Book Review: 'The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet' by Ramez Naam
The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Ramez Naam University Press of New England (2013)
How and why “the infinite power of ideas” can help the human race to manage finite natural resources
I agree with Ramez Naam that “the choices societies make affect their rate of innovation.” That helps to explain why, from the Fall of Rome early in the 5th century until the Renaissance, the Chinese, Japanese, and Ottoman people were far more advanced culturally and technologically advanced than were the Europeans. Since then, major developments that include Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of s moveable type printing press and Roger Bacon’s refinement of Aristotelian empiricism to what we now view as the scientific method (based on observation, hypothesis, and experimentation), “Europe soared through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution” while the nature, extent, and pace of change elsewhere “was far less impressive…The explosion of new ideas in Europe, and later in North America, led to the incredible prosperity of our current age.” But there are problems of unprecedented severity that must be solved.
For example, as Naam explains in Chapter Four, a single “ecological footprint” can be used to measure human consumption of the earth’s finite resources. “The world has about 1.8 hectares of useful living land per person on it. Yet the average citizen of the world uses up 2.7 hectares of that land via that lifestyle. (A hectare is around 2.5 acres, so that’s around 6.7 acres.)…[At estimated] levels of per capita consumption, the planet can’t support the 7 billion people it has on it, let alone the 9 to 10 billion it will have by mid-century. It can support only about two-thirds of the current population of the planet, or around 4.7 billion people. So what becomes of the 2.3 billion people the planet can’t support today? The 4 to 5 billion surplus people we’ll have by midcentury?” Ominously, high-income countries averaged 6.1 hectares per person in their ecological footprint. And the United States comes in at 8.0 hectares per person. “To sum this up another way, the world’s population right now is using up 1.5 planets’ worth of natural resources. If everyone on Earth lived like an American, we’d be using up 4.4 planets’ worth of natural resources.”
Naam offers a research-driven analysis of problems such as these, duly noting meanwhile that he is dealing with degree of probability rather than with certainty insofar as current trends and future realities are concerned. His rhetoric is by no means overheated but he does have a gift for figurative language. For example, he observes, “In short, as a planet, we’re sitting on a keg of gunpowder, and we’re enjoying a smoke. Maybe we’ll finish the cigarette, put it out, and nothing will happen. People get away with foolish risks all the time…[That said], no matter which numbers you choose, the risk is too high…Until we step away from the explosives and put out our cigarette, we — the whole human race — won’t be truly out of the danger zone.”
These are among the dozens of other passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of the material that Naam examines:
o The Catalysts (Pages 10-13) o Market Forces, Hubbert’s Peak, and, Faster Than We Think (40-47) o A Very Large Footprint (59-60) o Are Humans Responsible? (67-71) o The Methane Bomb (81-86) o Zero Sum World (93-95) o Solutions, Problems, Solutions (115-118) o Nylon Mania, or How to Support an Elephant Balancing on a Pencil (123-126) o Substitution Everywhere (133-135) o The Fallacy of Futureness: Part 1 (155-156) o The Fallacy of Futureness: Part 2 (158-162) o Innovation Nation (181-187) o The Problem with an Inconvenient Truth (218-221) o The Virtue of People (280-283) o Coda: Living in the 21st Century (303-308)
Before concluding this book, Naam acknowledges, “The world I’ve just described to you isn’t guaranteed to be the world we’ll have. But it’s not a world out of fantasy, either. It’s the world we can have, if we work hard and smart to bring it into being.” I agree. He then adds, “The human mind is the ultimate source of all wealth. We stand poised on the brink of the largest-ever explosion of human mental power, a second Renaissance, more transformative, more far-reaching, and more inclusive than the first. If we make the right choices to empower human minds and encourage innovation, to steer innovation toward the solutions for our planet’s problems, and to embrace the fruits that it offers, then the future will be one of almost unimaginable wealth, health, and well-being.”
That is indeed a compelling vision. I hope I live long enough to see it.
No brief commentary such as mine possibly do full justice to the quality and value of the material that Ramez Naam provides. However, I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read my commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not to obtain and read this book. In that event, I hope what it offers will help you to gain a better understanding of how the infinite resource between our ears can help us to become more enlightened as stewards as well as consumers of our planet’s finite resources.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.