Book notes on Unstoppable by Bill Nye

The Earth will be just fine with “global weirding”*…but we won’t unless we clean up our act.

Bill Nye does a great job translating general science and engineering concepts for the masses.  He has a knack for making concepts digestible. If you’re up to speed on climate change this book has some solid “think big” ideas, but most will be common knowledge.

*Climate weirding is a term I heard during this episode of StarTalk with Dr. Funkyspoon.

What’s the big idea?

We need to make drastic changes in how we care for this planet now; otherwise, we’ll go extinct.  Agriculture is the largest burden on Earth’s resources and needs to be changed ASAP.

“Our farms produce greater volumes of more greenhouse gases than all of our cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes combined.”

Our standard agricultural model is efficient in production but disastrous to the ecosystem.

On top of that, experts believe only 55 percent of the calories the farms produce actually get into our diets.  The rest is lost to pests, plant diseases, spoilage, and waste.

We have optimized how to produce food, but have we optimized a smart system that produces food without harming the environment?  It’s until we figure out how to incentivize food producers to profit from big-picture thinking will we start to make the necessary changes.

How does the author know?

Bill Nye has taken a lot of flak on news channels when he debates climate deniers.  They say he’s a TV personality, entertainer, comedian, or simply a mechanical engineer.  He has no business talking climate science.

I disagree.  Anyone can learn whatever they put the time into learning.  Learning from experts, exploring the world, critically thinking, and putting in time will make anyone an expert.  I’d say he’s doing them all.

Since science doesn’t play in 100 percent truths, doubt is a destructive force.  Special interests who don’t want to change the status quo are experts at it.

What should you do?

Start with the little things within your control.

  • Do you recycle?
  • Do you have a compost bin?
  • Have you minimized your possessions to what you really need?
  • Have you optimized your daily commute to the point where you can walk or ride a bike to work?  This one alone helped me lose 10lbs!
  • Have you planted a garden?
  • Have you reduced your red meat intake?  Add more veggies to your diet!

Use your wallet to speak your mind.  This goes both for spending and not spending.  Invest in the little things that will make you and the planet better decades from now.  This could be anything from refusing to buy lots of meat to installing solar panels or growing your own vegetables in your front lawn.

It’s within you to start making the necessary changes and inspiring others to follow suit.

If you’re still interested in Unstoppable, here are my raw notes:

  • The energy of motion is converted to the energy of heat all the time in just about everything we do.  Energy can be changed from one form to another.
  • There is no free lunch in physics.
  • The average kinetic energy of molecules is the modern definition of temperature.
  • Come up with “pale pavement.” – will significantly reduce heat absorbed by the ground.
  • Undershine – creating tiny bubbles (hydrosol bubbles) in the ocean to reflect sunlight.
  • Geoengineering idea: genetically engineer lighter color crops to reflect sunlight.  ME: better yet, create reflective grass so we make white lawns the new green lawns.
  • “Power” – It’s the energy used or expended per unit of time.
  • Energy, in turn, is a force multiplied by a distance.
  • Volts measure electrical pressure, amps measure flow, watts measure power.  Power over time equals the total amount of energy. That is why your electric utility bills you in terms of “watt-hours” (or kilowatt-hours) you have used.
  • Natural gas is not, absolutely not, a long-term answer to our greenhouse-warming problem.  If you must frack, don’t screw it up.
  • Nuclear fusion is closer than ever, maybe.
  • A quantum is the smallest amount of energy there is.
  • As developing nations electrify their landscapes, entrepreneurs could work together with engineers and regulators to reduce electricity losses in the local grid.
  • And like Smalley said to me ten years ago, the key to the future is not to make do with less; it’s to do more with less.
  • As the old saying goes, there are two ways to become rich: Get more money, or need less.
  • The people who worry most about what we are doing to the planet are the optimists who believe we also have the intelligence–we, as a species, working together–to come up with powerful solutions to the problems we’re working on that will change the world for the better.
  • If we add it all up, the economic sector that uses the most of Earth’s resources and produces the largest environmental change is our agriculture.  Our farms produce greater volumes of more greenhouse gases than all of our cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes combined.
    • Meanwhile, the global population is growing, headed past the 9 billion expected in 2050 to perhaps 10 billion by the end of the century.  If we want to feed everyone–and ideally feed them better than they are getting fed today–we’re going to have to think big.
    • The total area of the sphere that is Earth is about 510.1 million square kilometers (196.6 million sq. miles).  Most of that, 71 percent is covered with ocean. That leaves less than 30 percent for all of us land plants and animals.
    • Humans, our one species alone, farm about 11 percent of that dry land area.  Even with all that, about 1 in 7 people are hungry.  It’s not that we don’t have enough food, not exactly.  Experts estimate that only about 55 percent of the calories we produce on farms actually gets successfully incorporated into a human’s diet.  The other 45 percent is lost to pests, plant diseases, spoilage, and especially waste.
    • In the US, more than one hundred tons of food is wasted in homes and restaurants every hour.  Shameful.
    • In the developing world, tons of food is lost to the lack of refrigeration and the inability to successfully transport it from where it’s grown to where it would be eaten.
    • “To those who visit here, we wish you a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”
  • Each of the ideas I’ve presented in these personal chapters–the xeriscape, the irrigation controllers for the reduced-area garden planters, the passive irrigation of a very large tree, the management of shade with recycled materials, the solar hot water system, and especially the social electric panels–are existing technologies.  I did not have to go to a research lab and hire a dozen of engineers to produce these energy saving, quality-of-life-enhancing systems. It all existed. I had the resources to complete each project over the course of about nine years. The big ones–the hi-tech windows, the solar electricity, the solar hot water, and setting up my garage for an electric vehicle–have each paid for themselves already and added value to my house.
  • Detecting every single seriously dangerous object out there is perhaps a billion-dollar project.  Put another way, it would cost the amount of money the United States government spends every two hours.  A two-hour investment could save all of humanity from the most unpleasant form of global change. Getting hit by an asteroid or comet.
  • The United States.  We use 18 percent of the world’s energy, pump out 19 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, and we have only 4 percent of the world’s population.  That’s it. Without the US in the lead, ain’t no nothing going to get done on climate change (employing the triple negative for emphasis).
  • Deceptively named political action committees or PACs that are not helping with climate change:
    • American Energy Alliance
    • American Crossroads
    • Citizens for a Sound Environment
    • Foundation of Research on Economics and the Environment
  • Humans and human progress are also unstoppable.
  • Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.
  • Notable climate change pioneers: