Richard Florida has started blogging a couple of months ago. His blog is called The Creativity Exchange. Check it out!
Richard Florida has started blogging a couple of months ago. His blog is called The Creativity Exchange. Check it out!
I blogged my reading list a few months ago. It included the book Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else by David Cay Johnston. I attributed the book to David Johnston, a different reporter at the NYT. I also claimed that the "The unfortunate title of this book will doom it to be marginalized, which is a shame. "
I got a note from the author today saying that the book has far from failed...
Best-seller -- NYTimes and WSJ and other lists; 10 printings so far and now in paperbackWinner, Investigative Book of the Year from Investigative Reporters & Editors (who voted it a medal instead of the usual paper certificate) Results -- at least five laws passed by Congress
So, I'm glad to have been wrong on this one and my appoligies to David.
David sums up the book very nicely, and I agree with his points. Malcom Gladwell is a really amazing story teller. I mean, top notch. He weaves some great tales into this book, and explains some interesting phychology research in the process.
But, the book's lacking something. It doesn't have a consistent thesis and lacks the "Big Idea" factor of his first book the Tipping Point. Seeing as to how I sat at the Coop reading it free, I have little scope to complain.
Brooks sums up most of the interesting, unintuitve research from the book in the passages below.
...THERE is in all of our brains, Gladwell argues, a mighty backstage process, which works its will subconsciously. Through this process we have the capacity to sift huge amounts of information, blend data, isolate telling details and come to astonishingly rapid conclusions, even in the first two seconds of seeing something. '' 'Blink' is a book about those first two seconds,'' Gladwell writes.
And indeed, ''Blink'' moves quickly through a series of delightful stories, all about the backstage mental process we call intuition. There is the story of the psychologist John Gottman, who since the 1980's has worked with more than 3,000 married couples in a small room, his ''love lab,'' near the University of Washington. He videotapes them having a conversation. Reviewing just an hour's worth of each tape, Gottman has been able to predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will be married 15 years later. If he watches only 15 minutes of tape, his success rate is about 90 percent. Scientists in his lab have determined they can usually predict whether a marriage will work after watching just three minutes of newlywed conversation.
Gladwell says we are thin-slicing all the time -- when we go on a date, meet a prospective employee, judge any situation. We take a small portion of a person or problem and extrapolate amazingly well about the whole. A psychologist named Nalini Ambady gave students three 10-second soundless videotapes of a teacher lecturing. Then she asked the students to rate the teacher. Their ratings matched the ratings from students who had taken the teacher's course for an entire semester. Then she cut the videotape back to two seconds and showed it to a new group. The ratings still matched those of the students who'd sat through the entire term.
Gladwell has us flying around the world and across disciplines at hectic speed, and he's always dazzling us with fascinating information and phenomena. Take priming, for example. Two Dutch scientists asked their subjects to play a demanding game of Trivial Pursuit. They asked one group to think beforehand about what it would be like to be a professor and the other group to think about what it would be like to be a soccer hooligan. The people who were in a professorial frame of mind did much better than the ''hooligans.''
One group of African-Americans was asked to take a test without identifying their race on the pretest questionnaire. Another group was asked their race and ''that simple act,'' Gladwell writes, ''was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African-Americans and academic achievement.'' The African-Americans who identified their race did much worse than the people who didn't. The number of questions they got right was cut in half.
There is a discussion that might be of interest to readers of Tech Policy over at the Slate Book Club. Tech Policy favorite Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame) is talking with James Surowiecki about their new books Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds.
Has anyone read either of these books?
I've been meaning to write out the books that have influenced me in the past few years... so Mike's request for reading post got me started.
I also got inspired to do this on my trip to the west coast last week. During interviews with two well known thought leaders: Brian Behlendorf author of open-source web server software Apache, and now CTO of ColabNet was talking the history of the steel industry to illustrate disruptive innovation. Material out of Clayton Christianson's The Innovator's Solution. And Dan Gilmore, tech/business guru/journalist at the San Jose Mercury News, was talking about the importance of keeping the broadband and wireless spectrum free of corporate manipulation, a la Larry Lessig's Code. Rachel and I had a good laugh calling them out on it (partially because we had both books in the car), and led to some good discussions. But really made me realize how influential good books are, and the need to keep up.
So here it goes,
Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny
Robert Wright's attempt to show that there are
a. zero sum games, and
b. non-zero sum games.
He contends that most advancement in history has come from playing the non-zero sum variety. Co-operation, establishment of government, and many more. He also talks about the spread of technology, most importantly reading and agriculture.
Talks about dangers and opportunities today of technology becoming more powerful, more accessible, and easier to use. Allows smaller groups to become more powerful (think terrorists).
from the jacket:
In Nonzero Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright's narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology's ongoing transformation of the world.
Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means
Talks about intricate networks that are at the core of most complex systems. Says that new breakthrus in math and other sciences are allowing us to explain these networks and how they affect our world. Here's their take though
Life is encoded by a complex network of molecules hidden within the cell. The Internet is a complex network of computers connected by wires. The economy is a complex network of companies, consumers, and regulatory agencies. Society is a complex network of people connected by friendship, family, and professional ties. It has only been in the past few years that we realized how important a role these networks play in shaping the behavior of most complex systems. We learned that understanding networks is the crucial prerequisite to comprehending complexity. Therefore, many scientists from very different disciplines have started a frontal attack to understand the webs with which nature surrounds us. One of the most surprising findings is that most networks in nature are very similar to each other. The social network is not that different from the four billion year old chemical network within our cells or the decade old World Wide Web.
and what they have in common
For several decades, networks were believed to be fundamentally random, i.e. it was assumed that the nodes, such as the pages of the World Wide Web, the people on the society, or the chemicals of the cell, are randomly wired together. Yet, as we started looking at real networks, we noticed some reoccurring elements in all of them that increasingly undermine the random hypothesis. On the World Wide Web my research group documented the existence of a few websites, such as Yahoo.com, that have an extraordinary number of links pointing to them. In society sociologists have noticed the existence of connectors, a few individuals with an extraordinarily large number of acquaintances. In the cell my group and others noticed the existence of a few molecules that participate in just about all chemical reactions. These hubs, as they came to be called, could simply not be explained using the random network hypothesis. They were telling us that some common laws must exist, shared by all networks, which are responsible for the hubs.
Basically... there is such a thing as the 800-pound gorilla... and you better know who he is.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Following from Linked comes Malcom Gladwell's wildly popular tipping point. This was a very hot business book for years. Makes you think about rapidly changing systems, that seem inexplicable. You need to think about them as an epidemic.
The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life," writes Malcolm Gladwell, "is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." Although anyone familiar with the theory of memetics will recognize this concept, Gladwell's The Tipping Point has quite a few interesting twists on the subject. For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanize the forces of resistance so effectively in part because he was what Gladwell calls a "Connector": he knew just about everybody, particularly the revolutionary leaders in each of the towns that he rode through. But Revere "wasn't just the man with the biggest Rolodex in colonial Boston," he was also a "Maven" who gathered extensive information about the British. He knew what was going on and he knew exactly whom to tell. The phenomenon continues to this day--think of how often you've received information in an e-mail message that had been forwarded at least half a dozen times before reaching you.
Gladwell develops these and other concepts (such as the "stickiness" of ideas or the effect of population size on information dispersal) through simple, clear explanations and entertainingly illustrative anecdotes.
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
Describes properties of emergent systems. You can get a bunch of "dumb entities" together that do nothing on their own, if you are under the right circumstances, or hit a critical mass of these dumb things, they start to act in a totally different and sometimes "intelligent" way. Talks about everything from ants to cities.
Jared Diamond's Pulitzer prize winning book reviews human history and explains, damn convincingly, why some countries are developed and dominant today, and others are stuck in poverty and have little influence. This powerful read dispels racist views of history (people in warm climates are lazy because food was so easy to get... etc). Says that these factors influenced the history of humanity:
from Kirkus Reviews
MacArthur fellow and UCLA evolutionary biologist Diamond (The Third Chimpanzee, 1992, etc.) takes as his theme no less than the rise of human civilizations. On the whole this is an impressive achievement, with nods to the historians, anthropologists, and others who have laid the groundwork. Diamond tells us that the impetus for the book came from a native New Guinea friend, Yali, who asked him, ``Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?'' The long and short of it, says Diamond, is biogeography. It just so happened that 13,000 years ago, with the ending of the last Ice Age, there was an area of the world better endowed with the flora and fauna that would lead to the take-off toward civilization: that valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers we now call the Fertile Crescent. There were found the wild stocks that became domesticated crops of wheat and barley. Flax was available for the development of cloth. There was an abundance of large mammals that could be domesticated: sheep, goats, cattle. Once agriculture is born and animals domesticated, a kind of positive feedback drives the growth toward civilization. People settle down; food surpluses can be stored so population grows. And with it comes a division of labor, the rise of an elite class, the codification of rules, and language. It happened, too, in China, and later in Mesoamerica. But the New World was not nearly as abundant in the good stuff. And like Africa, it is oriented North and South, resulting in different climates, which make the diffusion of agriculture and animals problematic. While you have heard many of these arguments before, Diamond has brought them together convincingly.
From the jacket:
Though we share 98 percent of our genes with the chimpanzee, our species evolved into something quite extraordinary. Jared Diamond explores the fascinating question of what in less than 2 percent of our genes has enabled us to found civilizations and religions, develop intricate languages, create art, learn science--and acquire the capacity to destroy all our achievements overnight.
and more descriptively, from Kirkus Reviews
Diamond first reviews human evolution, ending with the great leap forward that he attributes to language. New in this area is a discussion of animal art and communication (e.g., bowerbird constructions, vervet-monkey talk) and creolization (the development of sophisticated human languages from pidgin forms). With respect to other human features, Diamond reprises all the theories you've ever heard about sexual behavior, selection, menstruation, menopause, etc. Ditto for aging. He steers a common- sense course between extremes, opting for the games-theory approach of optimizing one's genes and of group survival. Old-but-not- fertile elders are essential imparters of knowledge for the group. A chapter on self-destructive behaviors (smoking, drinking, drug abuse) offers the peculiar theory that we do it to advertise that we are really superior because we can flaunt handicaps! No mention is made of the fit of the chemicals to receptors in the brain and to circuits evoking pleasure. Later, drawing on his special knowledge of New Guinea, Australia, and Polynesia, and his research on birds, Diamond provides a fascinating if overwhelmingly pessimistic view of human predation through genocide, species and resource destruction, and potential nuclear disaster. Conclusions of continued human, species, and planetary destruction are inescapable, in spite of Diamond's optimism that we can learn from the past and some modest success he has had with conservation programs.In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington
Robert Rubin of CitiBank, and Clinton's Sec. Treasury, gives a part memoir and part analytical book. He talks about two things that stuck with me. 1. He talks to a lot of people, and writes everything down on a yellow pad... I've picked this up. 2. He evaluates all important decisions in the context of risk.
Interesting insider look at President Bush's first Sec. Treasury.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization
This is Thomas Friedman's look at globalization. Its actually a fun read, and he really trots out the benefits of globalization. But more importantly, gives you his perspective that he's gotten from traveling the world, and talking with the actor's in this drama, from statesmen, to business leaders, to the peasants.
Larry Lessig, talks about how things work.
He thinks four forces act on a system:
He uses a lot of software examples, and thus: code is law. I used Lessig's framework to anaylize cell phone jammers.
Lessig fights the good fight, explaining how we need to keep intellectual property laws strong, but sane.
Herman Daly tells American History as he sees it. And Daly's vision is a lot less rosy then your high school textbook. See America unfolding from the perspective of the guys who've been stepped on.
Classic Chomsky political work. Shows how the media gives a heavily skewed view of the world. An intellectual dissection of the modern media to show how an underlying economics of publishing warps the news.
It's pretty amazing how badly America has treated Latin America over the past 500 years. Prof. Chomsky documents a lot of it here. Learn the details of all the coups we've helped, democracies we've trampled, and economies we've taken advantage of. Puts a real bruise on your image of the US as the good guy.
Hernando DeSoto explains why the West if rich, and the rest are poor. In short: solid property rights and rule of law allow for economic development. I reviewed DeSoto in a little more depth here.
Business Plans for Dummies
Yep, its ok.... laugh.. but it lays out the basics.
Incorporating Your Business for Dummies
Very practical step-by-step guide. Show's you that anyone can incorporate a business.
The Innovator's Dilemma
Haven't read it yet, but its on the list... actually its in my friends apartment in New Orleans.. but you get the picture. This is THE book on innovation. Every conversation about innovation starts with a nod to Clayton Christenson's book. Basically, here's the dilemma:
Little startup companies can go after small niche markets. They can attack with speed (quick decision making process), they can risk a lot, and can release imperfect products without having to worry about sullying their brand. Big companies can't, and don' want to go after these tiny markets.
Problem for the big companies because these little niche markets turn into big markets quick. They're then wiped out by the little guy.
The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth
Clayton comes back with his new book (which I just finished) to explain what can be done about this. He thinks its really hard for established firms to keep up. But what they can do is look at good business theory. You need to look at the conditions around your products/services, competitive environment.
from the cover
Drawing on years of in-depth research and illustrated by company examples across many industries, Christensen and Raynor argue that innovation can be a predictable process that delivers sustainable, profitable growth. They identify the forces that cause managers to make bad decisions as they package and shape new ideas—and offer new frameworks to help managers create the right conditions, at the right time, for a disruption to succeed. The Innovator’s Solution addresses a wide range of issues, including:
• How can we tell if an idea has disruptive potential?
• Which competitive situations favor incumbents, and which favor entrants?
• Which customer segments are primed to embrace a new offering?
• Which activities should we outsource, and which should we keep in-house?
• How should we structure and fund a new venture?
• How do we choose the right managers to lead it?
• How can we position ourselves where profits will be made in the future?
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
Amory Lovins goes out to change the world. Book explores the opportunities for businesses in an era of approaching environmental limits.
From the Natural Capitalism site:
Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all economic activity, indeed all life. These services are of immense economic value; some are literally priceless, since they have no known substitutes. Yet current business practices typically fail to take into account the value of these assets—which is rising with their scarcity. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of such resources as energy, materials, water, fiber, and topsoil.
The first of natural capitalism's four interlinked principles, therefore, is radically increased resource productivity. Implementing just this first principle can significantly improve a firm's bottom line, and can also help finance the other three. They are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of future prosperity.
How the Mind Works
Steven Pinker looks at the mind from an evolutionary perspective. You can get a better idea of why we think and act the way we do if you think about the issues in from a Darwinian perspective.
Redux of Amazon review
Why do fools fall in love? Why does a man's annual salary, on average, increase $600 with each inch of his height? When a crack dealer guns down a rival, how is he just like Alexander Hamilton, whose face is on the ten-dollar bill? How do optical illusions function as windows on the human soul? Cheerful, cheeky, occasionally outrageous MIT psychologist Steven Pinker answers all of the above and more in his marvelously fun, awesomely informative survey of modern brain science. Pinker argues that Darwin plus canny computer programs are the key to understanding ourselves--but he also throws in apt references to Star Trek, Star Wars, The Far Side, history, literature, W. C. Fields, Mozart, Marilyn Monroe, surrealism, experimental psychology, and Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty and his 888 children.
In this extraordinary bestseller, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, does for the rest of the mind what he did for language in his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. He explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life. And he does it with the wit that prompted Mark Ridley to write in the New York Times Book Review, "No other science writer makes me laugh so much. . . . [Pinker] deserves the superlatives that are lavished on him." The arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates some unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection, and challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, and that nature is good and modern society corrupting.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Pinker continues and expands his work from How the Mind Works. Dives into the Nature vs. Nurture debate from a extremely well informed, and dispassionate view point.
Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else
Made me realize how important taxes are. Its the main way the government effects your life, and redistributes huge amounts of money. Shows how the super-rich have been working hard to pay incredibly little. Not some crack pot book, David Johnston the author is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at the New York Times. The unfortunate title of this book will doom it to be marginalized, which is a shame.
The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade
Joe Stiglitz gives his view of how bad oversight/regulation and greed overheated things. Also discusses some structural shifts of the economy in the 90s.
The End of History and the Last Man
Francis Fukuyama's big book. His thesis is that the combination of liberal democratic government and a capitalist economic system is the final stage state of human history. Tribal government, serfdom, monarchies, fascism, communism have all been tried and failed. Liberal democracies have prevailed. Fukuyama claims that the democratic, capitalist society best, but not perfectly fulfills mans desires. This thesis has been getting attacked hard since 9=11.
Summer is upon us. Today, being Memorial Day, marks the first weekend of summer, if for no other reason than all of the pools are finally open (and incidentally, dogs are no longer allowed on New England beaches). All through this semester, I knew I would have this time off... the time after the thesis was turned in and before the "life-changes" start. What I didn't expect was how dull things would seem without the constant demands of a MIT education. But it's summer. So dull now needs to be reinterpreted as calming and relaxing, and school work now needs to be replaced with, you guessed it, summer reading.
I'm really posting here in hope that I can find out what everyone else is planning on reading. I find this group of people always latches onto interesting reads. So to kick it off, I'll throw a few books out there. Some of these I have read and recommend, others I just will be reading because a) I want to, or b) its there. Either way, I wanted to share what's on my list in hopes of finding out whats on yours. So, post damn it.
Some guy made a lot of money doing two things: writing books and buying and selling real estate. The next logical step for him was to write a book about buying and selling real estate. Thus, the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series. I, of course, am being facetious. But Who Took My Money is a pretty good read for those of us moving on the working world (sorry Kate, Anup) and anticipating having extra money to put some where. While the writing in this book is repetitive and simplistic (especially compared to Schumpeter, et. al.) the insights are nice. The book is less about real estate as I joked, and more about changing the way you think about investing. Such tag lines as "401k's are for lazy people" and "You need two jobs: one for you, and one for your money" are drilled into your head. If you're like Will Hunting and like "anything that blows your hair back" this is as close as you come with investment books.
2) The Prize
Author Daniel Yergin, the head of CERA, writes about the long history of oil. I have not read this book, but have had it recommended by several different sources. I need to somehow further my energy education, and I think this book will do it.
This book was a gift to me and as such is on the list. I'm always partial to non-fiction, especially non-fiction that tells a good story. I hope Fast Food Nation will fit this bill. I can say that a group of us went to see Super Size Me and found it extremely funny. It was eye-opening to see the way some people perceived fast food and try and wrap our heads around what a typical American diet (and lifestyle) really consisted of. The movie, while definitely "outrageous" as Brigid said, is funny and worth seeing. Fast Food Nation takes a different perspective (i.e. no one will be gorging on Mickey D's and filming the subsequent vomit) on the societal impacts of fast food establishments.
That's a good three I think. Maybe not all technology and policy stuff, but then again it's summer, so maybe we should redefine this as multidisciplinary studies.
Before moving to Cambridge to attend MIT I worked at the Climate Technology Initiative. CTI is a multilateral organization comprised of 23 wealthy nations. It was founded at the first conference of the parties of the UN climate change program in 1995. CTI is housed at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France... a very nice place to be sure.
CTI's mission is to help developing countries adopt clean, low-CO2 energy technology.. They hold workshops to bring experts and policy makers together, conduct studies, contribute to the climate change negotiations, and disseminate information.
One of my major accomplishments there was pulling together a joint book with the UN Environment Program, the International Energy Agency, and CTI. Technology Without Borders, Case Studies of Successful Technology Transfer (full text PDF) The book reviews climate change, the technology transfer process, and then dives into a bunch of case studies to look at what all this means on the ground. We attempted to draw lessons learned.
What I learned from this experience...
-Substantial writing takes a mind bogglingly long time. Budget your time, then triple it.
-Outlines are the key to success. A good outline is about half the work, and keeps you from silly tangents that your editor will chop anyways.
-Write a chunk, then ask yourself - how can I say that simpler? Did I need all those fancy words? Am I telling a story, or inadvertently boring my reader?
-Knowing your audience is important. But if your writing on the behalf of an organization larger then the Royal ME, then knowing where they're at is just as key. Writing is a really personal exercise, getting the thoughts and knowledge from your head into your readers is inherently intimate. So you really need to focus that what you can and can't say is determined by the larger structure. In this case, I had to keep all my contributing authors, boss, editor, boss's boss, and the UN environment program liaison all reasonably happy.
Trying to encourage technology transfer of environmentally superior energy technology is really tricky. But there are opportunities. Market-, information-, political-, and institutional-failures are a dime a dozen in most developing countries. The book can be seen as a collection of efforts to remedy these failures.
I found that in some cases, a clean energy option actually makes the most sense for a developing country. There are any number of issues that can hold back its deployment. There can be a high tariff on the imported equipment, regulations may prohibit the technology, a company may not be able to borrow money, no one may know about the clean technology choices. A multilateral organizations that attacks these problems can add real value.
Despite all the opportunities for correcting market failure, if the wealthy countries are serious about having poorer countries "leap-frog" technologically (ugh, I know, an ugly phrase) they will have to foot a big part of the bill. At the end of the day, renewable-energy systems typically have a large incremental cost vs. their dirtier cousins and energy efficiency programs are hard to run and take substantial upfront costs.
The essential role of "capacity building" is a theme of the book. To be honest, I still have trouble wrapping my head around this bureaucratic buzz-word. In essence, its training people, creating appropriate institutions, and designing smart regulations.
The capacity-building story that sticks out most in my mind is when this colorful Kiwi contractor came up to my office for a Friday beer. (My office was highly sought after for Friday beers, because I was on the top floor of the Australian Embassy, but my cube in E40 ain't so bad... arghhh. I digress). This guy had gone around installing solar energy systems on islands in the South Pacific for twenty years. (Wee, poor islands tend to get lots of solar energy - I assume because donor countries feel badly that their GHG emissions will submerge them this century.) According to him, most of these "green" projects are now broken, rusting, and looted. Some silly donor paid him, or someone like him to install this equipment, without any follow on training, operation, maintenance. Proper regulations and pricing were never worked out so things were bound to fail.
Well, I had promised Adam a review of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earthby Jeremy Rifkin.
I had not read anything by Jeremy Rifkin other than a few articles from his book ‘The Biotech Century’. However, the more I read about hydrogen, the more intrigued I am. So, I decided to borrow a copy of his book titled The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth’ from my advisor.
Make no mistake; this is a book I would recommend to anybody who is interested in energy and the politics of energy. The book is well written and is a very easy read. However, if you thought that you were going to learn a lot about realization of the hydrogen dream, then you will come out disappointed. The first seven out of total nine chapters in the book pertain to oil. Rifkin spends a lot of his time explaining the need to start looking for options beyond oil.
One of the most interesting debates in Energy industry is about scarcity of oil. I think that the debate has moved from whether we are running out of oil to when the global oil production is going to peak. Conservative estimates from US DOE/ USGS give us about 35 years before the global oil production will peak and start to decline. Kenneth Deffeyes at Princeton, a colleague of King Hubbert who wrote the seminal piece about estimation of energy resources in science, thinks that we have less than ten years before the peak occurs. There is a whole range of projection in between these. Rifkin agrees more with the pessimists "Whether we are prepared or not, global production of conventional oil is likely to peak sometime between 2010 and 2020."
Rifkin advocates that looking beyond petroleum should be a priority. He borrows the idea from The Collapse of Complex Societies that collapse of a civilization sets in when a mature civilization is forced to spend more and more of its energy reserves to maintain its complex social arrangements while experiencing diminishing returns in energy enjoyed per capita. Rifkin states that advanced industrialized societies have become so much dependent on Oil and Natural Gas that the coming decades of scarcity could be devastating.
There are two other arguments that Rifkin offers. The first is that whether you believe in USGS or Deffeyes, the truth is that in 25 years, everybody in the world will be more dependent on the Middle East Oil as never before. This is relatively uncontrovertial. The increasing dependence on Middle Eastern Oil, coupled with the political games being played by the indutrialized countries (mainly US, Britain and France) and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism makes the situation very explosive. The geopolitical consequences of Right wing Islamic movements taking over governments in the Middle East at the time when Oil will start to become dearer are huge.
Rifkin reminds us that our current agricultural system is dependent on petroleum based products in one way or the other. "More than 17% of all energy used in the US goes to putting food on our tables".
The second argument that Rifkin supports for looking away from Oil is of course Climate Change. I will leave it to that.
So, after having painted an extremely gloomy picture of the shape of things to come, the book offers hope in the last two chapters. (The answer is Hydrogen. But what is the question? -- David Marks). We have progressively shifted from fuel sources with high carbon-hydrogen ratio to the once with lower C-H ratio: Wood to Coal to Oil to Gas. So, the next obvious step seems to take Carbon out of the picture. This is easier to say than to do, and Rifkin agrees. I have started to ask this question: So, what color is your Hydrogen? If the hydrogen is going to come from oil or natural gas or coal, then it is obviously black! The hydrogen advocated by the likes of Rifkin and Amory Lovins is Green! It comes from renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, this fact does not come out as strongly in the book as Rifkin talks about the "Forever Fuel".
Regardless, Rifkin projects a picture of a Hydrogen Economy (apperently the term was coined by General Motors) where the power of fuel cells and distributed generation is unleashed. The fuel cell cars could become a source of power when stationary, and so on. The notion that availability of energy locally and independence from Grid will empower the local communities is interesting. To make this happen, Rifkin says, that it will be essential to treat the hydrogen as a commons and "democratize energy". Community Development Corporations could play a big role in this operation.
So, the book concludes with a message that the future of hydrogen is big. It remains relatively unclear on whether this would happen quickly and how. Even then, I think that it is a reading worth your time. Rifkin makes a pursuasive, if not compelling, case for move away from Oil and towards Hydrogen. The reality is this: We are now within striking distance of being able to make Oil from unconventional sources such as Tar sands. The environmental impacts of doing so will be worse than the conventional oil. Biofuels may prove useful, but may also take up too much land area and may affect biodiversity. Renewables are not very competitive, so much that Exxon clearly ruled out significant investments in renewables. I found John Holdren address on Environmental Change and human Conditions most enlightening. I don't think we know the answers, but I think that takes care of the employment problems for at least some of us.