Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

by Ramez Naam
University Press of New England     2012
352 pages     Nonfiction

In April I was sent the book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. It looked interesting, so my husband and I decided to make it our morning read. It has taken us until now to finish it, and it was definitely worth the time that we spent. We learned so much.

Naam, who is patently optimistic, outlines for his readers the plight the world seems to be in, with all the finite resources becoming used up. Then, he lifts his readers up to the heights of possibility when he says, "Our only limit, for the foreseeable future, is our collective intelligence in innovating, and in putting in place the systems that guide our collective behavior."

His message is that we have solved major problems with innovation in the past, and there still seems to be an abundance of innovation available to solve our current major problems. Shortly after we began reading Naam's book, my husband attended a lecture presented by several university professors. He came home disheartened because they were preaching doom and gloom. They indicated to the audience that unless we cut back on our use of natural resources, we would soon be out of all the resources available to us and life as we know it would be over. No creative solutions were offered.

Naam has a different focus. He says that in the recent past, we were able to figure out ways to fix the ozone layer and to eliminate the use of CFCs in the environment. It follows that we will most likely be able to conquer the other ills of the environment. He discusses genetic engineering of food, fish farming, and other aspects of the need to finding food to feed the world.
He also makes a case for a renewal of nuclear energy. I was fascinated by the concept of a very small nuclear plant that would power a house or an apartment building or a neighborhood. He says, "Sometimes, new technology, even though it looks different or frightening, is exactly what we need to embrace in order to survive and thrive."

I began to look at several things differently as I read the book--particularly wind and solar energy. In Pentwater, Michigan, where we vacation, there has been a raging debate over putting up windmills to generate power from the winds of Lake Michigan. First, there was a proposal to put the windmills in the lake. People objected because they could be seen from the shore and no one wanted to look at the windmills from one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. The compromise was that they were put in farm fields about one-half mile away from the shore and the cottages. Now, people are complaining because they think that in ten years or so, the windmills will rust out and will become eyesores. 
At first I agreed with those who objected to the windmills, but as I read Naam's book, I began to see that those windmills are part of the process of creating energy from wind and solar, the infinite resources.  When innovation moves beyond windmills, the companies that own the windmills can take them down and replace them with something newer and more innovative.

All in all, we learned a great deal from reading The Infinite Resource. My husband liked it for two reasons: one because it is positive when there is so much negative information about the finiteness of the planet. Additionally, it had a lot of statistics in it, and my husband loves statistics. The book isn't too technical, however, for the layperson--namely me. Naam helped me form opinions about renewable energy when I previously had no informed thoughts. Naam says that we can take two paths: one that decides that we are causing harm to our planet and then setting out to solving the problems. On the other path, we deny the damage we are doing, and we belatedly realize we have made a bad mistake. Of course, he advocates the dynamic pathway forward. "The human mind is the ultimate source of wealth. . .If we make the right choices to empower human minds and encourage innovation, to steer innovation toward the solutions to our planet's problems, and to embrace the fruits that it offers, then the future will be one of almost unimaginable health, wealth, and well-being."

Here is a very good video of Naam lecturing for the Microsoft Research Bureau. If you don't have time to read the book, the lecture can fill in for you.
Here are two very good reviews:
A review in The World future Review:

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