One of the best books I’ve read on the environment, our impact on it, and what we can do about it
Imagine living your whole life nearsighted and one day you wear glasses for the first time — everything going from fuzzy blobs to clear.
Or you know after you get out of the pool and your ears have water in them? Imagine you heard like that for your whole life and suddenly they cleared and you could hear properly.
Or you’ve been wearing gloves and for the first time you take them off and feel something directly.
That feeling of experiencing something clearly instead of vaguely and indirectly is what reading the book Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air is like. Like the Do The Math blog I’ve been enjoying and praising, a Cal Tech educated physicist wrote it. This author, David MacKay, has researched and taught physics at Cambridge since 1992. He works as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change 80% of full time and at Cambridge the other 20%.
Why do I love his book?
His book is about “numbers, not adjectives,” as he put it.
Debate about climate, peak oil, pollution, sustainability, and related topics currently treats their subjects vaguely — saying switching to this fuel will have a big effect or recycling that will have a huge effect and the like, without quantifying things. Or if they quantify them, not in a way that you can compare things.
For example, can we live on solar power alone? Or wind power? How much energy can we get from tides and waves? Will planting trees get enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to reverse global warming?
Despite my physics background and deep caring about the environment, I didn’t know how to answer these questions. I didn’t even know where to look without risking an unknown amount of time looking. And if I did find the answers, I wouldn’t know a context to put them in.
MacKay set to answer these questions, put them in a context to make them meaningful, and put them in terms you could compare them. The context he chose was the broad question, can the United Kingdom covert to living entirely on renewables.
Did the author succeed?
MacKay did exactly what he aimed to do. He organized the matter, researched the relevant topics, cited his sources, showed his calculations, presented what he found clearly, understandably, and humorously.
According to Wikipedia (emphasis mine)
In 2008 he completed a book on energy consumption and energy production without fossil fuels called Sustainable Energy â€” Without the Hot Air. MacKay used Â£10,000 of his own money to publish the book, and the initial print run of 5,000 sold within days. The book received praise from The Economist, The Guardian, and Bill Gates, who called it “one of the best books on energy that has been written.”
As a scientists, I’m sure he’d be the first to say his answers have error bars, but the big picture is overwhelmingly clear. Anyone who wants to refine the answers can. With the full context, anyone fixing some little part will contribute to greater understanding, not just spitting into the wind.
Like I said, reading this book is like putting on a pair of glasses after being nearsighted and seeing blurry your whole life.
I recommend this book without reservation. Especially if you have children you’d like to have a chance at a healthy life in a healthy world.
Oh, did I mention he made it available for free from his website? Yes, the book has equations, data, and graphs. Nature is like that — mathematics explains it like nothing else does.
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