare that to 15 to 20 percent solar panel you know some people turn their noses up at that number. It seems like low. But that’s an uninformed response. It’s actually quite respectable compared to say what nature has worked out over time. The downside there is and it’s not fair comparing those numbers directly because the biofuels can give you some chemical energy that’s basically built in storage. So solar that to me is still the holy grail. So if I have one kind of almost fetish for what I think could be a game changer, it would be solar energy into liquid fuels. That’s some efficient scalable process to do that.
Joshua: Are there any such efficient liquids that can store that energy?
Tom: Well, I mean gasoline is the target. Something like that.
Joshua: To make gasoline out of component parts using solar power.
Tom: Yeah. That’s the dream. Right. We’ve got this abundant solar energy. The problem is that it’s intermittent and storage is difficult. And batteries certainly can’t be relied on to do seasonal storage. You might do in short term storage and you know day night kinds of things or even weekly. But you know a gallon of gas will last years and years. While you know hydrocarbon will last millions of years in the right environment underground. That’s great storage. That’s like perfect. The energy density is phenomenal. So if you could connect the wonders of solar input to the kind of miracle of convenience and energy density of the liquid fossil fuels, then that’s a game changer. It shifts… OK. Let me just say one thing. This is not like, â€œOK. We fixed our problems.â€ That’s â€œWe fixed one problem out of the 20 that we are facing in this unprecedented time as we put pressures on our planet that have neverâ€¦â€
Joshua: Because it doesn’t solveâ€¦ Humans are taking up a lot of space or extinctions and reinforce and depletion of resources soâ€¦
Tom: Thatâ€™s right. It doesn’t do water or fisheries or agriculture, arable land, desertification, phosphorous cycle. Climate change is another one. So we’re not short on global scale problems that will have a difficult time surviving this onslaught of a population that we now you know we’re running this giant unauthorized experiment on the planet Earth, â€œHey, let’s see what happens if we put 7 billion plus on the planet. Do you think it’ll work?â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. Letâ€™s just try.â€
Joshua: And I feel like almost every problem up until now virtually every problem can be solved with using more energy and energy can always use fossil. As long as you have fossil fuels you can do that. But ultimately then you run out of the abilityâ€¦ If that runs out, then you can’t justâ€¦ Thereâ€™s some things that are really fundamental. I feel like that’s a physicistâ€™s perspective because conservation energy is so fundamental. I feel like another bigâ€¦ Are the people doing research into figuring out if they can make gasoline out ofâ€¦
Tom: Yes. Absolutely. There’s a large effort that’s sort of partnered between Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Caltech called the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. And you know their approach is really interesting and I haven’t actually updated myself on what’s been happening in the last couple of years in this project but basically their idea was let’s start with the 20 most common elements, and I might be getting some of the details slightly wrong, but something like 20 most common elements because we need something to be scalable, we need it to be cheap, we can’t [unintelligible] platinum you know to make this work so let’s start with common things and see if we can come up with combinations of compounds from these elements that have the right sort of catalytic properties that can allow sort of liquid fuel production from sunlight. And so you know they can do this with platinum and with some other materials. The way it was put to me is that you have three things that you needed to be able to do you need it to be cheap, efficient and robust and you can right now accomplish any two of those at once but not all three.
Tom: Exactly. It’s a tough problem. So the way that they were approaching it was really neat. They were basically doing this massive onslaught kind of common story all approach where they would make an LCD screen effectively with millions of pixels and each pixel had a little bit of a different compound and they could address it each pixel the way that you would address an LCD screen, address meaning you know access that location and basically do a sweep, put this thing in sunlight, do a sweep and see how much photo current was being generated from each pixel.
Joshua: [unintelligible] with the light bulbs.
Tom: Yeah. On a huge scale. Yeah. And so my kind of, my humorous way to look at it is that the periodic table thatâ€™s finite it fits on a single piece of paper which is kind of astonishing. We only have a few dozen different elements to choose from and there’s only so many combinations you can make and we’ve explored a lot of them. So this effort is basically taking the periodic table, turning it upside down and holding it by the ankles and shaking it and seeing if any loose change falls out that we haven’t found before. And it’s something you absolutely should do. You know like I applaud their approach. I think is the right approach. It’s not guaranteed to produce results. We’ve been pretty clever at finding a lot of you know the combinations of elements that do interesting things. You know H2O is a great one by the way and we’re unlikely to improve on that for a lot of purposes.
Joshua: Another solution that we could dream of is carbon sequestration. Because we got a lot of CO2 in theâ€¦ I guess I should say CO2 sequestration. Oh, I e-mailed you a long time ago about carbon offsets for flying.
Tom: That’s right.
Joshua: As far as I know it doesn’t work. And it’s decreasing something that would have increased it more is not the same as decreasing. If you put some money in and it stopped someone from putting a little bit more than they would have, it’s only decreasing the amount of increase.
Tom: That’s right.
Joshua: [unintelligible] any way short of planting trees to get CO2 out of the air and planting trees only replaces the trees of cut down. And it doesn’t seem to match the volume that’s in there now. Not to mention methane and so forth. I know that there’s some research into getting some [unintelligible] CO2 to combine with rocks. Have you done a post on sequestration?
Tom: I did a post on sequestration some time ago and I remember the result being that there was one particular technology I was evaluating to see if penciled out. And you know in terms of strict sort of energy terms and viability that particular effort to get CO2 out of the atmosphere seemed reasonable. But you know that the practical problems become where do you put it, in what form. If it’s gas, it’s difficult because you know part of the idea is toâ€¦
Joshua: [unintelligible] have to capture it.
Tom: Right. You could put that maybe into natural gas wells that are spent and just you know these underground features that have held gas for you know lots of time you know millions of years, maybe those are good places to shove these gases but that’s I think a difficult prospect and I think those things can be actually leaky once they’ve been you know accessed forâ€¦ The natural gas has been pulled out you get this sort of drill hole pipeline and I don’t know the details of this but you know it’s one of those things that strikes me is that’s a little hard.
The other thing you could do is make solid matter that you dump into the oceans and goes down deep in the ocean floor and basically not seen or heard from again for the timescales we care about. And so there are things that you can do like this but compared to just simply cutting down on our fossil fuel use you know that’s where the big gains can be had at least in slowing the progress and then everything about the problem becomes easier if you take that first thing away.
Joshua: And I feel like business people ought to get the most because if you would become more profitable cutting costs is almost always more effective than raising the revenues. It’s difficult but it works. Man, you are going to love the Low-tech magazine because he talks aboutâ€¦ Thereâ€™s one thing he did recently on energy security which the definition of that is kind of hard to figure out. But if you want to make sure that your energy supply never dropped or if you want ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent like you only want have an hour you will never lose more than an hour a year. The costs like shoot up incredibly and if you’re willing to have itâ€¦ Maybe the power goes down once a day over the course of a year, the costs drop a lot. But nothing works like just reducing the amount of power you need. It’s like night and day. The difference in the effort and to keep trying to get to higher and higher percentages of working you become less and less secure because your needsâ€¦ You start having to devote more and more of your economy over to it and then you know immediately people once they have it they start using more and you become less and less secure. And if just everyone could go for having lived a life, one, that didn’t need that much and, two, when the power goes down they’re fine for a while. Just don’t do your laundry that day. I’ve oversimplified it. You become a much more secure nation, if energy security is what you want to look at. And in general lowering consumption it’s just incomparably more effectiveâ€¦
Tom: Thatâ€™s right. And that’s something I personally found you know is the one place where I can mentally go in and feel like OK, there is a solution to our massive problems. It’s not one that’s easy to sell but yes, if we all reduced our footprint by a factor of two to four or five as I feel I’ve done in my life, not feel but measured, and that takes enormous pressure off of our system. And now a lot of the problems become tractable. So it’s a funny thing that the Do the Math blog I do all this evaluation under the assumption that we’re going to try to keep our present energy use rate or even grow and show that, man, it’s really hard. It’s just hard. But as soon as you drop it down to four times less, OK, now there are things that we can do and the problem just becomes easier. It’s not an easy thing. So the question is how do you get people to accept that that’s the right solution. And I’m skeptical that our values as a society can change without a crisis being the precipitator and it would have to be a pretty serious crisis and there is a lot of damage that comes out of a crisis. So yes, on paper it can be much better off if everybody just cut way back as I have myself and you have. I just don’t know how to get there.
Joshua: That’s what this podcast is about and that’s what my life’s work is becoming. Largely because when I made these changes it’s not necessarily the case that if you reduce your consumption, that your life will be better by your own standards. But what I found is that it’s not only better but it’s a lot better in a way that I never would’ve anticipated or predicted. And what I’m sharing is not deprivation and sacrifice. It might look like that from the outside but what I’m trying to share is joy and fun and connecting with people more and living by my values more. But that alone, if you simply tell people that it won’t, people are, â€œOkay, great. Well, I like my life too. And good for you. You live a great life. I’ll live a great life.â€ And they kind of stay that way. I want to get to that in a second but I still want to go back to a coupleâ€¦ There’s like. What happens if we keep growing? That’s one of the bigger ones and the Energy Trap because both of those they stick with me really well and I think they inform a lot. And I hope you donâ€™t mind sharing about those too.
Tom: Sure. So first of all, the inaugural, the first post I did for Do the Math blog was just exactly this problem of how much physical growth can we take. And I looked at just energy and over the past few hundred years, three or four hundred years we’ve been on essentially an exponential rise at maybe 3 percent per year. And so if you do the mathematically convenient move of knocking that down to two point three percent per year, that gives you this nice feature that every century it’s a factor of 10. So if we increase our energy use by a factor 10 every century, what are we looking at? And in 400 years from now we would use all the sunlight that hits the Earth and thenâ€¦
Joshua: You said 400?
Tom: Yes, 400.
Joshua: [unintelligible] itâ€™s going to be sixteen hundred. Renaissance not that long ago. I mean â€¦
Tom: Right. We can still understand English from that time, for instance. You know Shakespeareanâ€¦
Joshua: [unintelligible] in a long, long time.
Joshua: As long as they’ve beenâ€¦ No, I mean like 4000. So it’s 10 percent of the time since ancient Egypt.
Tom: Right. It’s moderate.
Joshua: OK. Right. So we got that far ahead. Now we use every bit of solar energy that hits the planet.
Tom: At 100 percent efficiency which thermos-dynamically and physically you’re not going to do.
Joshua: And there are clouds reflecting stuff and all sorts of…
Tom: Yeah, yeah. So. So this is sort of upper limit. This is the absurd level. So then you say well, no problem because I’m a space cadet and I think we can build a Dyson sphere and catch all the light from the sun that’s not just hitting earth but everything that’s coming out. So that gets you to eleven hundred years.
Joshua: So to get everything coming out of the sunâ€¦ So we’re just using every bit of energy that’s coming out of the sun.
Tom: At 100 percent efficiency somehow.
Joshua: So eleven hundred years. So we’re not even halfway to year zero. We’re barely halfway to the year zero.
Tom: Yeah. That’s right. So that’s daunting. But you know the true space cadet will say, â€œYeah but our sun is not the only star in the galaxy. There are one hundred billion stars in the galaxy.â€ So that would seem to make your life infinitely better. You could go forever but noâ€¦ Sorry, I said it wrong. Fourteen hundred years to get to the solar, all the solar but then it’s another eleven hundred years to get the entire galaxy. So add those, that’s twenty-five hundred years from now. Add this rate or add two point three percent growth per year in energy that’s the galaxy, the entire galaxy in a civilization relevant timescale. And I should very quickly point out that in no way do I think this is a serious calculation.
Joshua: This is like an upper limit.
Tom: It’s not only an upper limit, it’s absurd from the very beginning and it’s got a lot of problems. You know for instance to do that that would assume that we’re also growing population so that the demands on energy keep scaling up because that’s been happening, that’s been part of the last three or four hundred years of energy growth. It’s just also more people. It’s been growing faster than population meaning that we use more per capita but you have both things growing. And so I was surprised sometimes by the reaction to this post because some people thought I was seriously proposing that this was a reasonable calculation. It’s not. It’s only to point out that yes, you can imagine all kinds of things that would limit us and not allow us to do this trajectory. But that’s exactly the point. We are not going to continue a growth trajectory on energy indefinitely.
And so then I turn it to let’s just stick our focus to the Earth and say that we’re producing energy on the Earth and I can even tell you that I don’t care what form that’s and I don’t care if it’s a new form that we don’t even have a name for yet or some you know quantum fluctuation of the vacuum zero state or whatever. Like just make up some malarkey and whatever energy technology you can imagine producing if we keep growing at the rate we have then and I think that I keep the two point three percent per year, there’s waste heat from that production. And if you’re on the surface of the Earth the only way that we can get that waste heat off the Earth ultimately is radiation. That’s how we know thermodynamically connect to space and so in something like again it’s 400 years this surface of the planet would be as hot as boiling water a hundred degrees C. And in something like a thousand years we would be as hot as the surface of the sun on the Earth if we were really continuing this energy trajectory by whatever physics you want to concoct for energy production.
So really what this says is that there are thermodynamic limits, physics limits on how much we can expect to see energy growth on this planet and obviously it’s already absurd by 400 years you’re boiling water. So we’re not going to get to that. And that’s just saying that over the course of just a few hundred years we run into real physical problems and therefore will not continue to grow our energy production on a few centuries timescale.
Joshua: So these cartoonishly accepting ways like saying, â€œIf we could do all these things,â€ you’d think it would give you a lot longer than a few human lifetimes. And yet even when you just allow everything possible beyond anything reasonable it’s still only a few human lifetimes.
Tom: It’s shorter than the growth period that we’ve seen so far.
Joshua: And that’s very simple. I mean it’s just like we canâ€™t keep doing this. And then you had this conversation with an economist about this who is named on the blog.
Tom: And by the way, I’ll point out that some people thought that this was a fictitious conversation and I can assure you it was not. In fact, at one point I had this economist willing to write a joint article for Scientific American where we had our back and forth conversation in that forum and eventually he backed out. Soâ€¦
Joshua: This is a prominent someone like a name people would recognize? Or at least at an institution people would recognize?
Tom: Yeah. Absolutely. Right. And so it’s unfortunate but yeah, there was this conversation at a dinner table with an economist where I sort of put this idea of the end of growth because the next part of the story is if you’re going to stop growing physical resources energy and other extractive you know physical resources my claim is that economic growth also has to end. And this is something that there is a logical sequence to get from oneâ€¦
Joshua: [unintelligible] a conclusion because you have to keepâ€¦ If you want to keep yourself warm in the morning or not freeze to death, you need some energy component of your life.
Tom: That’s right. So the economists would say, â€œYeah but then that becomes increasingly unimportant in terms of you know we have growth in other sectors that are not physical.â€ And the fact that you can point to some activities, economic activities that are absolutely real and happen today that have almost zero energy input like let’s say trading fine art or you know historically important art that that energy has been spent. You’ve just got some canvas with some oil on it and you know you can do millions of dollars of financial transactions to move this ownership of this thing around and it basically costs no energy. And so there’s this fallacy to think that if you can point to some examples where that works to go from there to say, â€œThat means that we can decouple you know our economic activity from physical resources because look at this example.â€ But at the end of the day we do have physical needs. We need to grow our food and eat and move things around and heat our food, heat ourselves. We will have a physical component. If that were to become a negligible part of the economy because all these other sectors have just you know left it in the dust as the economist view, that would mean that is basically free. For something that’s finite and limited it’s like they don’t understand supply and demand all of a sudden. That will not be free. So there will be a threshold and if even in the best of circumstances and we don’t go down in our consumption but we are able to sort of maintain a steady level of energy expenditure, it will be a finite part of the economy and therefore if it’s capped and the fraction of the economy that it represents is capped, the economy is capped. So growth is a phase. And just because it’s lasted for generations, it doesn’t mean it’s a physical principle. Economists really like to sort of borrow from kind of the physical sciences and have these principles that are their foundations. But a lot of those foundations are temporary. And so the entire structure makes great sense right now and they are fantastically successful at understanding a lot of the elements of our economy right now but it’s going to be you know not worth a whole lot in the fullness of time.
Joshua: In a short time. How about the Energy Trap? I want to keep going on but the Energy Trap is actually one that I’ve read that one many times and I havenâ€™t done the math on it myself. OK, so say we want to start transitioning fromâ€¦ So say that there’s some politician and right now I don’t think anyone gets elected on saying, â€œLet’s use less energy.â€ or â€œLet’s convert some of the energy that we’re putting into industry and put that into R&D.â€ but let’s say we had one. So it’s not so easy to just say we’re going to use tax on energy some of the R&D. Say if we’re on the downâ€¦ You can explain that better than I can.
Tom: OK. So let me first start by saying that you know to connect to the previous point that growth is a temporary phase and it’s destructive in my opinion the sooner we realize that it’s not the right trajectory and get off of it, the better off we are. We can aim for a more steady state to save ourselves the decline or maybe you know go for steady state and then as you know the world allows maybe you could grow that steady state value from there but it’s kind of like building a helicopter that can hover and maybe you decide okay, we can actually hover a little bit higher but let’s get the helicopter capability first. So when a politician calls or their campaign calls me during election season one of the first things I can say is, â€œDoes your candidate support growth?â€ â€œOh, absolutely yes. My candidate is really fond of growth.â€ And I say â€œOK, well that’s my number one issue. I really don’t support growth and I can’t get behind your candidate if that’s something they care about.â€ They hang up on me. OK, itâ€™s so a great way to get rid of a caller but it also points out the prevalence of the growth mentality in our economy and our resources and it’s destructive. So I think we need to get away from it.
The Energy Trap is the acknowledgement that if we are to accomplish a large scale transition away from our current fossil fuel based infrastructure where you know 85 percent of our energy is coming from fossil fuels or something in that neighborhood, then it’s going to take a giant investment of capital and energy to bring that about. You know if you can imagine a U.S. pavements worth of photovoltaic panels or wind turbines everywhere you look or whatever the technology is, it’s a big investment of real physical goods and it takes energy to produce those goods. So if you react to a decline in available energy because you know we hit peak oil or you know political instabilities or whatever is decreasing the amount of energy available year by year and only then do you react and say, â€œOh, gosh. I guess we do need that new energy infrastructure.â€ And let’s assume that we could even decide what that should be and collectively have a consensus on where we should go. And you start to build that energy infrastructure, it’s going to take energy and pull a resource away from people that’s already in short supply. So that’s difficult. That’s politically difficult and it’s a long term prospect. You’re looking at you know decades to build out this infrastructure so you know that’s longer than the political cycles. And that makes it very vulnerable to some other politician coming in and saying, â€œOh, you know are you tired of this you know rationing? Would you like to have your life back?â€ just like I’ll get rid of this program and presumably to be better off.
Joshua: And presumably at this point if there hasn’t been any big crisis, if this is all foresight so that politician could also say, â€œThey don’t even know what they’re talking about because I haven’t had any problem.â€
Joshua: Yeah. So itâ€™s foresight like people agreeing… Okay so that’s majorâ€¦
Tom: That gets in the personality types which is another fascinating thing we might touch on but the Energy Trap I think is really important because you know we’re used to doing big projects but we think of it economically and we think of it from a financial point of view that you can borrow money to build some big project and over the you know the following decade you’re going to make enough money to pay back that loan but nature doesn’t work like that. You can’t finance energy. So it’s to come off the top. So I do think this Energy Trap is something to be concerned about that the flaw in thinking about the Energy Trap is thinking of energy as monolithic that it’s all one category whereas we have different forms of energy – we have coal and natural gas and petroleum. And so you know petroleum might get hit hard and if you need petroleum to build your infrastructure to replace petroleum, then you’re in trouble. But if you can do that with natural gas and coal, you can sort of sidestep the problem somewhat. But I think just in broad brush it should still be a concern that if we have energy or just you know fill in your blank resource, you’ve got resource limitations and you realize suddenly you have resource limitations and you need to get out of that situation it’s going to take resources to get out of it and that’s what you’re limited on at the time. And so I think generically this becomes a somewhat thorny and sticky problem.
Joshua: If reducing energy requires energy and your energy is going down, then pulling energy from where it’s being used to where you want toâ€¦ You have to pull out fast. And no one has ever done that before and you don’t even know if it’s really necessary because maybe the projections are off and we think we’re going to lose it over the course ofâ€¦ We think it’s decreasing like say 2 percent per year but it’s only decreasing 1 percent per year we could use that and then it’s always easier to get back out of the trap or get back out of that cycle and then you’re trapped. It’s on the one hand subtle but on the other hand compelling. That’s how I found it.
Tom: And one of the greatest inventions of our human experiment at some level, well the greatest I would say it’s been science, that’s my own personal view, but then the next thing might be democracy and you know you could argue about the order that you want to present but democracy as wonderful as it has been is particularly challenged when it comes to responding to these kinds of crises because if it’s a question of voting to impose additional limits on yourself and to have less rather than you know voting for the guy who promises more, that’s difficult. So I think we get this situation where democracies have worked exceptionally well in situations and in our climate in which we have more available each year. In the growth phase democracies work incredibly well because people can guide their politicians to maximize their growth. If the whole scenario flips around and now it’s a decline scenario democracy is not so well suited to guide us sort of gracefully through that phase. It always wants to go the other way. People want more for themselves and so the pressures are against the current. When it’s with the current, wow, we do great things.
Joshua: I’m not aware of any other system that works any better either. Because if you start looking at authoritarian, the authoritarianâ€¦ I mean thereâ€™s calculation certainly people my age and older too which is you hear well, thereâ€™s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. I was born in 71 so I’ll be about 80. That’s a big problem for someone else, not me. And if you’re a dictator or you have a small number of people making these choices, presumably they’re not the poor people. And then you have people who are like, â€œThat’s a problem for someone. But not me.
Tom: And I do sometimes wonder and this is just idle musing. OK. So it’s not something I’m an expert on. I don’t really study it. But we see this rise of somewhat authoritarian regimes sort of right wing extremism across Europe and I wonder if some of that is connected to just this subtle sense that things are changing, things are different. One thing I do recognize is that as fun as I am of the tolerance that we’ve built up in our society toward those who are different that’s a fantastic thing that I would love to see and improve. Tolerance is a function of having needs met. So if it becomes more of a skirmish for resources, those who are different will not be tolerated. If you’re fighting for your survival at some level or for just what you want or need to survive and you perceive that some other group is trying to share that pie. Any label, any attribute that can separate one group from another becomes a wedge. And I worry that this is kind of where we would head if we don’t handle this transition gracefully and we might be seeing the sort of fuzzy edge of this process now because people sense that it’s a more hard scrabble than it used to be. I mean there’s this sense that you know if you ask young people, â€œWill your life be as rich as your parents?â€ and it’s for the first time in history sort of turned around so maybe it’s not an accident that we’re seeing shifts in our political leanings in a way that justifies our preconceived notion of where things were heading.
Joshua: A lot of people have described the situation in Syria as arising from conflicts over dwindling resources. And that type of conflict could expand globally.
Tom: Yeah. My scenario isâ€¦ The third thing that I imagine and this is again just total speculation but it’s a plausible sounding scenario which is that oil you know let’s say it’s cheap now but that’s not a forever situation and it edges up to hundred dollars a barrel and you know the oil exporting countries are happy with that. Their economy is humming along. And then as oil becomes more difficult to produce let’s say it edges up slowly to two hundred dollars a barrel and some countries are, â€œYou know what? This is great but our economy works just fine at a hundred dollars a barrel and this is obviously a precious and dwindling resource. Let’s sell half as much of it for two hundred dollars a barrel. Then our income is the same.â€ Now you’ve just taken oil off the market and the price spikes up more than 300. Some countries says, â€œOh, you know what I’m going to sell a third as much at three hundred and still my economy we are just fine and I’m going to save or hoard this precious resource.â€
And suddenly you know this is obviously a domino effect that that’s a runaway. And at that point the US military says, â€œYou can’t just do that. You can’t just pull the oil off the market. This is a global resource and we need to you know police this for the world and make sure that it remains available.â€ And then the Chinese are going to say, â€œWhat makes you guys decide that you get to control this resource? We care about it too.â€ And suddenly you’ve got a resource war and that’s scary to me because now as you’re in this energy decline scenario instead of spending energy in an Energy Trap scenario to build an infrastructure, you’re spending all your energy fighting a war which is a very destructive process. You’re not putting that huge investment to good but it seems more plausible to me that we would as a human species focus our efforts on conflict and a personalized attack on some other people, different people than realize that you know it’s we are the problems ourselves, it’s our expectations, it’s our energy usage, we need to cut down, we need to invest this huge effort sort of a World War II scale effort or Apollo Project effort.
Joshua: Without a Hitler.
Tom: Without a demon. Exactly. Without a demon.
Joshua: Because each step along the way makes sense based on human psychology of what we want, what we need, what we’ve done before and at no step of the way to saying, â€œLet’s all take a step back?â€ Has it ever happened before? How do you feel about the future? How do you personally feel if you don’t mind my asking?
Tom: You know I’ve gone through all the stages of denial and anger and grief and all this business and now I guess I’m just a spectator. I want to be a little more than a spectator though.
Tom: No, no. I don’t have kids. But I have two cats and had three chickens until recently. But you know it’s fascinating what we’re going through. And if you look at the perspective of this you know blip, this absolute terror that we’ve been on in fossil fuels and realize that this is a temporary phase, we’re living it in some sense at the most interesting time in human history. We’re living at the time when this thing might turn around. And how are we going to handle that? That to me is just you knowâ€¦
Joshua: Interesting in the sense ofâ€¦
Tom: I got a front row seat to the most sort of amazing spectacle perhaps of human history. And there’s some you know popcorn eating kind of reaction there that wow, OK, this is just going to be interesting watch. I’d rather not go that way. So I would rather figure out ways that I can help bring awareness to people about these problems and challenges. And I often catch myself and try not to use the word problem because problem implies solution and I like the word predicament better than problem because this is a very you know wicked as some people call it a problem where the solutions are not easy or forthcoming and it’s more of a response than a solution. So how do we respond to this predicament?
At some level I look at this as we have built civilization and imagine civilization as a stadium and we are filling up the stadium with people as we increase our population. And at some point we fill up the stadium so overfull that it collapses and it turns out that the event that the people were coming to see was the collapse of the stadium that more peopleâ€¦ By its nature if we do suffer some giant collapse it will be almost by definition when the most possible people are alive to witness it. It’s because of the population and all of its associated demands and needs. That’s what’s causing the problem. And so you have this built-in tragedy that whatever happens it’s going to be maximally bad because the most possible people will be impacted.
Joshua: And you are going to beâ€¦ Your section is not the one that’s going toâ€¦. It’s very unlikely that your section is going to happen to be the one that doesn’t fall down.
Tom: Yeah. Well you know if we have the resource for kind of approach you can imagine… If maybe our military leaders think this way that if we can just be the last one standing in this, we suddenly have a much reduced global pressure on our system because it’s been so catastrophic that we can put the pieces back together.
Joshua: If the carrying capacity of the planet is 5 billion, weâ€™re over it now and say that all these wars happen and now the population is 2 billion.
Joshua: So we can naively say, â€œProblem solved!â€
Tom: Right. Now we move on.
Joshua: Of course, presumably this war does not leave the Earth where it was before.
Tom: I think it’s going to be really challenging. There’s a book that a colleague of mine recommended. His name is Frank Shu, heâ€™s a prominent astrophysicist and moved on to energy concerns. So you know it’s a club. And so he recommended this book called Earth Abides and it’s an old book from probably the 50s or 60s and it’s about as many of these sort of apocalyptic stories the kind of pretense is absurd and it’s not something worth really considering but some giant you know disease knocks out ninety-nine point nine percent of the people or some large fraction of people. And so it’s sort of how do the survivors kind of find each other and sort of rebuild life? And one thing that is fascinating about it to me is that the kids in this story because you know they start repopulating at some level, the protagonist of the story cares deeply about science and technology and the amazing world that we’ve built and wants the next generation to sort of pick up those pieces and build from that.
And it’s very clear that these kids have no interest in that path, that just doesn’t seem to have any applicability to the world they live in which you know their concerns are about hunting the local deerâ€¦
Tom: Yeah. They moved back to more subsistence living with some of the benefits of what weâ€™ve known handed to them in terms of knowledge and technology but they don’t care about learning to read. They don’t care about the library that has this you know bank of basically an instruction set on how to recreate this world. They really don’t care. And I think that that rings true to me because as kids grow up they see the world around them as normal no matter what it looks like. And there’s an acceptance there. And so I don’t think the future generation is going to really care about getting back to where our generation is. So yeah, I’m not sure that scenarioâ€¦
Joshua: [unintelligible] like thousands of years from now at least.
Joshua: But they won’t have the oil lying on the surface of the planet like we do.
Tom: That we had the easy stuff. Right. And so the kind of oil that we get today requires high technology. These are deep wells, deep ocean and you know the easy stuff is long gone. And so if you’re starting kind of from scratch, you may not ever get there.
Joshua: Yeah you might need a hundred million years to get there. That’sâ€¦
Tom: Whatever. Yeah. You need to basically almost erase… Well, yeah I just don’t know what happens. Obviously nobody does.
Joshua: I want to transition to leadership now because I want to tell you what gives me hope and purpose and meaning in all of this becauseâ€¦ What youâ€™re saying sounds very similar to what it feels like to me. Oh, and one last piece that I feel is really important, one last piece from my side at least, is that I think a lot of people think of, â€œWell, we’ve been through recessions. I mean sometimes you know we have negative growth for a while so people their lose jobs. It’s a problem for them but we rebound and we recover.â€ And I think they think there will be a correction to the market.
Tom: Sort of.
Joshua: [unintelligible] issue is money okay, so maybe some of the money supply dwindles or something like that. When the issue is the population it’s not a little bit of money goes away. It’s the population drops. And when we have a 10 percent blip in some foreign market and our markets are so intertwined it affects us immediately in a big way and we can’t handle it. I mean we lose our cool over that. Now you’re talking about major parts of the population dropping. That’s not like a little crash with the market. That’s fundamental changes of what we think ofâ€¦ It’s like black plague type of stuff.
Tom: It’s uncharted territory for us andâ€¦
Joshua: Nothing that we had before prepared us for it. Like whatever would happen, it’s probably bigger.
Tom: That’s right. And you know consider the fact that the modern world we’ve built is highly dependent on stability and supply chains and resources that are mined from all over the world. And if you start disrupting those things now just the simple things that we would never consider like â€œOh, you know guess what? We can’t make iPhones right now because Thallium is important and that’s all coming from Gabon or what.â€ You know I’m just making up stuff but. But you can imagine that the order that we’ve created allows amazing things to happen but as you start poking holes in that we’re kind of fragile, we’re kind of crystal and we’re not amorphous. We don’t have local capabilities that can do basically everything that the world at large can do. We’re fragmented and specialized and interdependent in ways that we’ve never seen before. And as long as you can maintain that you can do some amazing things. But if that gets disrupted, I think we’ll find that we’re ill prepared and it’s a lot like when San Diego lost its electricity for 12 hours the whole county. Weâ€™re so fragile it just broke us.
If that had been a protracted problem, you know there would have been some solutions to come you know gain the most important capabilities back but you can imagine it something is happening that’s disruptive on a global scale, that all the things we take for granted suddenly become exposed as not viable anymore.
Joshua: To what extent do people get that or what percent of the populationâ€¦?
Tom: OK, well, I’ve got a great little statistic that 60 percent of people are naturally by their personality, the type of people who really strongly favor what they see directly here, touch, feel, direct sensory input. They sense the world around them and that informs what they think is real. And you know I’m not knocking that. That’s a very legitimate way to operate. But when you describe an unprecedented scenario that they can’t look around or they can’t look in the history books they see no evidence for this kind of thing. Just can’t go there. They can’t go. So 60 percent of people just can’t entertain you know that this is a serious concern.
Joshua: So if we are looking 40 percent tops and then all these 40 thereâ€™s going to be other issues there.
Tom: That’s right. Now not all of those 40 percent who are not that particular personality attribute are going to be on board. There will be other reasons why they reject this idea.
Joshua: So now as hopeless as things can feel a big thing for me, a big way out isâ€¦ Or I mean the big thing that is a possible way out is if we take our foot off the gas pedal, then ultimately if we don’t shift away from growth and externalizing costs, it seems to me like of the system those two beliefs driving that system, those goals, as long as they’re there we can make something more efficient. But we’re still going to keep a system with the goal of growth made more efficient will grow more efficiently no matter how much you think in the short term LEDs will use less energy than incandescents. Ultimately, like widening a road eventually we figured out the wider road is as congested as the one-way. I think we’re on track to using more energy with LEDs than we did with incandescents. We certainly quickly use more energy and incandescents than we did whale oil. That didn’t take very long. And if we had to go back to whale oil, we would light a lot less.
Tom: Yeah, because LEDs are so efficient you just put them everywhere. Why not?
Joshua: You use them more each one and you use more of them. And so there’s Jevons Paradox and things like that. And it’s everywhere. I donâ€™t know about you but do you see it like when someone says, â€œOh, we’ll just use nuclear.â€ and youâ€™re like… Like the pattern seems pretty clear like it feels to me like a gut reaction now that I can kind of tell when it’s there and if someone asked me I can go through the middle steps to why it seemed obvious that Uber was going to increase congestion and that self-driving cars are to do more and that if we made airplane solar then, then it’s still driving the system toward the outcomes you’re talking about.
Tom: Yeah and I have a real problem with the word â€œjustâ€ that often comes up â€“ â€œwhy don’t we just, why can’t we just, we’re just going toâ€ you know and nothing is just so easy. And so that’s part of it is that it’s a complex situation in a complex world. Everything has costs and side effects and I’m not sort of a fan of the easy solution. And when you talk about letting your foot off the gas I really like that analogy because I feel like that’s a very sensible thing to do. Faced with uncertainty if you don’t know what’s happening in the traffic ahead like somebody is telling you there might be just a total standstill, you might not want to slam the brakes just yet because you haven’t seen the evidence yourself but you should at least be prepared and not be pedal to the metal.
And so I think about that with say a transition to a renewable infrastructure as challenging as that may be, as expensive as it may be, as hard as it may be, as you know there may be some sacrifice involved. I feel like we’re looking at a sign that says â€œCliff aheadâ€ and we could just keep barreling forward accelerating with our foot on the pedal and say, â€œI don’t know if [unintelligible] that sign.â€ or we could say, â€œYou know there’s a chance that sign is right. So maybe we should turn before we get there.â€ And so the economist would say, â€œIf you turn too early, you will miss some opportunity. You know why not use the fossil fuels that are cheaper and more convenient as long as we can and get as much out of that as we can before we turn?â€ And my feeling is gosh you know if we turn early and suddenly we find ourselves with a renewable infrastructure, if that’s so bad like why have we lost in doing that really. And it’s a prudent thing to do. And I was speaking with a friend about this at some point years ago and I said, â€œWhy don’t we turn if we see the sign that says â€œCliff aheadâ€? And he said, â€œBecause we’ve seen that sign so many times. We’ve learned to ignore that sign.â€ You know that’s absolutely right. I think that’s the situation that you know â€œShow me the evidence and maybe then I’ll react.â€ But if it’s just this kind of [unintelligible] abstract projection of concerns by pointy headed people, then we can go with that.
Joshua: Yeah. Actually my friend who of all the people I’ve spoken to has the most knowledgeable awareness of global warming is what anyone else would call a climate change denier because he says thousands of years there’s always been some group of people saying, â€œIt’s all going to end in our lifetimes. Trust me and do what I say.â€ And he says, â€œLooks like that to me now. I don’t see the difference.â€ I said, â€œWell, there’s a science.â€ And you know it ultimately got to where I sent him the IPCC reports and he pointed out to me you know there’s some things in there… What did he sayâ€¦? He said there were a bunch of corrections to some of the measurements and I was like, â€œWell, yeah, well you know sometimes you find the miscalibrated equipment or something.â€ And he pointed out, â€œThey always moved in the same direction. And if it was really misscalibrations, you’d expect it to go sometimes up, sometimes down.â€ And I was like, â€œThis guy really knows what he’s talking about.â€ And he’s actually changed a little bit. But yeah, no one can really go through all the science and if youâ€¦ I don’t know. I look at the IPCC people and look at Al Gore and they keep meeting, they keep flying all over the world and doing things that they’re saying we can’t do. And you say well, all right, well Al Gore and An Inconvenient Sequel he saved the deal with Indiaâ€¦I don’t if you saw it butâ€¦
Tom: I saw the first one but not the second.
Joshua: So there’s a scene where India, it’s before the Paris Agreement and India saying, â€œLook, you guys use coal to get where you are. We want to get where you are we. We are going to do that. And so we need coal.â€ And he does some last minuteâ€¦ Al Gore does some last minute stuff, he gets a deal with Solar City to do something with India so India signs the agreement and helps make it through the process is lower as he’s flying all over the place. And I think it’s fair for someone watching this… If you ask people should he have done all that flying, that certainly put his usage or his emissions over the IPCC recommendations for an individual and I think a lot of people would say, â€œWell, it was worth it because yes, he used more than that time but the gain that he got was worth it.â€ But I think the reason they’re saying that it’s not because they’ve calculated it in their head what the gain was relatively speaking. I think it’s because they want that excuse themselves. And as a result for whatever he says when you look at his behavior or for that matter all the IPCC scientists who get together all the time and they have this elaborate affairs, they justify a behavior that broke the rules: â€œWell, I certainly don’t want global warming but in a crash an SUV is much safer and my childâ€™s safety. Yeah, I agree on global warming but I am going to get the SUV just like Al Gore did his thing.â€ And I think I don’t see a lot of leadership in the area the environment. I see a lot of people telling people what to do which I don’t call leadership. I call it telling people to do.
Tom: Yeah. Bossing.
Joshua: Actually, I just today looked at the word â€œconvinceâ€ because every time we hear that we’re convinced I think in my head I convert the word â€œconvinceâ€ to provoke debate. And if you’re trying to convince someone to do something, generally what you’re actually doing is provoking them to debate you about it which often gets them to dig their heels in. So I looked up the word and the â€œvinceâ€ is the same as victory so itâ€™s about defeating the other person. And when we come to someone and say, â€œI’m going to convince you about something.â€ or if you just feel that way and don’t say it, people don’t like to be victored over, to be defeated.
Tom: They would like to be invincible.
Joshua: Yes. In the midst of all this, there are a few things that change things for me because for a while I felt like well, I might as well just go for the partying and have fun because there’s nothing we can do about this. But then I thought a couple of things. One was that the changes that I made in my lifeâ€¦ Listeners to this podcast know a couple of big ones. So one that was I noticed how much of my garbage came from food packaging and so I gave myself this challenge if I could go for a week without any packaged food. And I made it two and half weeks before I bought my first thing and then when I bought my first packaged food I was like, â€œI didn’t really need to get this in a package.â€ It was onions. I’ve got a bag of onions. I could have bought loose onions. And that was about four years ago and I’m not at 0 packaging but the last time I threw out my garbage it took me 16 months to fill up my little garbage. There’s no way I could have imagined at the beginning that I would go from throwing in my garbage once a week to throwing it out less than once a year. But now looking back I see that once I started that it was inevitable that I would come get to where I am and hopefully it’ll be longer the next time because every step was improving my life.
And along the way was when I was actually watching Dave McKay and he said that a flight New York – L.A. round trip was roughly a year’s worth of drive depends on if itâ€™s coach, depends on how much you drive and so forth. So a lot of variables but [unintelligible]. The combination of learning that plus… Oh, I forgot to mention that the throwing away stuff less that’s the side effect. The main effect was that I found out that vegetables and fruit I find more delicious. And once I started going to the farmer’s market – costs me less, I spend less time preparing except when friends are coming over and it becomes a more social thing. So when friends are over it makes my life better. I really love cooking from fresh vegetables and going to the farm. And it was a value shift that I didn’t anticipate happening. And so then when I saw that my flying was polluting a lot more than I thought, I thought that other challenge worked pretty well. What kind of challenge can I do here? And I gave myself a chance to go for a year without flying. And anticipating that day 366 I would almost certainly be on a flight because I like to travel. And as the months went on, I was replacing all the thingsâ€¦ Like right after that happened my sister was like, â€œHey, do you want to come with me and the kids (my nieces and nephew). We’re going to Tokyo. It’s $800 roundtrip.â€ I was like, â€œWow, that’s… Let’s start my year after I get back from that trip.â€ And I thought, â€œNo, I can’t. That’s not what this is about.â€ And definitely by six months in I was like let’s see how long I can get this going. So in March I will begin my fourth year of not flying. And again, I’ve replaced it with stuff that I like more. My life by my standards is better now. Other people wouldâ€¦ And I have to say, there’s family and work that I haveâ€¦ Like everybody reacts like, â€œI have family and work.â€ Those thingsâ€¦ I live in the same world as everybody else and so I had to work and figure out how to resolve those things but when I did I really liked the results.
And so I have this experience that sharing these things in no way do I feel like I’m sharing deprivation and sacrifice. I’m trying to share that there’s something that I think people will like it if they experience it. And another piece was I had a guy on my show who told me, I am going to say it loosely, there’s a more precise way to put it which is that the number one predictor of whether someone will get solar on their house is not how much money they’ll save or their politics or how much money they have. But it’s how many people in the zip code already have solar. Which tells me that community influences people and these social and cultural changesâ€¦
Tom: Oh, yeah. We are social animals. We pay attention to what other people do.
Joshua: Yeah. And so given people’s facts and figures and doom and gloom that has influenced a lot of people. But I think a small percent of the population and I think we’ve tapped out the most of them. Community is another story. And getting people to experience a difference can lead to them wanting toâ€¦ What I’ve felt is if these little changes improve my life a little bit and then big changes will improve my life a lot which happened with me because I started with food, then flights were bigger for me than food. And I’m trying to… The leadership and the Environment podcast is my first step of trying to instigate that change. And when I first started doing it I started talking to peopleâ€¦
Oh, thereâ€™s one other piece. There is one little habit I have is I pick up at least one piece of trash per day and I pick it up off the ground, put in a trash can. It’s not decreasing the amount of trash. I am just moving it from one place to another. But for various reasons that are hard to explain but if you do it, it’s rewarding and oddly educational experience. And I was talking to a former student and after I’d given a series of talks at NYU on leadership and the environment that mainly they got pushback from people, people didn’t like to be lectured on environmental action. I was just talking with a student and he says, â€œYou know I’m going to give it a shot. I am going to go for 30 days picking up 10 pieces of trash per day.â€ I didn’t ask him to do it. And at the end of the month I asked him how it went and he said at the beginning of the month he felt weird picking up trash. At the end of the month he felt weird passing it by without picking it up. And though I’d never spoken him about food at all and he’s a weightlifter who is concerned about how much protein he gets, he took it on himself to start reducing the amount of meat that he ate while still maintaining all his dietary whatever. And he just did that on his own because he liked it. And I keep in touch with him and he’s since kept it up. He’s not doing that for me, he’s not doing that forâ€¦ He’s doing it because he feels it’s right.
So thought, â€œI wonder if I can get people trying these things out and experiencing this.â€ Now even if I talk to a lot of people that’s not a lot of influence because I can’t talk to 7 billion people. But not long enough after I started this podcast I started getting people on it who are like really big people like Dan Pink who’s had 10-20-30-40 TED talk views and other people approaching like the number of TED Talk views of people who’ve been on this podcast is nearing a hundred million. Just as one measure ofâ€¦ I started realizing that there are people unlike me they are at a leveraged point of system and someone like Oprah is in a lot of people’s community. And so all these people who are saying, â€œIf I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t matter.â€ if they see someone in their community â€“ Oprah, Lebron, Serena, Barack, Elon, Sergei, Larry, people like that, I think that they might… And I’m not talking about celebrity but because a celebrity does something like I’m not talking about an endorsement. But if it’s someone that’s in a lot of people’s communities would share their environmental vows act on their environmental values. And then people could hear it and say not, â€œIâ€™m going to follow Oprah because she’s Oprah but I’m going toâ€¦ Oprah shared her values, acted on them and changed. Shared that she liked it. Maybe I could do that too.â€ I think it’s a strategy that’s not convincing. It’s not relying on celebrity power but I think has the potential to influence lots of people. And it’s driving me… That’s what this podcast is a first step in doing.
Tom: Yeah, well I think it’s essential that we reach out to as many people as we can and share our perspectives and our values and our actionsâ€¦
Tom: Yeah. What we’ve done. I think these personal stories are important for people to understand how they might fit in and what they might do. It is very difficult not to sound preachy. And it’s very difficult not to sound alarmist, especially when there’s a reason for an alarm. I mean we’re not advocating this because we like deprivation, we’re. We’re advocating this because we see what could happen if we don’t collectively cut backâ€¦
Joshua: And it could happen if we do collectively cut back.
Tom: Yes. We’ve seen the benefits and they are as you say multifaceted and unexpected. And you know I mean at one level I grew up in Tennessee where we had seasons.
Joshua: [unintelligible] Southern California.
Tom: Right. Brutal hot summers and then really cold winters and snow at times and San Diego is almost steady but not quite. And so it actually at some level helps me to live without heating or cooling my house in San Diego because I experienced the seasons more than I would otherwise that you know there’s a cold season and I look forward to you know those changes and that’s something I would not have expected would be a result of changing my habits in terms of heating and cooling. But now I feel like I’m in better touch with the rhythms of our world because I’m experiencing these rhythms.
Joshua: What I expect is that at some point it’ll be LeBron James saying something like that and millions, tens of millions of people who would not have listened to any pointy head person will say, â€œOh, that makes a lot of sense.â€ And the way to get thereâ€¦
Tom: I was going to say that I think you know one thing I learned from my blog one of the later posts was and I really stopped doing active posts by and large and part of that [unintelligible] that before I just mentioned that because the trajectory of the blog, we’ve got some problems, let’s look at how much we can get from x, y, z resources. You can only do that process really once. I’m not going to keep putting up posts on how much we can get from wind. That’s just kind of checked off. Likewise, what big changes that I am making in my life on the energy front. Well, you know once I addressed electricity and natural gas and food and travel you know I’ve addressed it. But one of the last posts was about personality and recognizing that like it or not the Myers Briggs assessment of personality and I was certainly admit there aren’t 16 tidy types of people but you know there are measures that kind of are spectral you have people that are hard over on one side and the other introvert versus extrovert for example. And so I found that seventy-five percent of the visitors to my blog were either my personality type or the Jason type very you know kindred types. And so one thing I learned from that is if you wanted to reach more thanâ€¦ You know those two types constitute maybe 4 percent of the population. And so I was accessing 4 percent of the population reading my work. And so that’s not good enough. But clearly those people appreciate my voice, the way I present the information, the analytic style is a personality match. If I wanted to or if you wanted to reach a larger audience at some level, you’ve got to bring in a team of people spanning those personality types who share the overall concerns and vision but have a different way of appreciating it and a different way of communicating it and a different way of responding to it. And if those people can also you know have a voice on the forum whatever that forum might be, then you stand to reach more people. And so when you say something like LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey at some level that’s kind of the strategy although these are well-known people, they’re also going to see life from a different point of view and one that might resonate with folks that you can’t reach.
Joshua: Yeah and I definitely hope forâ€¦ The types of people I tend to get to theyâ€™re like TED talkers and number one bestselling books of nonfiction and so forth and I really hope that someone takes my podcast and says, â€œJoshua’s reaching some groups. But heâ€™s not reachingâ€¦ I don’t know, maybe they’re in France, â€œHe’s not speaking to French people at all.â€ And someone starts Leadership and the Environment in France, Leadership and the Environment Young People, or Leadership and the Environment old People or whatever group that isn’t me or that I’m not reaching for whatever reason. I’d love to have lots of other people doing, reaching other communities and just communities will mean different sets of values and so forth. But I think most people want clean air and water and they don’t want mercury in their fish and that they can work together on that also.
So let me ask youâ€¦ What I do with everyone on the show if they’re up for itâ€¦ The the environment means something to you. This one we’ve been talking about, I feel like. And what I ask people do other option is to do something that they are not already doing, to act on those values and to come back on the second time to share what it was like. Now you’ve already done a lot of these things and you’ve shared it already before you ever met me. But I wonder if you’d be up for doing something new that you haven’t already done. And you donâ€™t have to figure out all the world’s problems by yourself overnight but to do something that you maybe have been thinking about doing it. Are you up for doing something?
Tom: Yeah. I mean part of my lack of hesitation really is that I know that those things can be rewarding. So what you’re asking me to do at some level is not give something up or sacrifice. It’s would you like a new adventure, right? If so, fine. Yeah, I can pick up a new adventure. It takes some mental energy and effort and you know we have our lives and we have our distractions and we get into our routines. And so you know it’s easy to put off even though these things can be fun, it doesn’t mean that we want to add a new one every day because it does take some real you know recalibration and some thinking and it’s somewhat distracting. But yeah, it’s been a while since I haven’t done anything so I could.
Joshua: It’s funny because at my side I ask all these people to do it and then if each one of them ask me backâ€¦ I talk to a few people a week and I can’t [unintelligible] every week. Every now and then someone gets me and I’mâ€¦ Like John Lee Dumas was a guest, he’s a big entrepreneurship podcaster and he lives in Puerto Rico and he was picking up once a month… Last year he’s goingâ€¦ I am actually going to interview him for the one-year mark pretty soon and he would take it back go to the beach pick up garbage off the beach. And then his niece visited and she went out and he was talking to his neighbors and it was really kind of fun sounding. And I’ve been thinking about plogging for a while. So do you know plogging?
Joshua: It’s a Swedish term for picking up garbage while you run. From an exercise standpoint it means you’re running plus at random times you’re doing lunges. It’s kind of funny because most people bring a bag with them when they plog. And Iâ€™d been thinking about it for a long time and challenged by the New York City having so much garbage I didn’t know if Iâ€™d make it one block if I had to pick up every piece of trash on the way. But then I heard him figuring out how he did stuff and I was like, â€œYou know what? Next time I go running Iâ€™m going to plog.â€ And I basically switch from running to plogging. I had to figure out what would make it work so I can make it more than a block running in New York. But this is just to say that I get inspired back from people. Yeah, it’s hard to pick things up and you have toâ€¦ But then sometimes something really doesâ€¦ It’s like, â€œOh, I’m glad I did that.â€ So is there anything you’ve thought of that you have in mind that you’ve been thinking of doing for a while?
Tom: Nothing immediately comes to mind. So I will have to put a little thought into what’s on the unchecked list.
Joshua: Do you mind if we go back and forth a little bit just to see if anything comes up?
Joshua: Anything come up?
Tom: So I mean I’m thinking about my daily routine. That’s the easiest thing is if you can plug something into your daily routine that is added and you know my daily routine is that I bike to work and I’m on trails for a lot of that time. So you know dirt trails, nature. And you know it’s not necessarily an inventive thing because you’re talking about picking up trash but you know it’s a fairly clean environment. But I do occasionally run across trash. It takes some effort when you’re on a bike to you know stop and say you might have to get off the bike to pick something up. So that’s something I could do.
Joshua: I predict you’ll find that getting on and off the bike at your starting destination, I don’t know San Diego but certainly New York when you’re already getting off the bike there’s enough trash around there that you wouldn’t have to stop on the trail if you [unintelligible] only one or two pieces of trash per day.
Tom: That’s true.
Joshua: Now when I pick up trash I generally don’t have to step out of my path. At some point during the day there would be something that I would almost step on.
Tom: So that’s probably not the right direction for me because my environment is pretty trash free. And I also don’t see it as personally meaningful in terms of solving the problems that we need to face because I’m more concerned about resource usage and so I think maybe for me it would be more about my own personal resource usage as you said maybe packaged goods but I’m maybe more interested in looking at the energy and resource costs of those things. Packaging is one aspect but I can imagine being more vigilant about where my goods and services are sourced so that I’m not purchasing apples from New Zealand or whatever it might be. So you know it’s not something I’m particularly vigilant about right now but that’s something I could fold in.
Joshua: So if it was to go for some period of time and I make it time limited because I donâ€™t want people to think it’s like they have to commit for their whole life. Usually I say make it a SMART goal, you know specific, measurable, actual, time-based. Because I like to have people on a second time to share what the experience was like. And how long do you think it would take, if you’re up for a second timeâ€¦ It would be a shorter conversation than this one. How long do you think it would take to get a feel for if it’s stock or if you liked it or if you didn’t like it or if it’s too much of a pain or whatever?
Tom: I think I’m not fully settled yet on what the thing will be because I’d like to have you know maximize its importance and impact. And so I need to think a little bit and be quantitative at some level about you know what change am I looking at and pick on that basis. So it’ll take a little bit for me of analysis and based on not knowing what the activity is it’s hard for me to know how quickly I would you know have fully explored the consequences. So I can’t really say yet what the timeline might be.
Joshua: OK. That makes sense. Also one thing I say to people for what I’m asking is the magnitude isn’t so important because I find it usually by doing it they figure out more in the process of like how to specify more. Whereas â€œI was thinking about it but not doing it.â€ that’s really hard to make happen. So I could either press a little bit and see if youâ€™re up for narrowing it down now or I could say maybe I could email you in a week and see if it’s kind of settled.
Tom: Yeah. I prefer the latter just because it’s just my personality. I do approach everything that I do with some analysis and some thought and so just sort of a spontaneous goal would not I think match me so well.
Joshua: OK. So can I email you in a week and see [unintelligible]?
Tom: Yeah, sure. OK.
Joshua: And this is by far the longest conversation I’ve had on this podcast. But this to me is like the first time I read Limits to Growth I felt like this is how I looked at things but I never actually did the math to see how it all came out. It was such a refreshing read. I mean it was a sobering read. I guess was the 30-year anniversary one. But I feel like you’ve said in really a blog and speaking to you it feels like this is so important and such a reasonable way of looking at things. I can’t believe anyone doesn’t look at things this way and I almost take for granted that every getsâ€¦ The liberation that you get from getting the math behind it but most people don’t. And I hope maybe a book comes out of what you’ve done, I mean a PBS special or something. It feels like it’s not out there and it’s some of the most important stuff. I really appreciate your sharing all this and following through to take things to a step, to a degree that most people don’t but everyone benefits from. I hope to see some new posts soon.
Tom: Well, yeah. It’s on my mind occasionally thatâ€¦ The site is somewhat dear to me. It was a huge investment during the time that I was posting for a while weekly and these are substantive posts and took a lot of my time and there were a lot of side benefits out of that you know honing, writing skills and so forth. But yeah it’s been somewhat neglected and part of that is just distractions and other aspects of life. But definitely it would be fun to do a post on my bike commute. It’s an electric bike and I use my solar off grid system for the charging so I’m really pleased that I’m doing a completely fossil free daily commute. And there are some other things like the performance of this electric car where the battery has declined over time and I have posted about that but I can update on what the battery has done. And that’s important because it brings perspective on how viable is this approach to have electric transportation. And you know it’s an open question how large a fraction of our fleet will transition to that style. It’s not without its limitations. So yeah there’s definitely some blog where the topics that I’ve gotten the queue.
Joshua: Well, I look forward to them.
Tom: Thank you.
Joshua: If I remember right you’re measuring the distance to the moon in your other time.
Tom: Yeah. That’s right. In fact, you know tonight I’m sure this podcast will be after the fact but tonight we have a lunar eclipse. We have six hours of telescope time and telescope time is â€¦ On this class of telescope is a thousand bucks an hour which is cheap compared to a big telescope or something like that of that form, a 10-meter telescope. This is a three-and-a-half-meter telescope and a thousand bucks an hour… If you think of renting a car, you know that’s a performance machine.
Joshua: [unintelligible] a few hours.
Tom: Yeah. So it’s you know big stuff butâ€¦ So the weather forecast looks really good. You know I’m still doing that project. That’s generativity using these measurements to the moon to millimeter precision and that’s rewarding. But I have to say that you know it’s part of my perspective that science as I’ve said is really dear to me. I think that we’ve kind ofâ€¦ Science as a mechanism it’s a paradigm in which we’ve used some human shortcomings to build something stronger than humanity. And what I mean by that is scientists are our people and they have career goals, they have ambitions they have you know they certainly many of them would like to be remembered for what they do and have a legacy and so the opportunity to dispel some longstanding scientific idea or to come up with some new thing or a new discovery, that’s a real motivator.
And so when you have something like you know generativity or evolution or climate change or any of these big topics you could be famous by showing conclusively and you know in a way that’s acceptable to the scientific community based on all the objective criteria that it entails. You could become famous by changing a paradigm. And so that gets turned into science trying to tear itself apart all the time. That is what science does. It’s picking at the corners and at the nets and really trying to unravel the whole situation. And by failing to unravel it, it tends to make it stronger.
If you’re a say a climate denier and you come in with some ideas you know some scientists have had ideas about why this is all malarkey and as they look into it but they’re being objective they realize, â€œOh, no, actually this thing is right and this idea I had doesn’t really pan out.â€ And that’s one of the hallmarks of science is actually you know going with the data, going with the conclusions over your preferences but all the time having an interest in tearing it apart. So it just gets stronger and stronger the more we try to tear it down. And so it becomes more powerful than humans at some level than individuals. And I think it’s a remarkable edifice that we’ve built. I think we’ve learned so much, we know about how the you know the physical world works, the universe and I value that, I treasure it. I don’t want to lose it.
And if we are morons about how we approach the future, if we don’t anticipate that there’s a potential show stopping problem in our society, then we could lose all of what we’ve gained in science. That’s the worst case by reverting to primitive state.
Joshua: [unintelligible] all of what we’ve lost in society.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. It’s potentially just enormous. And the risk is so asymmetric that I really hope that I’m wrong to worry as much as I do. But the fact that so few people are expressing this worry is itself a giant worry for me because how do we mitigate a problem that we don’t admit is happening. It doesn’t solve itself. It doesn’t resolve itself. And so meanwhile yes, I’m a scientist, I’m doing this project that has import in that context of our current scientific apparatus. But if we fail, what I’m doing now means nothing it’s lost. Nobody cares about generativity. It’s just not relevant. It’s not part of our world. If we fail like morons.
So yes, I feel like I’m playing music on the deck of the Titanic, doing this very high level exercise enterprise while the ship might be heading toward the iceberg so to speak. So I really struggle with the fact that you know I value what I’m doing there. I think it’s the right thing to do in the context that we manage to keep it all together. But then the other part of me thinks what I’m doing is a total waste of time. If we fail and shouldn’t my effort be going toward doing whatever I can to raise awareness and get people to step back, look at the big picture, realize that there’s a reason to be concerned and really assess in a cold hard sense what does it mean what can we do. What can I do? How do our values have to change so that we don’t suffer this fate?
Joshua: I can’t help but comment on some of that. It’s What can I do? Also if I can’t do enough to make a difference, then it feels like not worth doing anything anyway. Just enjoy what you have and hopefully it won’t hit the fan too soon. But since you talk about the foundation of science and you know you get a PhD in physics like you’re into science so I love science originally not because whatâ€¦ I mean I started a company and I had some entrepreneurial success. It was really exciting. But I never stopped liking science. And you know when I started I always thought you know there was like Galileo, Newton and Einstein and Feynman and then there’d be Spodek and that’s what I’d be like one of them. And it was one of the hard things about leaving the practice of science was giving up on that. And I thought well, maybe I’ll be like Ford, well not Ford but you know some big entrepreneur. But now along the lines of what you said looking at this situation today we are in a unique time period as you said and scientistsâ€¦ People who understand nature. I think we get stuff that other people don’t. And I think the role of a scientist today like no other time is not just to measure because to me it’s overwhelmingly conclusive on many different fronts not justâ€¦ I mean there’s global warming, there’s plastics and all these different things. And the thing to do now is to find ways to act on it. Keep measuring it. Yes, by all means, keep measuring it, keep teaching it, keep studying it. But also I think the next step is how do we change behavior on a scale and how do we actually implement that make that happen. To me I feel like the role of a scientist today, well, one of the roles, there’s many roles but one role is to do something about it. I feel like I’m now back into doing what I was in for in the first place. And to me that means a lot of leadership and a lot of learning what motivates people and developing the skills and practices of how to influence people even when they might not agree or are skeptical of the scienceâ€¦ Which skepticism is healthy. How do we change behavior on a global scale to where people are glad that it happened? That to me is the role, is the biggest role of a scientist today. [unintelligible] as well.
Tom: [unintelligible] this a little bit because you know if I look at what are my real core talents, it’s not aligned that well with the things that really most important we need to happen right now. So I mean I can build things, I can design, I can you know analyze data, I have a lot of talents that that don’t necessarily mean that I’m a good communicator to people, especially people different than myself and I’m not really interested in policy even though policy obviously has a huge role to play and I don’t like reading giant thick dockets of material. So it’s unfortunate. I think you know I’m not alone that there are scientists who see the problem but they’re not the right people to get other people to see the path.
Joshua: Scientists are pretty non-influential. And so maybe it’s not the role of science… Yeah, I saidâ€¦ You’re one of the first people I’ve even said that to at all what I was just thinking and I’ve overstated it a little bit because I probably have beliefs motivating myself but I think there’s a lot of scientists spreading facts and I think that’s important to get those facts into and to get the data. And there may not be scientists whose roleâ€¦ I mean for me I’ve spent the past over 10 years learning leadership, learning influence and learning to listen and learning to make people feel understood. And in teaching it as well so I can help others develop the skills which I think are the essential ones because I don’t think that simply giving people facts is going to do it. I don’t think that’s simply going for legislation when there isn’t popular support is going to do it either.
Tom: That’s right.
Joshua: And so how do you get to popular support and I think there are the role models unless Einstein, Galileo and more Gandhi and King and Mandela.
Tom: Right. And my attempt to do this was through a blog. I thought you know I had been teaching in classrooms and hitting you know 60 or 80 students at a time and I thought this was a very important aspect of my job. But that’s the blog allowed me to reach you know typical posts would get five or ten thousand views sometimes you know much more if they kind of hit the read it and those sorts of sources so I thought OK this is a huge amplification. And then realized that you know it’s still tiny and it’s only attractive to people too much like myself. And so I think you know the difficulty here is finding somebody who’s a better match to where most people set who themselves can comprehend the scale of this problem because there’s almost a built inâ€¦ If they’re like the people you want to reach, they don’t get the problems. There’s some chicken and egg issue.
Joshua: Well, for me thereâ€¦ I think you know thereâ€™s a lot of people whoâ€¦ I’m not a parent either. But when people become parents they start taking responsibility on a scale wholly different than they ever did before. People [unintelligible] party a lot, stop party. People change in major ways. Or other examples are animals like dogs where there’s an alpha. If the alpha dog disappears for some reason, another dog becomes the alpha dog. I’m not saying there’s alpha behavior that we’re looking for here. But people who are not… I don’t like the terms introversion and extroversion. But people who don’t have the social skills to do things they can develop it like even Susan Kane who wrote Quiet, it was just a huge bestseller. She gives a TED talk that is viewed by tens of millions of people. It doesn’t seem very introverted. Let’s just say I’m an introvert hiding out like I’m a closet introvert. So my view is that people can develop lots of different things if there are ways for them to develop them that work which is what I’m trying to work on is how to enable people to do things, to help them be leaders. As for me personally well, I guess your blog will connect with a certain number of people and a certain personality type and it will not with other personalities. So my thing there is what other techniques are there? What does work?
Tom: I’ve thought a little bit about this and I think you know video presentations could be effective, a short animated you know 10-minute clips. I’m thinking of something along the line of Story of Stuff. Youâ€™re probably familiar with that.
Joshua: Yeah. I love Story of Stuff I had the executive director here.
Tom: So something of that form you know that can have broad reach, has appeal. So I think you know thisâ€¦ I’m very attracted to the idea of taking this graph that we’ve talked about here of the energy use as a function of a very long timescale. I think that would make a super you know sort of animated short that fits within attention spans and brings a big message in a short amount of time. But you know given that, it’s entertainment. Thatâ€™s where the problem is. People watch TED because they’re stimulated by the ideas but that’s kind of where it ends.
Joshua: Yeah. People go to movies to laugh or to cry. And those are kind of emotions that get us to come back for more. TED talk gets you fascinated, making you come back for more… But it doesn’t… I don’t know anyone who’s… Very few people who’ve actually seriously changed their behavior like they watch a TED talk and theyâ€™re like, â€œI should do that. I am going to do that!â€ and thenâ€¦
Tom: Yeah, yeah. One of the best TED talks I saw came from somebody who’s from UCSB and it was about why TED talks are a waste of time. So I really loved it. It was well put.
Joshua: Now that said I do think that there are other techniques entirely, experiential, to experience things and the community thing is my big direction. And actually when I started the podcast I didn’t know thatâ€¦ What’s happened in the past couple of months is that corporations are now approaching me and saying, â€œWe have a problem that we can’t solve.â€ Like a common thing that happens is like a CEO will say to like the sustainability team, â€œGo figure this out.â€ but they’re not actually changing themselves. And my read is that the sustainability team gets that â€œAs long as they haven’t figured it out we could not figure it out and our jobs are still secure.â€ Whereas places that are successful they have successful cultural changes, the leaders behave consistently with the change that they’re looking for. And inadvertently if I’d speak about it in entrepreneurial terms this podcast I’ve inadvertently done some R&D and developed it like a technology to get people to act on their environmental values in a way that they like it and to share publicly. And so it looks like I’ll be working with three corporations and talking with the leaders to have them go through the process we sort of went through of â€œDo you want to take on a challenge?â€ I don’t want to… Well, you’ve already done them and as you said for you it’s an adventure.
Tom: An adventure with meaning, an adventure that I think makes a difference.
Joshua: And that imagine, not just you saying that but imagine the CEO of a Fortune 100 company said that. That’s actually a practice that I want to start doing is to start going to leaders and sharing that technology that technique of getting people from â€œThese little things are so small that donâ€™t matter. These big things it’s too big and it’s too hard to do.â€ to â€œThis is reallyâ€¦ I like this.â€ And sharing direction of, not direction but like instruction seeking compliance but sharing fun, enjoy, whatever adventure and offering support for others to do it as well. And that’s the direction I’m going into of influencing people at leveraged points of systems.
Tom: I think it’s an interesting idea and a good idea and I think it has some real potential because the leaders can lead by example. And so the one thing that I worry a bit about is that leaders in those situations often, this is my suspicion, are really big about perceptions and you know that they put a lot of care into what other people see which you can use to your advantage here that that’s the reason why this might work is because they want to make an example, they want their lives to be visible. But one thing that I think youâ€™ll want to think about or guard against is if the show, if the illusion is more important than the actual thing.
Joshua: If they’re not authentic and genuine.
Tom: If they’re not authentic but they see this as a way to you know burnish their credentials in some way, shape or form or you knowâ€¦ I sort of my cynical view is that anybody who stays at a hotel that costs five hundred dollars a night or eats at a place where it’s a hundred dollars per meal they’re going to tell somebody else where they stayed, where they ate. That is the value. It’s not that the food is better because a five-dollar burrito usually beats out all of those places. The value is in the bragging. It’s in the show. And so my sense is that the people in this kind of circle, in these circles are driven by such concerns which again you can use to your advantage but just be aware that you’ll be lucky to have some that are genuine. OK. And maybe it doesn’t matter if they’re not genuine, maybe it still has the same effect if they’re not genuine. But that’s the real, that’s what you’d really like is for somebody to truly embrace these things, then do it because it feels right to them and not because of what they get to say to somebody else.
Joshua: Yeah. At the beginning I didn’t do as much with you because we’ve talked so much about values before I talked about inviting you to act on them. For most people I try to askâ€¦ I ask them â€œWhen you think of the environment what do you think about? What does it mean to you?â€ And their usual answer is a bit protective: â€œOf course it is something I care about you know kids, future.â€ Something like that. And then I go back and forth a few times to show support for whatever it means to them. And it’s different for everybody. But it’s personal for everybody and it’s meaningful for that person. And so for maybe it’s you know everyoneâ€¦ It’s actually part of the podcast that I really like is hearing that part. And it’s actually a technique for my book of just listening and confirming my understanding, letting them correct me until they see that I’m not judging them, what matters to them really doesâ€¦ It’s not something for them to be ashamed about or something to keep quiet. And sometimes it’s you know their dog in the park, sometimes it’s gone fishing with the grandfather when you were a kid or sometimes it’s some dystopic future or some movie that they saw. Whatever it is it matters to them. And I try to make it… I try to get to a point where they say, â€œYes. That’s what it is for me.â€ And then I ask them to act on that. And that’s why I say you know it’s not to fix the world’s problems. And I am taking for granted that everyone cares about something that if they act on it, everyone would agree â€œI’m glad you’re doing that.â€ But this technique is like emerging from doing the podcast as I’m sure it happened with you as you did the blog came on to more and more things like you couldn’t have predicted would have made sense to you or it would have been valuable to put on there you wouldn’t run before then [unintelligible] more and more and more. Well, I just laid out this is what it’s all about for me now. One of my big things. I don’t know how many people are listening at this stage. Looking down I see we are two hours and nearly 40 minutes in.
Tom: Yeah. I’m thinking it might end up being a chopped up multi segment situation or heavily edited.
Joshua: I’m not sure. Because I think partly like Sam Harris, I listen to his podcast and he’ll do like two three hour podcasts and Joe Rogan does and these are ones that are listened by millions of people. I’m not listened to by millions of people yet but I we’ll see. I’m not sure how to handle this like I have to talk to my editor. On a personal level I almost felt self-indulgent in this because it was such to me an important conversation that Iâ€™ve been wanting to have since I started reading your blog. I could really keep going butâ€¦ Unless you want to keep going I will. But we will stop here because we’ll talk again afterâ€¦
Tom: Sure. I think I’ll just say one quick thing aboutâ€¦ You’ve mentioned what’s important to individuals and you kind of skipped over that with me but I at least I want to offer there are two different levels for that one I care a lot about this wonder of our universe and you know by that I mean stuff beyond the Earth and just the way that physics works and that we have a universe at all and that it’s got stars and galaxies and that you’re going to have places that form life and it’s very complex, it’s rich, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing and doesn’t care about us. Nature does not care that we’re here. We’re just sort of along for the ride. Part of that gives me solace and perspective to know that the universe will be fine. So as much as I’m invested in getting the story right for ourselves and not going off the cliff part of me thinks you know it is what it is. There’s an acceptance there and a realization that some of the things I care deeply about will be absolutely fine. Doesn’t matter.
So there’s some value in that but it doesn’t necessarily get us our human affair. And so I do care more locally and at a different level as I said about science and the institution of science and the amazing construct that it is and what we’ve learned. I value that greatly so just like I care about how the universe works I care about the fact that we know that it works this way. And you know so I care about that knowledge and I care about the Earth, I care aboutâ€¦. You know I put myself mentally in places that have been very meaningful whether it’s Alaska, Grand Canyon or backpacking trips where immersed in nature and again I feel insignificant. I’m just lucky to be a part of it but I’m not its master and I’m a guest on this planet. I feel that we owe it to the planet and other species to do right by it and not just make a mess of things.
So you know it’s I guess many different levels then of things that I care about and in some sense there’s some things that it means that I don’t care because some of the things I care about don’t care about us.
Joshua: I just listened to Pale Blue Dot again the other day. I was playing it for a friend. And I assume you’ve heard Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.
Tom: I have not heard that.
Joshua: Oh, you havenâ€™t?
Joshua: So I am going to send you a couple of links after that. One is to Low-tech Magazine and I don’t know if I apologize in advance or do not apologize in advance for whatever time you lose from everything else because I think you’re going to like Low-tech Magazine.
So Pale Blue Dot is Carl Sagan when Voyager 1 spacecraft was passing Saturn I believe, he asked for time to point back at the Earth and that was just one pixel. It’s his reflection, an audio, a spoken word reflection on the experience of not long after seeing Earth from space for the first time from the beautiful marble, blue marble pictures to now it’s just one pixel. And it chokes me up to hear it still. It did yesterday. Now that I’ve mentioned it to you I am going to have to put a link to it but I think what you said resonates a lot with it. And I apologize now for not having spent a little more time to ask you about that and I appreciate that you’ve shared it. If you don’t mind my asking do you connect that… Can you make the connection from that to your day-to-day behavior or your environmental behavior, if that’s a connection to be made? Is it close to you is? Is it natural to you?
Tom: I think the immediate sense is that because I do bicycle through natural areas every day on trails surrounded by nature I see lots of rabbits occasionally I see bobcats or coyotes. And that’s something I dearly value and it really tethers me back to the earth and back to something that’s not just our kind of ridiculous human constructs of life. You know it’s something that’s just going on with its own rhythms outside of our direct influence. And somehow I just find it gives me solace to realize that you know we can screw things up a lot and of course my goal is to do whatever I can to help us from screwing up as much as I can. But even if we do there’s a continuation, there’s amazingness without us. And I find that comforting.
Joshua: If itâ€™s okay with you, I am going to leave it right there.
Tom: Fine. Yeah.
Joshua: Just adding my thanks for your time and an appreciation for all that you’ve shared and certainly on this podcast. And looking forward to following up. I don’t mean to close for you. Are you comfortable with closing or is there anything elseâ€¦?
Tom: Yeah, that’s I think fine for me. We covered a lot of interesting topics. Of course this is something that that is a deep and rich and complex subject and there’s no way that in a short amount of time we can really do more than scratch the surface butâ€¦
Joshua: Alright. So I will wrap up there. Thank you very much, Tom.
Tom: Sure. Great to be on. Good luck with your endeavors.
Joshua: Thank you.
I’m glad you listened all the way through. I’m not sure how many will listen to that long of an episode. But if you did, I presume you found it as valuable as I did. Since you’re a select group and I consider this episode one of the most important I would love your thoughts. Should we talk about in this episode and get out more? Or is it interesting but not worth following up too much on? You can find me at joshuaspodek.com/contactconnect or just go to joshuaspodek.com and click the Connect link in the upper right corner. I’d love to hear from you. I’ll keep this comment short because you’ve listened to a lot.
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