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The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet [Hardcover]

Ramez Naam
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 9 2013
Climate change. Finite fossil fuels. Fresh water depletion. Rising commodity prices. Ocean acidification. Overpopulation. Deforestation. Feeding the world’s billions.

We’re beset by an array of natural resource and environmental challenges. They pose a tremendous risk to human prosperity, to world peace, and to the planet itself.

Yet, if we act, these problems are addressable. Throughout history we’ve overcome similar problems, but only when we’ve focused our energies on innovation. For the most valuable resource we have isn’t oil, water, gold, or land – it’s our stockpile of useful ideas, and our continually growing capacity to expand them.

In this remarkable book, Ramez Naam charts a course to supercharge innovation – by changing the rules of our economy – that can lead the whole world to greater wealth and human well-being, even as we dodge looming resource crunches and environmental disasters and reduce our impact on the planet.

“Most books about the future are written by blinkered Pollyannas or hand-wringing Cassandras. Ramez Naam—Egypt-born, Illinois-raised, a major contributor to the computer revolution—is neither. Having thought about science, technology and the environment for decades, he has become that rarest of creatures: a clear-eyed optimist. Concise, informed and passionately argued, The Infinite Resource both acknowledges the very real dangers that lie ahead for the human enterprise and the equally real possibility that we might not only survive but thrive.” —Charles Mann, New York Times bestselling author of 1491 and 1493

“An amazing book. Throughout history, the most important source of new wealth has been new ideas. Naam shows how we can tap into and steer that force to overcome our current problems and help create a world of abundance.” —Peter H. Diamandis, MD, chairman and CEO, X PRIZE Foundation; chairman, Singularity University; and author, Abundance—The Future Is Better Than You Think

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“By providing a detailed, statistically rich historical background on many of the detrimental practices and attitudes that have brought humanity to the nail-biting precipice that may await a century from now, Naam strengthens his soberly confident, if not cautiously optimistic, predictions for how humans can walk it back from the edge of disaster.”—Booklist

"Seattle-based writer and former Microsoft executive Ramez Naam argues that we can solve the natural-resource and environmental challenges that face us — and grow global prosperity — if we tap our most abundant resource: innovation." —Seattle Times

““I’m an optimist,” he writes more than once. Optimism about the power of ideas offers no guarantees, as Naam is well aware; he carefully avoids complacency. Something needs to be done to stimulate our ingenuity, Naam writes. Equal parts pragmatic and inspiring, his book offers a helpful guide for that purpose.”—The Intelligent Optimist

“Computer scientist/writer Naam has produced a compelling road map for meeting the dire environmental, energy, and food challenges facing human civilization. He argues persuasively, drawing from a wealth of research, that humanity has the potential to innovate itself out of those problems, as it has before.”—Choice

Review

“This book contains a plan—probably the only plan—to save the world. Ramez Naam is unwilling to minimize the challenges that face us, but equally unwilling to sermonize or catastrophize. The Infinite Resource is an intelligent and responsible analysis, presented in lively prose; it should be required reading for all global thinkers and leaders.” (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature)

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Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a fantastic book - accessible, comprehensive but not overwhelming. The point is that while our Earth appears finite it is in actual fact much less finite than we suppose. Before you cry out in protest - this is a well researched and very balanced account of our dire problems including climate change and population growth. This is not a denialist panglossian 'we can be all we want to be' read for opportunistic exploitation of resource.

What he lays out are key trends - both positive and negative - but also the vital facts about how 'ingenuity is not lacking' - and with ingenuity and will the world can survive and survive decently for everyone.

This is a must read for anyone concerned with the future - with real warning and real possibilities for hope.
high recommend.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review April 24 2013
By A. D. Thibeault TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.

However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What’s worse, many of the earth’s resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.

Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).

So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).
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By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  55 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On staving off the end of the world March 21 2013
By Kevin MacDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Not many books present subject matter more dire to our near future than this one. Naam's book is a concise summation of the greatest environmental and technological challenges humankind faces today. He manages to achieve an impressive level of scientific rigor while remaining approachable to a wide readership, and presents back of the napkin calculations that are both understandable and frightening in their implications. He also attempts to present workable solutions along the way. And while I don't agree with all of his optimism regarding the power of the collective intelligence of our billions, his call to action could not be more relevant and appropriate. This book may hold the power to change your thinking on many subjects from genetically modified foods to nuclear power. Read it!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review April 24 2013
By A. D. Thibeault - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world's wealthiest and most powerful people.

However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What's worse, many of the earth's resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.

Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).

So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).

For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. To begin with, Naam argues that the natural resources on our planet are far from running out. He assures us that there is enough water and arable land on the earth's surface, minerals in the earth's crust, and energy from the sun to feed the demands of the planet's plateauing population for time out of mind (especially when we reuse and recycle these resources, which is what we are increasingly doing).

The problem, at present, is our relative inefficiency in accessing these resources. Even here, though, Naam argues, there is room for optimism. For our saving grace is our ability to innovate. It is our ability to innovate, Naam maintains, that is responsible for virtually all of our progress and economic growth to this point. It has brought us everything from the first stone tools and the ability to harness fire, to phones that fit in our pockets and allow us to access a world of information and all the world's people. Along the way (and more to the point), our ability to innovate has allowed us to access an ever greater percentage of the earth's resources (while at the same time decreasing the relative amount of resources that each of uses to achieve an increasingly affluent lifestyle).

And the really wonderful thing about our ability to innovate is that, unlike natural resources, it does not shrink over time. Rather, it only expands. This is because innovation is built on ideas, and ideas themselves only grow and multiply. Ideas can even be shared without ever being diluted. Instead, the sharing of ideas often generates even more ideas. The power of ideas--and the innovation that goes along with it--truly is an infinite resource.

Now, wherever there has been an incentive to innovate, innovation has come, and this helps explain why the market economy has been the single biggest spur to innovation ever invented. The market economy harnesses innovation by way of tying useful inventions to economic gain, thus exploiting self-interest for the benefit of all. Up until recently, a relatively small proportion of the world lived under a market economy. Not coincidentally, these were also the most inventive and affluent parts of the world. In the past 40 years, though, an ever increasing portion of the world has switched over to a more market-oriented economy, and this has greatly accelerated both economic growth and the speed of innovation. For Naam, this trend bodes very well for the future.

Now, as powerful as the market system is, Naam does concede that it has one fatal flaw. And this is that it does not put an accurate price on the degradation of communal goods, such as the environment. The end result is that the environment is not cared for as well as it might be (this phenomenon is known as `The Tragedy of the Commons'). Nevertheless, a market economy can be tweaked to ensure that a price is put on environmental degradation. Indeed, this has happened before, and it has helped put an end to several environmental crises (including, recently, both acid rain and the ozone-hole threat).

For Naam, this approach is also the best way to deal with the greatest environmental threat we now face: global warming. Specifically, Naam argues we ought to put a price on carbon dioxide (and return the tax proceeds to the people). This would not only help ensure against global warming, but also hasten the inevitable transition to the use of solar power and clean fuels to meet our energy needs.

With the right approach and policies, Naam argues, we can live in a world of plenty for all (and one that is clean to boot).

This is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent, the logical flow is superb, the supporting evidence is well-chosen and extensive, and the argument is air tight. In a world that is dominated by fear-mongering on the one hand, and blind optimism on the other, Naam is a shining beacon of sober and rational thought. If you are looking for a big-picture view of the challenges we face and how best to meet them, this book is for you. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The kind of book you'll want to share with everyone... March 22 2013
By _LARS_ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Before I'd even finished this book, I wanted all my friends to read it. The author first demonstrates (with a lot of data) that mankind is on a very perilous path, but then shows how that path can be avoided with some amazing technologies that are just beyond the horizon - if we are only willing to make the investment in them. The book was very disturbing in its portrayal of the dangers that humanity faces and yet at the same time optimistic. Its call to action that will leave you feeling inspired.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How and why "the infinite power of ideas" can help the human race to manage finite natural resources April 9 2013
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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 [begin italics] can [end italics] 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. [begin italics] If [end italics] 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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memorable and inspiring March 25 2013
By Alison - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The Infinite Resource" gives a sobering portrayal of the dangers of our current environmental path, but is remarkably optimistic about how we can think/work/innovate our way out of it. It's not at all dismissive of the seriousness of the problems we face, and it doesn't offer easy, feel-good solutions, but it outlines a number of great ideas, and combines unbending hopefulness with a direct call to action. The text is comprehensive, well-researched, and it manages to stay eminently readable without becoming too tech-heavy. This is a very important book that merges data from many different disciplines into a passionate and intelligent thesis. I kind of wish everyone would read this book. I've learned so much from reading it, and it opened my eyes on a number of issues. I'll be buying copies for my family and friends.
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