When I read Tom's book on sustainability, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, I couldn't believe the book didn't exist already. I consider it the science book of the decade so invited him back. He shares about his motivation and goals in writing it. You might read my review of the book first, but you can jump into this conversation too. Here is an excerpt from my review: He taught a course to non-science undergraduates on the subject, called Energy and the Environment. He used the course to compile his posts, polish them, and make a self-contained comprehensive book. As far as I know, the only one like it, possibly because mathematics is the language of nature, so equations abound, but he explains them, so people who haven’t taken science or math classes since high school can follow. Showing the math means we don’t have to take his word for it. We can do the math too and think, judge, and act for ourselves. No matter our politics, age, industry, etc, we can access this book equally. The environment involves many branches of science, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, systems, and more, as well as fields including engineering, history, politics, philosophy, and more. Murphy brings them together like no other resource I’ve found. Many will shy away from devoting the time that the gravity of our environmental situation demands, but for enabling and empowering every reader to understand, think, judge, and act for themselves, I consider Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet the science book of the decade. I’ve read and watched a lot of books, videos, and articles. For reference, I consider Sustainability Without the Hot Air by Caltech-trained Cambridge physicist David MacKay the science book of the previous decade, and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, the science book of the decade before that, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers. (A video of David MacKay after his book led me to avoid flying, not as a burden but to increase my enjoyment of nature and connection to humans.) Read these three books, and you understand our environment. But wait, there’s more. Murphy has acted on his findings in his personal life. He didn’t just use an electric car or unplug appliances before doing so was cool, he measured his results and shared how doing so affected his relationships with his wife, peers, and students. He shares his life and profession. This book doesn’t teach raw information, it shares a lifestyle. I’m not saying the book is easy, only that I find it the most valuable book or resource on the most important area humans have faced as a species, and I’ve read and watched many. Murphy’s book is glorious. He writes about the wonder of nature, our genius in harnessing it, its limitations, and our folly at not measuring the sofa before trying to jam it into the elevator, or believing the self-serving interests suggesting a “new normal” without justification. The math is accessible to a non-science undergraduate. To someone with a PhD in physics like me, it is a symphony—pure joy when you understand it, even more when your study it. Beethoven didn’t write his Ninth for one hearing. Yo-Yo Ma has to study pieces and even with my PhD, I have to take time to understand its equations and application. I learn each time I read Murphy. You will too. The payoff is worth it for aesthetic pleasure alone. There are practical benefits to understanding the patterns: unlike Beethoven, the fates of civilization and millions of species, including our own, depend on our understanding and behavior.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Tom's Do The Math blog is one of the best site on internet. If you measure a site by how much it can improve a reader's life and human society, I challenge you to find one with greater potential. A couple peers include Low Tech magazine and Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, which is a book that you can download for free. Tom makes the physics behind the environment and our interaction with it simple and accessible. If you don't like math, well, it's the language of nature, so it's important to understand what's happening in nature. But even so, the point of collecting data and calculating results isn't for the sake of the math. It's to get past it to get to your values and to act on them. The point of the math is to get past the math When W. Edwards Deming initially apparently contradictory statements make sense, you understand the point of taking data and calculating results. He said: “Without data, you're just another person with an opinion.” and "Management by numerical goal is an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do" Doing the math frees you from confusion to enable talking meaningfully about what to do. Regarding the environment, as long as people can think they can just switch to solar for everything that needs energy or that they can close some imaginary loop and recycle everything, they'll do things that lower Earth's ability to support life and human society. They'll feel confident and happy as they step on the gas, thinking it's the brake, driving toward a brick wall. Nature is the perfect mathematician. It doesn't react to your feelings about waste or aspirations but what you actually do. Tom's conclusions about solutions and admonitions against non-solutions point to what works. A path forward becomes obvious and simple when you understand the math and physics. You may not initially like it, but you can change what you like, as sure as most of us learned to like vegetables despite preferring ice cream as children. The result is clarity and mental freedom. The challenge, knowing what works and doesn't, is seeing the madness of people acting without understanding these things. The result is living by your values with confidence, not just hoping for the best. If anyone wonders where my views come from, it's analysis like Tom's. Also Low Tech Magazine, Limits to Growth, and Sustainability Without the Hot Air. There's a lot science that I support and value, but find inaccessibly complex, even with a PhD in physics. Tom's work is accessible. People think the science is hard and scientists confusing. It doesn't have to be. What the math says Tom's main conclusions point to reducing consumption as the most viable solution to our environmental problems. Without it nothing else works. You think you have a solution without reducing consumption? Read his blog. I bet he covered it and showed its limits. My experience shows reducing consumption as improving most Americans' lives, at least the first 80% to 90% reduction. Missing from nearly every mainstream message I've heard but clear from Tom's life, my life, and a few others is that consuming less brings joy, meaning, purpose, community, and relationships along with cleaning our air, land, and water. If you think reduction is an economic problem, read Tom's blog on his conversations with the economist because growth is a bigger problem. Meanwhile human societies sustained for hundreds of thousands of years without growth. Our growth since Adam Smith has picked all the low hanging fruit, high hanging fruit, and now we're digging under the sea for every scrap of oil we can find and polluting everything for a few moments of forced smile. Read Tom's blog and you learn we could create happiness, meaning, purpose, and community instead.
Everyone thinks about the environment. Nearly everyone gets bogged down in questions. What's best? Will this or that change make a difference? What does all the science mean? What should I do? Science answers some of these questions. Science is the study of nature. People associate it with going to the moon or people in lab coats, but it's about nature -- sunsets, gravity, why the sky is blue, as well as global warming, pollution, and resource depletion. Using computers, motors, eye glasses, and so on means your life relies on science. I find it beautiful, which is why I got the PhD in physics. Not understanding science or math means not knowing how to reach or understand 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. Tom Murphy created his Do The Math blog to calculates the main questions on environment: solar, wind, nuclear. When someone says we can't grow forever, why not? What works and 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. We don't talk about the math details, which you can find on his site. The point of understanding the math is to liberate you from arguing about opinion to learning priorities and what works in what order. I urge you to listen to it through and to read his wonderful blog. Read the transcript.