Citizen Action Monitor

Our rapid ascent in energy and resource use has distorted our view of “normal”

The new reality warns we are on a collision course with Earth’s finite limits —

No 2726 Posted by fw, May 3, 2021 —

Tom Murphy

“The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources—a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet. …Thus far, heeding physical boundaries has not been necessary for the most part, as the scale of human endeavors has only recently become significant in a planetary context. We are now entering into a new reality: one in which our ambitions are on a collision course with natural limits on a finite planet. It is a slow-motion trajectory that has been apparent to some for an embarrassingly long time*, but not yet acute enough to have grabbed the lasting attention of the majority. [*D H Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books, 1974]” —Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks.

Below, with my added subheadings and text highlighting, is my abridged repost of the Abstract and Preface from Murphy’s recent 481-page treatise, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits. Briefly, Murphy’s treatise addresses the formidable questions confronting us. Humanity, he asserts, faces a broad sweep of planetary limits in a multitude of unprecedented ways. Can we move beyond our unfounded, unexamined expectations shaped by our 150-year unsustainable trajectory? Murphy begins with an assessment of our situation, followed by a comparative analysis of various alternative energy sources. He follows with an examination of human-related pitfalls to effective action, and ends with adaptation guidelines for reduced energy and material demands to accommodate life on our finite planet

To read Murphy’s complete Abstract and Prelude to his remarkable contribution to a better possible future for humanity, click on the following link to his treatise.

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Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits by Tom Murphy, eScholarship / University of California San Diego, March 11, 2021

Abstract

Tom Murphy’s treatise addresses the formidable questions confronting us

  • Where is humanity going?
  • How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies?
  • What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? 
  • Are default expectations grounded in reality?

Humanity faces a broad sweep of planetary limits in a multitude of unprecedented ways

This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books.  The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.

Can we move beyond our unfounded, unexamined expectations shaped by our 150-year unsustainable trajectory?

Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years.  The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.

Murphy begins with an assessment of our situation, followed by a comparative analysis of various alternative energy sources

After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. 

He follows with an examination of human-related pitfalls to effective action, and ends with adaptation guidelines for reduced energy and material demands on our finite planet

Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity.

Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.

Preface: Before Taking the Plunge

Tom Murphy’s treatise is offered as a framework designed to lead readers to their own profound realizations about our relationship to planet Earth

This book somewhat mirrors a personal journey that transformed my life, altered the way I look at the great human endeavor, and redefined my relationship to this planet. The transition that took a couple of decades for me is unlikely to be replicated for the reader in the short span of time it takes to absorb the content of this book. Nonetheless, the framework can be laid down so that readers might begin their own journeys and perhaps arrive at some profound realizations. This preface explains the approach and some overarching principles of the text.

We live in a physical world governed by physical law; nature provides enforcement of natural laws

We live in a physical world governed by physical law. Unlike the case for civil or criminal law, we are not even afforded the opportunity to break the laws of physics, except in fiction or entertainment. We do not need to create a physics police force or build physics jails or plead cases in front of some physics court. Nature provides perfect, automatic enforcement for free.

Today, too few of us understand or heed the limits of human pursuits

The domains of energy, the environment, economics, etc. are no exceptions, and can be put on a physical footing. It is worth exploring the emergent framework: reflecting on scale, efficiency, and thermodynamic limits of the human enterprise. By understanding the boundaries, we can begin to think about viable long-term plans in a way that too few are doing today.

The new reality warns we are on a collision course with Earth’s finite limits

Thus far, heeding physical boundaries has not been necessary for the most part, as the scale of human endeavors has only recently become significant in a planetary context. We are now entering into a new reality: one in which our ambitions are on a collision course with natural limits on a finite planet. It is a slow-motion trajectory that has been apparent to some for an embarrassingly long time*, but not yet acute enough to have grabbed the lasting attention of the majority. [*D H Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books, 1974]

Our rapid ascent in energy and resource use has distorted our view of “normal”

The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources—a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet.

Consequently, we have been left ill-equipped to recognize and respond effectively to what’s coming

The fireworks show on display today is spectacular, fun, and inspirational, but also exceptionally unusual. Just as a meteorologist somehow born and trained within a 15-minute fireworks display likely cannot make useful predictions about weather and sky conditions over the next week, we are ill-equipped to intuitively understand what comes after the present phase.

Science offers us the tools to rise above wishful, warped expectations

Luckily, science offers tools by which to transcend our narrow, warped perspectives, and can assist in discerning likely from wishful visions. The aim of this [Murphy’s] textbook is to set quantitative bounds on the present era as a way to better prepare for the possibility of a much different future. Our eventual success depends on serious attention to planetary limits. This book is written to support a general education college course on energy and the environment. It was formulated as a physics course, but is written in the hope that it may also be accessible beyond this narrow setting.

In this sense, the book bears some resemblance to David MacKay’s fabulous and inspirational Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air.  In fact, the decision to make this [Murphy’s] text fully available for free in electronic form as a PDF (available at https://escholarship.org/uc/energy_ambitions) was completely inspired by MacKay’s first doing the same.

Murphy frames his energy story in a wider context of other challenges facing humanity – growth (physical, economic, population) and human psychological and political barriers

This text also differs from others in that it attempts to frame the energy story in a broader context of other limitations facing humanity in the form of growth (physical, economic, population) and also limitations of people themselves (psychology, political barriers). In the end, students are given quantitative guidance for adaptation and encouraged to find any number of ways to reduce consumption of resources as an effective hedge against uncertainty this century.

His treatise voices current and coming high-stake threats, risks making readers uncomfortable

The tenor of this textbook might be characterized as being pessimistic, intoning that the coming century will present many difficulties that may not be dispatched by tidy “solutions,” but instead borne with resigned adaptation. … This sort of message may be off-putting to some. … But the stakes are important enough that it may be worth challenging assumptions and making students uncomfortable in a way that other texts might purposefully avoid.

Not knowing “the answer” to our predicament is one way to help humanity accept the challenge to find a better way forward

By the time readers reach the end of Chapter 8, they are perhaps a little alarmed, and desperate to know “What’s the answer?” Even though the book does not completely satisfy on that front—because it can’t, in good faith. … Having them carry the tension into the world is one way to help humanity take its challenges seriously and work to find a better way.

Alternatively, soothing readers’ discomfort is, at best, a waste of an opportunity, and, at worst, descent to failure

Soothing their discomfort so they can emerge thinking it’s all in hand is perhaps at best a wasted opportunity to create a better possible future for humanity, and at worst only contributes to humanity’s fall by failing to light a fire equal to the challenge.

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