Crazy Town

Bonus: Galactic-Scale Energy with Tom Murphy

August 25, 2021 Post Carbon Institute: Sustainability, Climate, Collapse, and Dark Humor
Crazy Town
Bonus: Galactic-Scale Energy with Tom Murphy
Show Notes Transcript

Take it from astrophysicist Tom Murphy. Sure, lightsabers, dilithium crystal warp drives, and Mars colonies are a lot of fun to consider. But a physics-based perspective on energy tells us that we need to accept the limits to growth, stop chasing  sci-fi fantasies, and get to work building a steady-state economy that works for people and the planet. Instead of focusing on growth, maybe we should focus on growing up.

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Melody Travers  
Hi, this is Melody Travers, coming to you from Crazy Town. While we're in between seasons, we wanted to share some bonus episodes with you. In this one, Rob, Jason, and Asher chat with astrophysicist and author Tom Murphy about the absurdity of the infinite growth paradigm. Thank you so much for tuning in. If you want others to get the Crazy Town experience, please hit the "Share" episode button and send it to your community. Or, drop us five stars! Now, to the show.

Asher Miller  
So, we have this incredibly rare dynamic here. First of all, we've moved from the greenhouse into the studio in the house.

Jason Bradford  
That's the library...

Asher Miller  
The library.

Jason Bradford  
That's what we call it.

Rob Dietz  
I feel so scholarly up here.

Asher Miller  
So that feels a little weird...

Jason Bradford  
It's like old times.

Asher Miller  
There's still going to be some weird background noises...

Jason Bradford  
We're back to normal, folks

Asher Miller  
. . . there's things happening on the farm.

Rob Dietz  
We have a far better guest than the tree frog though.

Asher Miller  
That's the thing. So another oddity here is that we actually have someone joining us, Tom Murphy. Tom, welcome.

Tom Murphy  
Hi.

Asher Miller  
So I'm just gonna do a quick introduction. Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. He's smarter than us. Although you have a PhD, Jason.

Jason Bradford  
Mhmm. But not in physics. It's it's not a hard science, I guess.

Rob Dietz  
Right. Right.

Asher Miller  
So Tom has a PhD from Cal Tech. We were talking earlier about..

Rob Dietz  
Now he's smarter than all three of us put together.

Asher Miller  
And he spent decades studying astrophysics.

Rob Dietz  
Okay, now he's smarter than us doubled all put together. 

Asher Miller  
Just wait, it gets better. Poor Tom. I'm embarassing you.

Jason Bradford  
This is horrible. I'm blushing.

Asher Miller  
So Tom actually is leading a project right now. I didn't know this until doing a little digging here.  A project to test general relativity. I thought that was already established?

Tom Murphy  
You can never be too sure.

Asher Miller  
Poor Einstein - he can't defend himself here.

Tom Murphy  
I just put a big target on his back. That's what it is. 

Asher Miller  
I guess what you guys are doing, Tom, is you're bouncing laser pulses off of reflectors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Is that right?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, that's correct. Yeah.

Jason Bradford  
And they thought about that ahead of time? Like, let's leave some some reflectors up here?

Tom Murphy  
They did. They actually even knew what kind of tests would be possible.

Jason Bradford  
That's awesome.

Rob Dietz  
So I'm pretty skeptical, now, Tom, because we know that the lunar landing -- that's all a bunch of BS. Wasn't that filmed by Stanley Kubrick? I mean, we've got documentaries to prove that.

Tom Murphy  
You know, the best thing is, they actually took pictures while they were on the moon. And they're fantastic.

Jason Bradford  
The quality is pretty good.

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, the quality is amazing. Well, the really neat thing is that I can say personally from this apparatus that I built with my own hands, that I can tell the shape and size of the reflectors that I'm hitting. Because I can see how big they are as they wobble this way and that as the moon kind of moves around. And so, I can confirm that they are exactly the size that they appear in the pictures.

Jason Bradford  
Yes.

Tom Murphy  
And they're oriented exactly the right way within a degree of where they're supposed to be oriented. So that's a really amazing thing. Now I have to say that it's possible from my own measurement - all I can say is that there are reflectors on the moon. Just period. No denying it. 

Asher Miller  
Could aliens have put it there?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, okay. All kinds of things. Did human hands place them there? I can't say that from my own measurement. But you know what? The pictures match. It's really incredible. Like, how would they have known to make those pictures at that time that had exactly the dimensions?

Asher Miller  
Unless you were in on this Tom, and you're just...

Tom Murphy  
 Okay, okay, you got me.

Jason Bradford  
Oh, I'm very sorry about that. Rob is not... 

Rob Dietz  
Look, we had an episode on conspiracy theories.

Asher Miller  
That is a big one -- the whole faking the moon landing.

Jason Bradford  
I have a more serious question. So what are Astros? Because they're the Houston team is... what are Astros?

Tom Murphy  
Astros? I think they're dogs, aren't they? They're like Jetson-y dogs.

Rob Dietz  
Oh, right.

Asher Miller  
They're cheaters in baseball. They like to hit on garbage cans. Astros are short for astronauts.

Rob Dietz  
I know that you have not finished introducing Tom because there's a whole 'nother area of work.

Asher Miller  
The reason Tom is here is actually because of Tom's work on energy. Which I want to get into kind of what brought you there, Tom. But for listeners who are not aware of Tom, he's created this pretty amazing blog. It's led to a book that he's recently published which is available for free. The blog is called, "Do the Math." I think you started that as part of your...

Tom Murphy  
You started it. It's your fault. It really is. You encouraged me to put that stuff out. You know, I stopped by for a two-hour conversation with you once 10 years ago. You said, "You know what? These are a lot of good ideas. You should write it up. You should start a blog." And within a month I'd started that blog.

Jason Bradford  
Oh my God. Connections.

Asher Miller  
That's like my proudest moment. But yeah, no,  it's a fantastic blog. You just started it up again. I think you'd stopped for a while.

Tom Murphy  
Right, it kind of went dormant. I mean, you know, for one thing, a lot of what the blog did was. . . how much sun can we get? How much wind? How much geothermal? How much . . . ? That stuff doesn't change. And so once you've done the math, once you've put it out there, you don't need to come back to it. It's a done deal.

Jason Bradford  
Isn't the name of the blog, "Do the math?" 

Tom Murphy  
It is, "Do the math." And then I should make it, "Did the math."

Rob Dietz  
Math is done.

Asher Miller  
We're all done here, everybody. The math, it's pretty bleak, folks. We'll get into some of the things I think that you uncovered in the process of doing the math, but I also want to let our listeners know that you've turned a lot of that work into a textbook ,which is really fantastic I gotta say. It's called, "Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet," speaking our language here. So I wanted to get in, as we started a conversation - maybe you can just share with us a little bit of what took you from astrophysics to digging into energy issues? Was there a moment that kind of, you know, hit you over the head? Or what was that process?

Tom Murphy  
Well, there are a lot of connections, and I can't really single out anyone. I will say that when you're doing astrophysics, you kind of are looking at the big picture. And you're also looking at an imperfect system that you can't directly experiment with. It's not like a lot of experimental physics, where you can go in and tweak your apparatus and see what you measure. You're studying a universe that is doing what it's doing. You don't have any control over it, you just have to learn from what you see. And you have to do a lot of kind of creative blending of a lot of different areas of physics to understand what's happening in an astrophysical system. It's going to require a lot of different physics. And so I think the human endeavor is kind of similar. We don't have any control over it, it's just happening. We can watch it. But just like in astrophysics, it really pays to step as far back as you can, and get the broadest view. And also, apply kind of the physics reasoning of what can we say for sure about this, you know? Let's put a bound on the system and at least constrain what's possible and what's not possible. So the kind of mindset does translate. But you know, I would also say, I've always had this separate interest in energy. But it started out of a sense that I knew that fossil fuels are finite. I imagined that we would transition to some new energy infrastructure going forward. And I was just curious to see if I could peek ahead, get a sneak preview. What's it going to be? Can I figure it out using my own tools and my own analysis? And then I got an opportunity -- Oh, wow, there's some deer out there.

Jason Bradford  
 Yeah. There's a family of three, I think, right now walking around.

Tom Murphy  
Nice. So, you know, I had this opportunity. When I just got to UCSD, one of my first years, I had a teaching assignment to do energy in the environment. And I was like, okay, you know, let's dig in. Let's learn this stuff. Let's map out where we're going. And what happened is that I came out just a little bit confused. It's not an easy story. It's not a one and done kind of situation. And the more I looked into it, the complexity became more apparent and then realize that as much as anything, this is a psychological problem. This is a this is a human personality problem. It's you know, the physics does put real hard limits on what we can expect to do. And that's kind of how I started. But, you know, what I've, come to realize is that the physics is not going to be the limitation so much as our interpretation of that physics, and recognizing the limits, and doing something now to at least operate in a physically viable way

Asher Miller  
It has to do with our expectations. 

Tom Murphy  
Absolutely. Yep. 

Asher Miller  
So you said you knew that fossil fuels were finite.

Tom Murphy  
That's just so obvious, right? I mean, come on. But you know, everything is finite. Right? And the astrophysicists in me knew just how insignificant Earth is and how thin - I did a calculation recently that if you took all the life on this planet and condensed it into a single layer that surrounded the planet, it's four millimeter thick. So it's a really thin and precious commodity in this universe. And, you know, that is on an already small speck of dust in the universe so that we fill our heads with, you know, human activities. And if you  pick up a random magazine, I challenge you to find a page that doesn't have a picture of a person, or the discussion isn't about something people are doing. It's really rare. Those magazines exist, bbut you know, the magazine I subscribed to when I was a  high school student, "Sky and Telescope Magazine," I was reading about supernovas and galaxies 65 million years away, and I thought, you know, that's the piece of news that would be shared by any other culture anywhere else in this galaxy. That's the only news item that we're going to have in common is a supernova that's in this galaxy.

Rob Dietz  
They're not tracking us self-centered primates?

Asher Miller  
Or what the Kardashians are doing?

Tom Murphy  
They are not. They don't give a rat's ass. Yeah. But you know, we're so self centered and so human centric. And that's part of what I wanted to bring to this is. Can we step back from our own myopic human centered view and evaluate what the sort of impartial and indifferent physics in nature have to say about this?

Asher Miller  
So you were given this task of putting together this course, right? When you when you first started? And that helped set you on this journey of trying to figure out how to communicate this. And then it sounds like you said, you also had your own curiosity about, well what are the possibilities? And you wanted to do the math on that. What was the reaction of students? Were the students that you've been teaching, are they signing up for this because they care about energy issues? Are they assigned it?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, so it's a mix. I mean, this is one of these classes that fulfills a requirement. They, for their distributions, have to have a certain number of, say, science classes. And so this fulfills one of those requirements. And being about you know, the title is "Energy in the Environment." And I think especially, even then, that was 2004, you had a lot of people concerned about climate change, and environmental issues. But I tried to bring a much broader perspective that we're all aware of climate change at this point and its perils. But it's just kind of like the fever in a much more severe, systematic problem. It's very obvious. You can touch your forehead and feel it, but that doesn't tell you what's really happening to cause at all. So I tried to expand their horizons to see a bigger picture. And I would say that, you know, truthfully, they weren't sure what to think. You know, here's this person telling me something that nobody else has ever told me before . . . How can I trust this? And my approach to that was, don't trust me, don't listen to me because I'm your professor and I'm an authority. That's not how it works in physics. I tried to give them tools so that they could do the math themselves.

Jason Bradford  
Yeah, the expression is for every PhD, there's an equal and opposite PhD. And so it becomes a problem. We have these dueling  supposed experts. And so I'm also curious about that, right? I think that's great, your approach. You give them the tools to think critically for themselves. But most people don't take the time to do that. Right? And so they end up choosing which expert they're going to just trust. And I think that's a  dilemma I think we're in. And what are your thoughts about that?

Rob Dietz  
Well, you could get a PhD in finance, right? And exponential growth is your friend there. That's probably different from what you're teaching, Tom.

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. And I would say that so many disciplines are in a lot of ways backwards looking and looking at each other for answers. And physics just doesn't work like that. Physics looks to the actual Universe, the actual nature as it performs experiments for you. And so, you're just trying to describe and find some truth, but you're not creating that truth. You're just discovering it. And so, I think that mindset is a lot different. So physics rests a lot less on say, authority. You know, a lot of disciplines are often quoting the heavy hitters and that feel this person said, say, touch, touch. And physicists want nothing to do with that kind of scholarly approach. It's what nature says, dammit. And that's the answer. And you can all test this yourself in the laboratory. So it's very similar. Just, let's provide the tools to ask the questions and the answers emerge, and you don't have to take anybody's word for it.

Jason Bradford  
I think though it's interesting. When you look at some of the scenarios that some people have related to energy in our future. There are a lot of scenarios where people are supposedly doing the math saying, "Yeah, we can build all this . . .  Yeah, this is a Stanford professor doing the math. And so I'm always curious is like, you read those papers, and I have read one of the Jacobson papers. I can't imagine how hard it would be for anybody to really understand how they got to where they got. They're so complex, and there's so many embedded assumptions. Like, what does it take, in other words, for one of your one of your students to know . . . Okay, should I trust Professor Murphy on this? Or Mark Jacobson? And they both did math.

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, that's a great question. And I don't think there's a good answer. At some level I try to be just completely honest with my students and say, "Here's what I've found when I've done this. Here are my assumptions." I lay it all out so that they can, if they see a place where they think I went off the trail, they they can at least appreciate that. So you're right that it's easy to basically bamboozle people if you've got the credentials and you're putting sophisticated things out there. What I tried to do is make it so simple that you slap your forehead and you're like, how could that possibly be wrong?

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. and that's why I think your blog is so interesting. This stuff I've read on it, where you're like, oh, my gosh, it's so simple.

Rob Dietz  
Well, there's a specific example that I want to bring up from your blog. It's literally, I think, my favorite blog article of all time of all blogs. 

Tom Murphy  
You must have read three. 

Rob Dietz  
Yeah, no, this was. . . It's actually been really influential on me. I teach it a lot when I'm giving presentations. I don't know if you'll remember this one, it's galactic scale energy. 

Tom Murphy  
Oh yeah. The first one. 

Jason Bradford  
What? That was your first one?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. My first blog post got, you know, 150,000 views in the first couple weeks. That blog started out really strong and it's because of what was at the time, the energy bulletin. And yeah, so I had basically a built in audience from day one.

Asher Miller  
But you also had done all of these - I mean, these this was all based on lesson plans that you put together and exercises you were having your students do?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, more or less. Actually, a lot of the stuff - I hadn't really at that stage presented those kinds of thoughts in the class. And partly, that's because I was somewhat constrained by, I would pick a textbook, and this is the textbook I'm going through. And I would embellish it with some of my own things and PowerPoint slides. That's why I wrote this textbook. We need a textbook that starts out with this, you know, heavy hitting, here's what physics says we can't do, so wake up people. And now what happens?

Rob Dietz  
I love the layout of that essay. What you did is you said, okay, let's let's pretend that we're actually making progress on renewable energy transition. So, there's an all out. We're going to put solar panels wherever we can. How much of that can we do if we're continuing to grow our energy supply? You know, if humans keep acting this way. We're gonna increase our energy supply, whatever it was, 2 or 3% a year? How much of that can we do? And you . . . maybe you can describe your conclusions from  an attempt to to build out solar energy at an exponential rate.

Tom Murphy  
Sure. Well the conclusion is just absurd. And I will say that a lot of people actually misinterpreted that whole essay as a prediction of where we were going. 

Jason Bradford  
Really? Are you serious?

Tom Murphy  
No, no. This is exactly the opposite. I'm saying what we can't do.

Asher Miller  
The whole point is we can't do that. 

Tom Murphy  
Exactly. And they were pointing out, I don't think that's going to happen. That's kind of absurd. Exactly. So, yeah. I mean, the conclusion is that  - the abbreviated version is that within 2,500 years at 2.3% interest or growth rate, and I picked that because it has the convenience that it's a factor of 10 every century, so it makes the math super easy and I can do it my head. 

Asher Miller  
And it's slightly conservative? 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah, 2.3% -  

Asher Miller  
It's close to historical, right? 

Tom Murphy  
It's close to historical, but maybe, you know, down just a little bit so that nobody can accuse me of exaggerating. See, that's a trick that I often try to do. I pick super conservative values that are unassailable, and not even, you know, matching reality because they're dialed back a little bit, andif you still get impossible results, then you're done. And and so that's a thing I often fall back on. So within 2500 years, we would be using all the stars, the output from all the stars in the entire Milky Way galaxy. That's 100 billion stars. Okay. 100 billion stars. You can't count to 100 billion in your life.

Jason Bradford  
Okay, back up to that. So in 2500 years, at 2.3% growth, human civilization would be using all the output of all the stars in the Milky Way. 

Tom Murphy  
Yes. 

Jason Bradford  
Okay, but there are more galaxies, Tom.

Tom Murphy  
Right. Yeah, exactly. This is where the math is really cool because 100 billion galaxies. That's just a coincidence. 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. Plenty of time. 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. That adds 11 centuries. 

Jason Bradford  
11 centuries?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. You add 11 centuries by adding all the galaxies.

Jason Bradford  
Ah. I thought we had more time that that. I thought that we had trillions of years.

Asher Miller  
Just going back in time, 2500 years, on some level can feel like a long time. But in terms of like, since we've been around, Homo Sapiens. That's like a blink of an eye. 

Rob Dietz  
That's right. It's just recent history. I mean, it is literally recent history.

Asher Miller  
In that exercise that you did in that post, which I agree with Rob.  I've shared that with a lot of people. And in fact, I've had people who, I think you blew their minds. And the one that most people have cited to me was around waste heat.

Jason Bradford  
Yes. The inefficiency to - I think I I remember this - second law of thermodynamics. You know, you do work, but there's always going to be waste heat entropy. 

Asher Miller  
And it doesn't matter what form of energy we're talking about. 

Jason Bradford  
It doesn't matter. And so you could say, you can't have 100%, efficient engine motor. Anything that you're going to do kinetically or electrically, whatever, is going to have waste heat.

Asher Miller  
But I wanted to just start getting one second on this, because a lot of what you hear from renewable energy proponents is that it's so much more efficient. There isn't waste as a result of doing electricity.

Jason Bradford  
Like, a really good AC electric alternating, current electric motor, is about 90% efficient, I think.

Tom Murphy  
But even then, where does that 90% go? It goes into heat eventually. What does that motor do? 

Jason Bradford  
It does work that causes heat.

Tom Murphy  
It does work that causes heat. It all ends up as heat. 100% of it. 

Jason Bradford  
Oh, right. 100%

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, it doesn't matter what the efficiency is.

Jason Bradford  
Because you're doing kinetic work. Let's say the electric motor is moving a vehicle. Well, that's bombarding molecules in the air, that's rubbing on the road. . . . 

Tom Murphy  
Exactly. Your tired friction, you know, you're stirring the air. It's everything. 

Jason Bradford  
It's just the waste heat of the 10%.

Tom Murphy  
Though, that's the stuff that immediately is heat, like right off the bat. But it all ends up as heat. The only exception is if you're deliberately beaming energy into space in a non thermal way. So lasers, which I do -

Asher Miller  
Thank God! You're not contributing.

Jason Bradford  
You're actually taking energy and exporting it from the earth, right? So, do we need to have a whole bunch of lasers?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. 

Jason Bradford  
How many lasers do we need to compensate? 

Rob Dietz  
The solution to climate change.

Jason Bradford  
Build trillions of lasers. 

Rob Dietz  
Trillions, He's just said we can't count to the billions. Now you're going for trillions.

Jason Bradford  
Okay, so let's get back to the numbers because this was - I forgot about the Milky Way. I remember the waste heat one  to some extent where it's only in this order of hundreds of years, it seems like, where you start boiling all Earth water.

Tom Murphy  
In 400 years you're boiling all of Earth's water. Within 1000 years you're at this temperature of the sun on the surface of the earth.

Asher Miller  
But so I've had people - like we had somebody who has been working in economics and  kind of steady state economic stuff. There are a lot of people out there who are really concerned about growth. They're concerned about evey energy transition, and want to believe that renewables are going to kind of help us solve this problem. And when they realize that even if we got all the policy in place, we could do this, there weren't limitations around that, because you also have done stuff around like, just surface area needed  to put out enough solar panels, for example. But put aside all those considerations and concerns, we still have this limit, you know. Here we are worrying about, with good reasons, one degree Celsius rise we've had so far since pre industrial era. You're talking about reaching the boiling temperature of water.

Tom Murphy  
If you continue doing the growth thing. Which basically, all this says is, you're not going to do that. And that's a really valuable piece of information. You know, because that's our whole model. And it's good to know, our model is bad. Our model is not going to work. And shouldn't we be thinking about a difference?

Jason Bradford  
And, here's a quiz. If it takes 400 years to get to the boiling temperature water, then how many years is it to get to half the boiling temperature of water?

Rob Dietz  
Ooh. 399 or something.

Jason Bradford  
I don't know. . . I'm just pretending.

Tom Murphy  
You're doing this exponential.

Rob Dietz  
So it always takes a physicist, right, to sort of come in where are the economists we're going to have continuous exponential growth. It's Albert Bartlett, a physicist who's no longer with us, his quote was, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." 

Tom Murphy  
I don't understand it. 

Rob Dietz  
Well, that leaves no hope for the rest of us.

Jason Bradford  
I guess it's unintuitive. I think maybe for understanding. I'm thinking about human psychology and how the brain evolved. The brain works with all these sort of embedded inference systems that are a product of evolution. And so much of our understanding, like intuitive physics. You know, toddlers figure out basic physics pretty early, actually, by manipulating the world and watching things. And they learn it fast. Just like they learn language fast. You don't formally teach anyone language. I think there's a lot of the world, there's a lot of physics, that is never formally taught. But you start to understand. Therefore you can have someone who's just dumb as bones, but they can they pitch, they can hit the ball, they can run, they can catch things. 

Tom Murphy  
Right. If you ask them, what's going to happen when I dropped this ball, they're not going to get the answer wrong.

Jason Bradford  
Oh no, exactly. They could throw a ball with perfect accuracy. They can't tell you why. But there's an intuitive physics.

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, we all live in the same world that has the same role. 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. And I think the problem with exponential function is that it sort of doesn't -I don't think  we have a module on our brain that allows us to intuitively understand it is the problem.

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. And even worse, some of our physiology is, is logarithmic in nature, our vision, for instance. So we take things that are kind of exponential and we flatten them in our perception. 

Jason Bradford  
What does that mean? 

Tom Murphy  
Well, it sort of means that you can double the brightness, and double the brightness, or even music and musical keys are factors on each other. And so we have all these logarithmic things that sort of take big dynamic range and compress it into something that we can comprehend.

Jason Bradford  
Like our brain has figured out how to take the - So I guess this is a problem in photography, right? They had to figure out the fact that you go from inside a room like we're in now to outside, and it trillion times more brighter or something like that. It's just absurd, right? But we don't perceive it that way is what you're saying? 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. 

Jason Bradford  
We've done a logarithmic of the actual physical reality to get into a range that's appropriate for our senses.  And the brain does a lot of it - as well as our pupils, I guess.

Asher Miller  
I think the bigger problem, you talked about this earlier, Tom. But what this comes down to psychology, right? And so I think we don't understand the exponential function because it's kind of like an unnatural part of reality for us. Except we built our all of our systems to be dependent upon it. And so if you talk to somebody, like a little kid, or anybody, and you say, can you keep growing forever? No. Of course, you can't grow forever because we see things that don't grow forever. Our body stopped growing and all that. And I think that people don't recognize thatwe've actually built economic systems, and all these other systems based upon an expectation that that actually does happen and can continue to happen. And people don't even understand that. They don't know that our economic system is absolutely dependent upon exponential growth. So even this exercise is saying, let's just continue to grow energy demand at this percent every year. I think a lot of people don't even understand why that's a question. Why would we even ask that question? Why would we test that assumption? Because that's what we've been doing.

Tom Murphy  
It's the foundation of our modern society. 

Rob Dietz  
It also sounds small. 2.3% growth, you know. Who cares? But like you say, that's a doubling time, what every?

Tom Murphy  
 That's ever 30 years, yeah.

Asher Miller  
So you actually wrote something recently where you propose this question. This gets, I think back to the psychology piece, which is, I think you called it, "To what end?" Right? 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. 

Asher Miller  
So maybe you could talk a little bit about that. And I'm curious, because you're a physicist, and you started out on this path with regard to energy, using sort of that mindset, right? Doing the math and I think starting to talk to people who also are trained, as you said, physicists who are trained to try to understand reality. 

Tom Murphy  
Right. To not create it, but discover it. 

Asher Miller  
Yeah. So I would like to think that there was an openness there, or maybe more of an openness with those students, let's say that maybe the general public, it's not kind of wired that way, or trained that way. But you've immediately I think, run up to the reality of human systems and our expectations and the psychology of all that stuff. So how have you grappled with that? And maybe just talking about how that relates to this sort of question, like what is our purpose here?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, I think those are really deep questions. And I have started to think in very long timescales. And part of that is governed by asking myself the question, is human civilization in its infancy? Or is it near the end then it's beginning. And so most people would recoil and think, of course we want to be in our infancy. We want to, you know, have really long run. And if you want that to be true, you have to think about 10,000 year timescales because civilization is 10,000 years old. So we'd have to go for many 10s of 1000s of years in order for us to truly be in our infancy right now. And so that for me starts to define what does success look like versus what does failure look like? So success would be a continuous run of our civilization without some sort of post apocalyptic reset, but a continuous run that lasts for 10s of 1000s of years. So if that's success then I start to think what activities that we do today could be part of that 10,000 year future? And most of the things we do today absolutely cannot be part of that future. So every almost everything I look at is, nope, that's not gonna . . . we can't do that anymore.

Asher Miller  
Welcome to crazy town.

Jason Bradford  
I have the feeling we're all walking around going, none of this is gonna work.

Tom Murphy  
Right? It's horrible. 

Rob Dietz  
It's really hard to walk around cities anymore.

Rob Dietz  
I know. I know.

Tom Murphy  
And so that's where I come up with, you know, to what end? Why are we doing the things that we are doing? If it's not contributing to our ultimate success, then it is contributing to our ultimate failure. Or, at best, it's maybe neutral. But in most cases, it really is contributing to our ultimate future by draining resources and spending our one time inheritance on this planet. And it's robbing from the future. That's, by the way, not an accident, because economics builds in this discount rate that deliberately and explicitly devalues the future so we are set up to have a worthless future because we baked it right into the books that we're going to have worthless future. It's all about now. And it's how fast can you spend this inheritance. That's what you're rewarded for. You're rewarded - the people who can spend those resources more quickly are getting the big bucks. That's just so perverted, so backwards, and so obviously backwards. And I do think, to what end? Why are we doing the things we're doing? When I look around my department, and I look at the different professors in physics who have similar training to myself, and can, you know, they can step back and look at the big picture, they're not really doing it. I don't know why. But it's not universal the approach I've taken. So the kind of research that they're doing, how is it contributing to our ultimate long term success? And in the best of cases, it's just not clear. But in a lot of cases, it's clear why it's actually contributing to to our failure. So yeah, that's kind of heartbreaking to see.

Rob Dietz  
I'm glad that you brought up this kind of characteristic you're sharing about colleagues in your department. I feel like you have all this, obviously, you're comfortable with technology, right? I mean you've got laser beams firing off reflectors on the moon with whatever sub one millimeter accuracy, right? 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, I'm a cutting edge luddite.

Rob Dietz  
Right. Well, so I mean, I feel like, and you're also a really good communicator. So I'm just curious, when you try to engage your colleagues in what I think everyone sitting here in this recording studio would say - these are the most important questions and ideas of our time. We're at the, you know, you could say we're at the crossroads. We really should have been at them decades ago. But we're really sitting there in this moment where humanity has to change what it's doing, or we're going to go down that collapse path. So when you bring up these topics with your colleagues, what kind of reaction are you getting?

Tom Murphy  
Well, I guess I would say 5% of them are immediately on board. They get it. They can see this too. And maybe another, I don't know, making up numbers, but maybe 20% would listen attentively and think, wow, those are some really good points. But then they're going to get back to you know, I need to write this proposal, do this thing to keep my graduate students funded to keep my postdocs, and you know, they're in the present. They're in the game. They're playing the game, and there's a survival aspect of that. And also, you know, humans no matter what your field of preparation, tend to look to others to see what the story is. And I for some reason, am not cursed with that so much so that I tend to ask the question, what can I see with my own eyes? What can I do myself? You know, what can I figure out on my own? And I don't look to others. I don't look to experts, I just look to the math. I look to the the obvious things. What are the obvious things that I can see and talk about? So, you know, if I talk about this to my colleagues, they're probably going to recognize that I'm a pretty isolated voice. And that already to them is sort of an indication that maybe this is not something I need to even worry about or pay attention to. All the economists are saying that you know . . . 

Jason Bradford  
It's called the bandwagon effect. That was one of the earliest cognitive biases we talked about in our season. 

Tom Murphy  
And it's just how people work, whether they're physicists or not.

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. 

Asher Miller  
Yeah, I mean, I think that we've talked about this on the podcast that not only do we discount the future in terms of our economic system, we do that as human beings, because we evolved to be very focused on the present from a survival standpoint,

Tom Murphy  
And all animals, I would say, are basically the same way. We're not really exceptional in that regard. But what's different about us as humans is we have the intelligence to have acquired the power to change our world and our environment radically. And we are having impacts on countless other species and driving them to extinction, which other species don't do, right? I mean, other animals, you know, the squirrel that's really only concerned about their own stash of nuts, and not really concerned about the bigger picture. That's fine because they, by gathering their nuts, aren't going to make scores of other species go extinct. Because they're part of an ecological system that's kind of been tuned and evolved, co-evolved. We were also co-evolved, but in a primitive circumstance with relation to other species on this planet. And then we transcended that. And we are very proud that we transcended that. But beware, you know, there should be a caution label that once you've gone off this path, you're no longer protected by the evolutionary kind of contrac - 

Jason Bradford  
That keeps things in check. 

Tom Murphy  
That keeps things in check. And so we are the first species really to have this completely outsized power. But why would evolution have skipped steps to make us wise enough not to do the things that we can do? And that's really kind of the problem.

Asher Miller  
We're clever and not wise.

Jason Bradford  
We're clever, we're not wise. And evolution, of course, is going to work like this until the first species is clever enough to disrupt things, but why would it suddenly just make a species wise enough?

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. I think humans cultures and civilizations, in a sense, over time have developed institutions that are supposed to be the checks on this. Like, you can, you can read the reasoning behind having governance structures, and you know, maybe churches and other organizations. And a lot of it is about tamping down the individual and helping society coordinate. And also look out for the long term. Because of course, without some collective agreement and institutions, you can't really do that. You can't build civilization. Civilization has to be a collective process. And it has to think long term by making investments and things that outlive individuals. And so it's strange in the sense that we both have these institutions that should be doing this. But at the same time, many of them have co-opted and aren't really doing their job anymore. And I wonder how much of that was because we blasted through so many limits in the past when we got fossil fuels that we started poo pooing sort of these these older ways and these older ideas and institutions. I mean, they weren't always perfect either.

Jason Bradford  
I think we did that before fossil fuels. I don't know what it is around the mindset of colonization. But that existed before? 

Asher Miller  
Yes, it did. 

Asher Miller  
You know? And we figured out ways of basically stealing from other lands and other peoples.

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. I mean, there have been cases we will point to, like, there was a certain period in Japan where they were quite insular. But they were also at the same time, you know, very careful, planting forests, and . . .

Asher Miller  
Yeah. They were draconian. If you don't agree, get your head cut off.

Jason Bradford  
Right, right. 

Asher Miller  
That what I'm talking about. 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. And there's island states that apparently like knew their limits really well, but they practice things that we would find abhorrent nowadays. But what else are you going to do? Right?

Asher Miller  
Yeah. Just getting back to the whole success and failure thing. Even that to me, it'sa worthwhile question, but it's still very anthropocentric, admittedly. Right? I mean, it makes sense that we're concerned about ourselves in our own . . . First of all, we're concerned about our immediate selves. Then you stretch that out to our extended family, maybe that's future generations. Maybe then you look at like a tribe or whatever. And you have these concentric circles out so it makes sense that the further out you go, you might think about humanity before you start thinking about other species. But one of the things I love about, I'm not a religious person, but I've always found solace in cosmology because it puts it all into perspective for me.

Tom Murphy  
Right. It's comfortingly indifferent. Yeah, yeah, no, I get that. And, you know, I think for myself, my limitation is that we could be that species that just ruins it for everybody. And I don't want to be that guy. And so I do care about how we handle ourselves in this planet. And so it is human centric. But that's because we do have this incredible power over nature, at this stage. Not enough to completely have our way because we still have to obey physics. And in the end, I've come to realize that, or at least my own perspective is that the ecosystems and evolutionary process have created something rather amazing. I mean, in the universe, we don't know that something else like this exists. I mean, almost certainly it does. The numbers are just, you know, overwhelming. But it's so rare and at least spatially isolated that we have to celebrate what it is we have here on this planet. And this is just amazing. Every species is amazing. And so I don't want to be the ones to just completely ruin that. Now, we're not going to completely ruin it. I mean, worst case, we sort of go down in flames, and we take 30% of the species with us, but you know, there will be a recovery, and then whatever. So the universe will be fine. But I'd rather be here to enjoy it. I'd rather humanity be here as a partnership with that nature. And so I've started thinking that, you know, my motto is that we need to treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves, and become a subordinate partner and not a dominant partner. We're not even a dominant partne right now. We're removing the word partner. So we need to become partners, and at that subordinate. AndI think, you know, getting to the point that you're making before is that we have the capability through institutions, for instance, to overcome some of these, you know, very selfish modes. And it's why we're all here in this room. Right? We're not just throwing up our hands and saying, There's no hope. Let's just go die in the way we best see fit. Right? It's that we do think that there could be some kind of software to layer on top of the evolutionary hardware that lets us do something better and transcend the sort of more petty level.

Rob Dietz  
Yeah, on that thread of doing something better I have a question I want to ask you. But first, I gotta give all of you colleagues here a trivia note. You mentioned, Tom, the universe, I think you said, is "comfortably indifferent." Pink Floyd was really close to naming their song that. 

Jason Bradford  
Really?

Rob Dietz  
They switched to "Comfortably Numb" at the last second. 

Asher Miller  
Is that true? 

Rob Dietz  
No. It just reminded me of it. 

Jason Bradford  
So that song is about heroin. Is that what you're recommending? 

Rob Dietz  
No, no. Because that would be go and die in the way you see fit. What I was interested in is, you know, you work with students a lot. And you're raising really tough existential questions. What kind of thoughts do you have if a student comes up to you and says, "Well, what the hell do I do now?" What kind of advice could you give young people who are, you know, maybe on their way to a degree, or maybe have just finished a degree, and they're off to try to make things go for them as an adult?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, I think that's really relevant. And the first thing I'll say is that I've noticed a big change in students over the last 10 years. So that the students now, I don't have to make the case to them that growth is not our friend. They get that. They know this already. That's that's pretty amazing to me. All the same, as I'm going through the material in my course following the textbook outline, around the time we get to fossil fuels, they're on the edge of their seats. Around the time we finish that chapter, they want to know the answer. They're desperate to know, how's this going to work out? I don't think they - they know that there are problems. They know growth is a problem. They know climate change is a problem. But they like many people just assume that we'll have technological fixes. We'll get through this. And so they're desperate at this point once they realize that it's a dead end road that we're on right now. They're looking for the way out. And so - 

Asher Miller  
And then you take away the renewable growth from them?

Tom Murphy  
And then I take away the renewable growth. Right. I'm really mean.

Asher Miller  
You take away the solar roadways?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. But you know, in the end, I think the message that I try to deliver. And if I talk to them individually, if they come up to me and wonder what they can do, and how they should plot their their path, I try to tell them that I don't know for sure. I'm not a predictor. I'm not a Nostradamus, I don't have a crystal ball. Here are the things that are I'm concerned about. And here are the ways I'm worried things could go. And if you think that there's a credible chance that that's unfortunately correct, then make your life choices such that you'll be fine in either scenario. So whether we swim along like we are now or we run into some serious rapids. So the way to think about that is what will humans value always? What is going to always be important? What do we always need to be able to do? And think about ways that you can plug in and be valuable, no matter what happens. And it's not necessarily manicuring fingernails, right? That's not likely to be a priority, if things go badly. And so maybe don't pick something that only makes sense in the world that we know/

Jason Bradford  
Oh, this makes me a little worried about one of our sponsors in Season One, Thena. Khan. Those are the financial advisors for financial advisors. I mean, I'm worried about those guys now.

Asher Miller  
Well, the went bust. So there are sponsors anymore. 

Jason Bradford  
Oh, forget it. 

Asher Miller  
You don't need to worry about that. Well, sorry, I get a change of topic for a second because I just want to - I want to know what you think about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and all these guys . . . 

Tom Murphy  
Don't say that name in my brain. 

Asher Miller  
Because what's fascinating to me about it again, back to psychology, right? You got these guys, both of them, both of those two men have talked about limits to human activity. To what we're doing. The path that we're on. Right? So, Elon Musk has talked about how we may be in this very narrow window in human civilization where we have the capacity to actually leave this planet so we need to do it now. Right? And Bezos - 

Tom Murphy  
I say, go ahead. 

Asher Miller  
And, Bezos is, you know, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen was his launch presentation for his company (Blue Origin), talking about all these energy limits, and then say, we can't leave we can't live with rationing. Yeah. So we need to go colonize space and have 5 trillion people, you know, rotating around the Earth. 

Jason Bradford  
Are they going to mine the moon for that. Was that the idea? 

Asher Miller  
Yeah. 

Jason Bradford  
Okay. So try to make sure you keep your little reflectors in place. So they don't go after it.

Tom Murphy  
I'll just put a little fence around it.

Jason Bradford  
There you go.

Rob Dietz  
You can buy that from Amazon. Put it on the next Tesla that's going to be launched into space.

Asher Miller  
But what I mean is you have these people who are educated, they're bright, they're successful. They actually see that there's a problem with the course that we're on. Their conclusion is to get the fuck off of this planet, whatever it is. What do you, terms of the people that you interact with in your astrophysicist friends? I mean - 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah, what do the astros think?

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, it's a great question. And I can totally understand why they would come to that conclusion because we are steeped in a culture that's embedded in space stories. Right?

Jason Bradford  
Star Trek messed us up in our head. 

Tom Murphy  
Oh, yeah. And they're very compelling stories. 

Jason Bradford  
Look at the look at the clothing even.

Rob Dietz  
I still haven't been able to buy a laser sword. You know how easy you could do some landscaping work with a lightsaber? 

Jason Bradford  
Yeah totally, weeding just, "chop, chop, chop, chop."

Tom Murphy  
The problem with the lightsaber is you can't convince the light to stop at the end of the sword and so it's like an infinite saber and you're going to cut everything. 

Rob Dietz  
Damn it, Tom. You just ruined that for me. Now what am I supposed to do?

Asher Miller  
The entire ntire Star Wars series is ruined

Rob Dietz  
Can't the midichlorians do something to stop the extension of whatever? Alright, back to reality. 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah, so I mean, I can totally understand most people, I haven't done a survey, but I would be fascinated to understand what fraction of people in America today, for instance, think that we're going to be in a complete space environment in 500 years. And I'll bet it's the majority. Just assume that that's going to be true. And the fact that we've seen it with our own eyes in a very convincing special effects way, it's hard to shake that. It's really part of the psychology. And then if you add to that the sense that somebody like Musk or Bezos, they want to be, you know, basically, what's the word? Immortal? Yeah. And so they want to be the ones whose name will be - What's it in Star Trek? The one who invented warp drive? Jebediah something? I don't know some - 

Jason Bradford  
The dilithium crystal always gets me. I mean, the power they pack in that thing. Warp speed and all that.

Tom Murphy  
But what they don't tell you is they kind of they degrade after about 1000 warp cycles. 

Rob Dietz  
Turns out that Mr. Scott died of cancer.

Tom Murphy  
So, I mean, I totally get it. But what, as an astrophysicist, you know, one of the first things you come to terms with is just the immense scale of space and the complete scarcity of the things we care about. And as I said, life on this planet is down to four millimeters thickness. And that's very precious. You really have to spend some time -anybody listening to this who's thinking, "Oh, come on, you're being too hard on space." Just spend some time educating yourself on - Draw scale diagrams of: Here's the earth. Now, where do I have to put the moon and how big is that? Where's Mars going to go? And you realize that you can't fit in your house anymore. You know, it just gets really big. And then you ask, let's say that I were out and about in the solar system, and I got hungry. Where would I go to eat? Well, guess what? 

Rob Dietz  
In-N-Out Burger. 

Tom Murphy  
You come back to Earth. There are no cheeseburgers up there.

Rob Dietz  
The whole moon is made of green cheese, right?

Tom Murphy  
So it's inconceivably harsh. Think about it this way. Mount Everest is far, far, far, far, far more hospitable than the surface of Mars. Why aren't we living there? The ocean floor is far, far, far, far, far more hospitable. There are crabs walking by, things you can eat. But we're not living there.

Jason Bradford  
I'd eat a tube worm if I had to for God's sake.

Tom Murphy  
Oh, sure. Yeah, but you're gonna have nothing even close in space. So it's just - 

Jason Bradford  
Matt Damon had potatoes. 

Rob Dietz  
Yeah, you have potatoes you can grow with your own urine. 

Tom Murphy  
It's so inconceivably - 

Jason Bradford  
He lost a lot of weight. I think Tom's right here.

Tom Murphy  
I think, you know, to me, I don't want to be too condescending. But you really just have to grow up. You just have to get over this. And even if I'm just totally off base, and you can have some colony on Mars that's got I don't know, 1000 or even 100,000 people. It's like, you haven't done a damn thing to solve the problems of how do we live sustainably on Earth and respecting our ecosystems? And you know, if you just look at the decline rate and the deforestation rate, we're on this really steep path toward total environmental collapse.

Asher Miller  
Well, we're adding what 85 million new people every year. Right? So 100,000 people living on Mars, that's . . . 

Tom Murphy  
It's nothing. I mean, one way to think about that is COVID, you know, took out a few million people, and barely changed the needle on the sort of 85 million per year that we're adding. So if you look at the data 10 years from now, at population, you're not going to see the pandemic. And that's a big deal to us. That was a big deal.

Jason Bradford  
And I think about like, we're, you know, we're obviously normalizing all this death, but also mourning at the same time. And then I think about how many other creatures we actually kill and never even ponder. So when I hear stats about like, the rainforest in Borneo, you know, or Amazon, or coral reefs going out. Or just, you know, the fires in Australia, or the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest. And you just start getting these these back of the envelope calculations of the loss or loss of life. It's just - that's heartbreaking to me. And part of the way I connect to that is that I live out in the country now. And I've only been out here for four and a half years. I was managing farmland for a while, you know, so I would get out and about, but living out here. I've only been living out of an urban or suburban environment for four and a half years of my life. I travel a lot, you know, and went to wilderness areas all over the world, but it is quite interesting to be present, to see the lifecycle of things and the seasonal change. And also to see though how when you change the environment, how things show up. So we put in a water feature, we put all these native native shrubs and prairie species in. And suddenly you walk around and all these, mostly insects, or the bird life, things are showing up like you wouldn't believe. So I just think there's so much good we can do like you're saying, You can take care of a place and make a tremendous difference in the life of all of these other species that we share the world with in a relatively short period of time. And I would just like to have more people empowered to do that. And you see movies - Like, I go downtown, and I go into the city, and I walk around and see people guarding with in ways that are just tremendous for just attracting creatures, right. And that seems to be taking off more and more. So I think there is an awareness and a care, it's just not scaling to what we need. And at the same time, you have individuals really working hard, you got this industrial machine just still churning through nature, on our behalf, so to speak, right?

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. And trying to form it in our image, in a way, and trying to dictate to nature, here's what you're gonna do for us. Whereas, what you're describing is more taking cues from local, you know, the local habitat and saying, what can we do to help you? And not trying to transform the landscape into your own mental picture that's going to be deeply flawed about what's sustainable?

Asher Miller  
I'm gonna sound suspiciously positive for a moment. Just thinking about what you'd said about your students. So you've been teaching about energy now for for more than a decade, right? 

Tom Murphy  
Yeah. 18 years. 

Asher Miller  
And you've seen, I'm speaking for you here, tell me if I'm wrong. But you've seen students coming in further along, in terms of their recognition or what they're open to. So you said that they're already sort of there, they're certainly there with the climate crisis awareness. And they're also with this sort of questioning of the growth paradigm. So maybe there is there's an exponentially growing awareness in questioning of the kind dominant paradigm of thinking. It's still small. So you talked about how, like with your colleagues, you might still be viewed as an outlier. At some point, though, maybe it will tip. And it'll feel like a tip, but it will have just been built on a lot of people. And it would be amazing if at some point we had this flip where people were lauded and celebrated for recognizing limits and then doing incredible things within the context of limits because there's so much creativity that we could harness and ingenuity, human ingenuity, if we said, how can we do the most with these limited resources that we have in balance with nature?

Jason Bradford  
Yeah. I mean, what if that was the goal.  The society, that culture, the civilization that last for 1000's and 10's, of 1000's of years? And we set that as a goal we agreed on? And I think that's a brilliant question. And well, now we have planned obsolescence instead, right now. So you gotta do the opposite.

Tom Murphy  
And, you know, to that point, I think, you know, that's a really fascinating thing. I think it's possible that you will hit this tipping point. A number of my colleagues I've talked to recently, not necessarily in my department, but other people who I've had conversations with over the years, and they would sort of come out with a statement about how growth is - and not that we were talking about it - they would just kind of tip their hat or - What's the word for that? Show their hand? hat they think that growth is not something that we can sustain. And it sort of floored me. Where did that come from? So there's this growing consciousness. When I guess, Rob, you were talking about your favorite blog post. One that still gets a lot of attention is this conversation I had with an economist over dinner, sort of a neoclassical economist. And I kind of walked him through why economic growth can't last forever. And it's kind of a tough pull, but eventually made a lot of progress with him. But the one thing that really, I think, kind of caught his attention. I mean, he did really stare off into the distance. As I said, the person who comes up with a real good model for a steady state economy that can transform the way we do things. That's the one who will be remembered for a very long time, not the economist during this short, transitory phase. And it's true, if we do have 10,000 years, the people who helped design that and were the original thinkers about that certainly will have a much longer pull on history. And you know, it's going to be that the neoclassical guys are going to be vilified in all the textbooks.

Rob Dietz  
No doubt that Herman Daly is in my pantheon of most influential academics. And Tom, you are quickly joining that pantheon as well. I really appreciate the work that you've done. You've been flexible in your career and really addressed what I see as the most important topics. I want to make sure that we plug your book again because like you said, Asher, it is really an important piece of work. It's called "Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet". You released it for free. People can just get this online.

Jason Bradford  
That's the electronic version. You can order you can also order a paper copy. Right?

Tom Murphy  
At cost. Nobody makes any money on this, because why should they?

Rob Dietz  
Right. And the "Do the Math" blog, as we said, is amazing. We repost all of your essays on resilience.org. You know, you could read that from start to finish and you would have a lot more knowledge than pretty much everyone else out there. 

Asher Miller  
So yeah, and thanks for visiting us here.

Jason Bradford  
Yes, this is a huge summer treat. Glad to have you here in the studio. And, the first time we've been back in the studio for over a year probably. Excellent. Yeah.

Melody Travers  
That's our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town. This is a program for Post Carbon Institute. Get More info at postcarbon.org