Is the US an Oligarchy? Not So Fast.

There’s a new study out which, press outlets are telling me, shows that the United States is now an oligarchy, ruled by the rich and powerful, and perhaps that the US has been sliding in this direction for decades.

You can see coverage of it at The Telegraph, PolicyMic, the BBC, and other places. You can also read the actual paper online:  Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.

The headlines about it are wrong. This study doesn’t demonstrate any such thing.

The BBC’s lovely illustration of the story

I certainly don’t want to see an oligarchy. I’m a fan of representative democracy. I don’t want a world in which wealthy individuals or powerful lobbies run roughshod over individual voters. That’s a continual and ongoing concern for democracy.

This paper, however, demonstrates essentially nothing. The fundamental problem is that the mathematical models in the paper have almost no predictive power of reality.

Specifically: The mathematical model the researchers construct to see how the preferences of ordinary voters, affluent voters, and lobbyists influence the chance of a policy being enacted have an R-squared of 0.07.

What does that mean? Well, an R-squared of 1.0 means perfect fit of your model to the data. It means your mathematical model predicts reality perfectly (at least for the data points you have.)

An R-squared of 0 means (basically) that your model predicts nothing. That it has no better fit to the data than random chance.

What does an R-squared of 0.07 mean? It means the model has almost no predictive value. That it’s just barely better than random chance.

And what is this model trying to predict? Why, it’s trying to predict how the desires of median voters, affluent voters, and various lobbies impact policy. And what it finds is…almost nothing.

That model is the one from which the authors and journalists are drawing their conclusion that the US is now an oligarchy.

Below is the critical table from the paper, including the R-squared values, with my comment.

In fact, this paper fails to find any strong effect of any variable that it looked at on the likelihood of policy being enacted. They mask this a bit by ‘scaling’ all the predictive powers back up to the range of 0-1 in the next table. Perhaps they intended that as a way to more clearly show the size of one factor vs another. But it masks the fact that none of the factors they found had much of any ability to predict which policies were passed.

The authors might have done better looking at more complex variables such as:

- The percent of voters who supported or opposed a policy.
- The total amount of lobbying dollars spent on either side.
- The total amount of advertising dollars spent on either side.

But they didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that the US isn’t an oligarchy or that lobbyists and elites don’t have too much power. We don’t know that from this paper.

All we know is that the paper doesn’t prove much of anything. And that the headlines based on it – while they probably draw a great many clicks – aren’t accurately passing on what the study says.

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Carbon Prices Drive Clean Energy Innovation

I want to point out something I see commonly missed.  Carbon prices accelerate innovation that brings down the price of green energy. So do renewable energy portfolio standards, green energy subsidies, and a whole swath of other climate policies. They do this by increasing the scale of the industry, which drives more scale (a price reducer) and also brings more players, more investment (much of which goes to direct R&D) and more price competition between players (the single best driver of reduced prices there has ever been).

The context: I noticed today a brief symposium on climate change with Larry Summers, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, and others.

There are some smart responses there.

Several of the panelists put forward, quite correctly, that green energy must ultimately be cheaper than fossil energy for us to succeed at climate change.  I agree.

And various panelists put forward cases for increased government R&D in green energy or X-Prize style prizes for major innovations in green energy.  Great ideas.

But let’s look at what’s happened in the industry recently.

Here’s the price of solar power modules, on a Log Scale, over the last 30ish years.


This is a rapid exponential decline of more than 95%. Some of that incredible progress has been driven by government sponsored R&D. But the single largest driver has been the scaling of the industry, and the innovation (both scientific and highly practical) that has come with it. That industry scaling has been made possible by a host of climate initiatives.

That’s just module cost. Here’s what’s happened with overall installed cost.

More recent data suggests the price has fallen even faster, to around $2.50 / Watt installed price in the US (weighted over all installations, which means largely utility scale).

That’s a ~75% reduction in total system price over the last 12 years. That’s staggering in almost any industry.

It’s not just solar, either. The price of wind power has plunged by 90% over the last 30ish years. And while it temporarily hit a plateau (as wind power became a major consumer of carbon fiber and demand temporarily exceeded supply) prices have once again resumed their decline.

And, though few people know, the price of energy storage is also plunging. Here, on a log scale, is how much energy storage you can buy for a dollar. Over a 15 year period, driven primarily by competition by laptop and cell phone manufacturers and their providers, the cost of lithium ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10 per unit of energy stored.

As electric cars and grid-scale storage drive up demand and heat up investment, private sector R&D, and competition in the space, the price of energy storage will continue to drop.

Again, there is some basic R&D in all of these areas funded by government. But the #1 driver of the incredible price reductions in each of these areas has been intense competition between private sector companies going after a growing market.

Why is the market growing? We’re reaching the point where it’s growing on basic price dynamics. But for the past three decades, the markets for wind and solar have been bootstrapped by governmental actions. 

Bjorn Lomborg, at the symposium, said:

the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming [is] to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Lomborg’s number of $280 billion is roughly an order of magnitude greater than the EU’s actual direct spending on green energy, but let’s ignore that for now. The bigger issue is that he’s missing the primary impact of their climate polices. The number one impact of Europe, and particularly Germany’s investment in clean energy has been to drop the price of clean energy for everyone, now and into the future. That means that every future dollar spent on fighting climate change via green energy is dramatically more effective, for Germany, for Europe, and for everyone else worldwide. It’s a positive externality.

The price of solar power is now roughly 1/10th of what it was when Germany started their push into it. Yet it only dropped so far because of Germany’s major push. They have, in effect, paid the early adopter tax.

More to the point, the tens of billions per year the world spends in green energy subsidies have mobilized hundreds of billions per year in industry and consumer spending (similar to the effect a prize has, I’d note!) That private spending, in turn, has translated into a massive and continuing price decline in the technology.

How is that different, in effect, than direct R&D? Indeed, do we have any indication that spending that money on direct R&D instead would have done anywhere as well?  (Note: I don’t oppose direct R&D spending. I think we should do more of it. But it’s not a replacement for creating a market explosion and tapping into price competition between market actors.)

Alex Tabbarok, of whom I’m a huge fan, is the one member of the panel to state the connection. He states that: “A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax.”

This is absolutely true. But I’d extend and amplify this statement.

Any policy that expands the market for green energy – and puts providers in direct price competition with one another – will induce innovation, as providers scramble to tap into that market, and compete directly with one another to bring prices down.

Indeed, this isn’t a hypothetical. One has only to look at the graphs above to see that it’s already happening.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for. The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

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What’s Limiting the Impact of GMOs on Global Food Security?

My friend Jon Foley, who I have a great deal of respect for, has a piece up arguing that GMOs have failed to improve global food security because they fall into a trap of reductionist thinking.

With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.

First, GMOs do bring other global benefits.  As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families.  Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.

Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason.  As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:

GMO cotton gave yields a huge boost in India. Too bad similarly engineered food crops aren’t allowed.

But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:

But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.

From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.

Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine).  It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.

I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.

That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yieldimprove nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.

That’s what I’d call holistic thinking.

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Publishing – We’re All On the Same Side

There’s been a vigorous and at times antagonistic conversation about publishing and self- vs. traditional- publishing routes going on lately.

I’ve been resisting joining in too much, both because I have a book on deadline, and because I have friends on both sides of this debate, and the degree of passion and potential animosity in it pushes me away. 

But for what it’s worth, a few thoughts.

For context, I’m traditionally published with three different publishers. My first traditionally published book reverted to me and is now self-published on Amazon’s stack. And I see both traditional and self-publishing routes as options for my future. I’ll go with whatever works best, and quite likely both routes over the course of my career.

Those thoughts:

1) Anyone who’s written a book gets a modicum of respect from me.
That’s not an easy task.

2) More books, more readers, mo’ betta’.
Anything that helps writers get more paths to readers, and helps readers get access to more potential books, is fantastic by me.

3) Self-publishing is legit.
More specifically, self-publishing gives a set of authors who would likely never get their book traditionally published a chance to put their book in front of readers. I support that. 

Nor should this be looked down on. Self-publishing is not a failure option. If you get a book out via self-publishing, and find readers, props to you. You’ve earned some respect.

4) Self-publishing is succeeding.
It’s clear that on Amazon, the largest book retailer in the world, an awful lot of the books being sold are self or indie published. Self-published books have a path to success. That to me is the clear lesson of the
Author Earnings

5) Traditional pub is still sometimes a better path.
It’s also clear that there are many books and many authors for whom more traditional channels work better. And indeed, the Author Earnings data doesn’t reflect the full market or economics of publishing. For example, the best data I’ve seen indicates that ebooks are somewhere between 20 and 25% of overall consumer book spending and that Amazon captures about 30% of overall consumer book spending. Perhaps the real numbers are actually higher than this, but it’s clear that both ebooks and Amazon are well under half of the market.

More anecdotally, the authors I know who have traditional book deals and have self-published almost all do better from their traditionally published books than their self-published books. Other authors who are only traditionally published report that an overwhelming majority of their sales are print, and project (not unreasonably) that self-publishing primarily in ebook would have found them fewer readers and less revenue.

The reality is that for some genres, some audiences, some authors, and even some specific books, the best target market may be ebook, and for others, the audience is going to favor print more heavily.

6) The success of self-pub can benefit traditional-published authors
This is something I seldom see mentioned, so it’s worth adding in here. The very real success of self-publishing strengthens the hands of authors at contract negotiation time with publishers. 

I would personally love to see better reversion clauses, better ebook royalty rates (and/or better escalators on ebook royalties as the norm), and other changes.  Having self-publishing as a more and more viable alternative gives authors more leverage. In that respect, every author who hopes to sign more traditional publishing deals should cheer the rising viability of self-publishing.

7) This is business, not religion.
The most painful thing about the ongoing debate, to me, is the degree of animosity it engenders, both among strangers and at times among friends. I see people on both sides of this debate taking this extremely personally.

I get that. A lot of this is about lack of respect, or the perception thereof.

On the self-pub side, there has long been a lack of respect afforded. What I see here is the self-publishing community fighting for respect, and using data to show that they’re a force to be reckoned with, and that real and massive success is possible, and indeed is happening for quite a few authors.

Meanwhile, on the other side, traditionally published authors see publication of incomplete data (data based primarily on Amazon). They look at this data, compare it to their own sales breakdown, and find a very large discrepancy. They see that it doesn’t reflect the full market, and that bugs them. Perhaps more to the point, traditionally published authors can see these arguments for self-publication and hear them as “You chose the wrong path! You made a bad decision going with a traditional publisher!”

That sounds like an attack, and I’m guilty of reading the first Author Earnings report in part that way as well. But I don’t think that’s the point of it. I think the lessons of Author Earnings are overstated (or at least, that people are drawing conclusions from it that aren’t supported by the data), but I think the project’s goals – to establish respect for self-published authors and to demonstrate that real success is happening – are noble.

8) Be nice to one another.
It’s a truism that authors don’t really compete with one another. We mostly compete with people not reading, with them sitting on the couch, or watching television, or simply not knowing of anything good to read. I trust that most of the authors I know are supporters of other writers as a class, and that we want to see more people make the leap from “I have a book!” to “People are reading my book!” and even “I’m making a living off of people reading my book(s)!” as we did at one point (or may be in the process of doing).

So let’s cheer each other on, and point to success, anywhere we see it.

8) What I’d like to see.
In my dream world, what I’d love to see:

  • A little more acknowledgement on the self-pub side that traditional publishing has various advantages. Yes, it has downsides too. Yes, self-pub will be better in some situations. But the dialogue right now simply waves away the advantages to authors that can come with traditional publishing deals.
  • Fewer insults cast at self-pub books as a class, particularly on issues of quality and so on, from traditionally published authors. Really, unless your goal is to get people good and angry and harden their hearts, there’s very little point to this. 
  • Less taking it personally on both sides. More compassion for and cheering on everyone who writes.

Well, I can keep dreaming, can’t I?

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President’s Proposed NSA Reforms are Insufficient

Today President Obama announced a set of proposed reforms to the NSA. They are woefully insufficient. Congress and the courts need to act.

Here’s a storify of my tweets on the topic.

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TEDx Talk: Linking Human Minds

Video of my TEDxRainier talk, on Linking Human Brains, is now up. This is all about the current science of sending sights, sounds, and sensations in and out of human brains, and the frontiers of augmenting and transferring memory and intelligence.  I loved giving this talk. The audience laughed a lot, as I hoped they would. It was one of the best, most receptive crowds I’ve spoken to.

The talk itself is a compilation of the very real science that I used in my novels Nexus (one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013) and Crux.

You can read fictionalized accounts of the uses and mis-uses of these technologies in the novels.
(Along with a non-fiction appendix at the back of each with more on the science.):
-  Crux 

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The Shrinking Dominance of the Big Dogs in Tech

"In 1981, the top ten technology companies represented 95% of the global IT market cap. Today, that share has fallen to 26% and the ratio continues to fall."  

Microsoft, IBM, DEC, HP, and so on were once titans.  Apple, Google, and Facebook may be titans now, but they capture less of the overall value in the industry than the old top players did.  More of it is captured by a larger array of smaller companies, which is a fundamentally positive thing, IMHO.

The graph and opening quote are from an interesting and detailed post by Tomasz Tungunz. 

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Nexus and Crux: A Double Kindle Daily Deal

My sci-fi thrillers Nexus and Crux are BOTH Kindle Daily Deals today, marked down to just $1.99 each. These are books that have been praised by NPR, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, BoingBoing, Ars Technica, Charlie Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Cory Doctorow, and many many more.  This sale price only lasts until the end of Saturday Jan 4th (Pacific Time).

Short of free, this is about as good a deal as comes along. Click below to go to the Amazon page to buy.  Keep reading to see what people are saying.

Praise for Book 1: NEXUS:
"The only serious successor to Michael Crichton."  
- Scott Harrison, author of Archangel
"Good. Scary Good." 
"One of the Best Books of 2013"
"Provocative. A double-edged vision of the post-human." 
The Wall Street Journal
"Starred Review. Naam turns in a stellar performance in his debut SF novel. What matters here is the remarkable scope and narrative power of the story." 
"A gripping piece of near future speculation… all the grit and pace of the Bourne films." 
- Alastair Reynolds, author of Revelation Space
"A lightning bolt of a novel, with a sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction." 
-Ars Technica

"A rich cast of characters…the action scenes are crisp, the glimpses of future tech and culture are mesmerizing."
- Publishers Weekly 

"Read it before everyone's talking about it."
- John Barnes

Praise for Book 2: CRUX:

"A blisteringly paced technothriller that dives deeper and even better into the chunky questions raised by Nexus. This is a fabulous book, and it ends in a way that promises at least one more. Count me in." 
- Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother

"Nexus and Crux are a devastating look into the political consequences of transhumanism; a sharp, chilling look at our likely future." 
Charles Stross

"Smart, thoughtful, and hard to drop, this richly nuanced sequel outshines its predecessor."
Publishers Weekly 

"A heady cocktail of ideas and page-turning prose. It left my brain buzzing for days afterwards." 

- Hannu Rajaniemi, author of The Quantum Thief 
"Highly recommended for preparation of the future revolution." 
- Harper Reed, Former CTO, Obama for America 



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Nexus on Sale for $2.99 on Kindle – One of NPR’s Best Books of 2013

Amazon currently has Nexus - recently named one of the Best Books of 2013 by NPR – on sale for just $2.99 on Kindle.  Not sure how long this will last.

"The only serious successor to Michael Chrichton." - Scott Harrison

“Good. Scary good." - Wired  more ->

"One of the Best Books of 2013" – NPR  more -> 

“Provocative… a double-edged vision of the post-human.” - The Wall Street Journal  more ->

“A superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” - Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing  more ->

"Gripping near future speculation… All the grit and pace of the Bourne films." - Alastair Reynolds

"A sharp, chilling look at our likely future." - Charles Stross

“A lightning bolt of a nove. A sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction.” - Ars Technica more ->

Starred Review. Naam turns in a stellar performance with his debut SF novel… What matters here is the remarkable scope of the story and its narrative power.” - Booklist  more ->

“Mesmerizing” - Publisher’s Weekly 

“Naam displays a Michael Crichton-like ability to explain cutting-edge research via the medium of an airport techno-thriller.” - SFX Magazine 

Nexus: Mankind Gets an Upgrade

In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it.

When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he's thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.

From the halls of academe to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand - Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.

or Barnes and Noble

More Praise for Nexus

“A rich cast of characters… The action scenes are crisp, the glimpses of future tech and culture are mesmerizing." - Publisher's Weekly

"the most brilliant hard SF thriller I’ve read in years. It’s smart, it’s gripping, and it describes a chilling reality that is all-too-plausible… Reminds me of Michael Crichton at his best.”  - Brenda Cooper, author of The Silver Ship and the Sea and The Creative Fire

“a gripping piece of near future speculation, riffing on the latest developments in cognition enhancement. With all the grit and pace of the Bourne films, this is a clever and confident debut by a writer expertly placed to speculate about where we’re heading. Unlike a lot of SF, this novel dares to look the future square in the eye.” Alastair Reynolds, bestselling author of Revelation Space and Blue Remembered Earth

"Any old writer can take you on a roller coaster ride, but it takes a wizard like Ramez Naam to take you on the same ride while he builds the roller coaster a few feet in front of your plummeting car…  you want to read it now before everyone's talking about it." -  John Barnes, author of Mother of Storms and the Daybreak series

"From the very first page, Nexus grabs you roughly by the scruff of the neck and screams right into your face… One of the most intensely compelling and original debut novels I’ve read in a very, very long time. His breathtaking expertise and confidence as a writer makes Naam the only serious successor to Michael Crichton working in the future history genre today." - Scott Harrison, author of Archangel

"A dazzlingly clever and well informed near-future extrapolation, and also an outrageously exciting and cinematic shoot ‘n punch ‘em up. A ‘smart thriller’ in all senses of that phrase. Ramez Naam really does know how to make you turn that page." Philip Palmer, author of Version 43

"An incredibly imaginative, action-packed intellectual romp! Ramez Naam has turned the notion of human liberty and freedom on its head by forcing the question: Technology permitting, should we be free to radically alter our physiological and mental states?" - Dani Kollin, Prometheus award winning author of The Unincorporated Man


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Arctic Sea Ice: Less in November 2013 than Summers Before 2006

(This is a correction of a previous post that stated that there was less Arctic sea ice in December than in any summer before 2007. That post used a PIOMAS anamoly graph, which was not appropriate.)  

The Arctic is melting. That's a problem. Ice reflects 90% of the energy of the sunlight that hits it. The dark waters of the Arctic Ocean below it absorb 90% of that energy instead. If the sea ice is gone in the height of summer, the additional sunlight captured would be enough to warm the whole planet substantially. Exactly how much we don't know, but perhaps as much to keep raising the planet's temperature as much each year as all the human-released carbon in the atmosphere. Additionally, the regional warming effect would be even greater, which would accelerate the melt of permafrost near the Arctic, and the release of buried carbon there, much of which will come out as extremely dangerous methane. The melting Arctic is an extremely dangerous climate feedback loop.

We usually hear about Arctic sea ice in terms of the area it covers. Every winter almost the whole Arctic freezes over. That's changed very little. But in summers less and less is left. But what's even scarier is that the ice is also thinner by about half. When we look at it in terms of volume, in the height of summer, three quarters of the ice volume from the 1980s is gone. Three quarters. There's ice still covering water, but it's thin, and fragile.

Another way to think of it – today, in December  in November of 2013, the last month for which we have complete monthly ice volume data, in a year when ice coverage has rebounded, there was less ice (by volume) left in the Arctic than in any summer prior to 2006 2007, going back for at least thousands of years.

You can learn more about Arctic sea ice volume at the Polar Science Center.

The raw data for the graph above came from PIOMAS Monthly Volume Data 

I write much more about the challenges of climate tipping points, and how to innovate to maximize our chances of overcoming them, along with the related challenges of energy, food, water, and other natural resources, in my book on the topic:  The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

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