The success of, for example, the New York Times Besteller list or the Oprah book club underlines this. But why do opinions count for so much ? Well, despite our supposedly advanced level of civilisation, the human being is still essentially a tribal animal bound by tribal instincts of wanting to belong to a group. Thus knowing what is “popular” and “unpopular” is key information which allows us to be able to control how aligned we are with the tribe of the day. For millennia this information meant being able to belong to a group, and that meant death or survival. It is these tribal instincts which the human race has relied on for survival over millennia which are now threatening to undo us as a species. These are some of the big questions which Pat Takahashi addresses so eloquently in his new book “Simple Solutions for Planet Earth”. This book is a “popular text book”. It is as informative as a college text book but as easy to read and absorb as a popular science work. Its publication is very timely and coincides with the shift in human thinking away from greed and towards concern and worry about our environment. We are catching up with Professor Takahashi, who as he points out himself, started this journey over 45 years ago, a long time before Al Gore or Global Warming.
Humans need land, resources and water and to get these things for ourselves and not let other competing tribes get them, often leads to wars and sacrifice across the globe. Violence is very often about who gets or controls a resource, such as land, or oil, or votes. Despite the raging debates about the origins and meaning of religion, religion simply appeals to the strong instincts of mankind as a tribal animal. Tribes of people need to be led. They need a leader, and are calmer and happier when decisions of leadership are taken by others, prime ministers, presidents, mullahs, priests, and popes. One thing a leader does is to orchestrate the many to act as one, imparting great strength and power to an individual group (tribe). This trick was discovered by bacteria billions of years ago when they learned to communicate and act as one, allowing them new powers not available to individual cells. Many bacterial diseases for example cannot occur unless the behaviour of a large group of cells is orchestrated as one. Today however, human beings are still struggling with how to effectively communicate and act as one. What is clear is that when communication and coordinated behaviour breaks down, the individuals in that group are much weaker. Hence the old adage “divide and conquer”.
To get groups of people to act as one (or act together) is often very difficult. Yet we must start to do this if we are to survive much longer on Planet Earth. “Simple Solutions for Planet Earth” outlines how this might be done. Takahashi has been looking at issues related to the provision and use of energy by mankind his whole life. He has produced a very readable and enjoyable book which he states is not a textbook, but which in fact does the job of a textbook very well, namely to educate the reader in a specific area of science and the environment.
“Popular Science” is a bookshop category for books which allow non scientists to read and absorb scientific information. They are science books which are interesting and have reduced or little jargon. On the other hand, textbooks often serve the opposite purpose. They fill the student’s heads with jargon, definitions of the jargon and detailed and boring explanations of concepts and phenomena (which are often, in themselves, very interesting). Professionals often use jargon to help create and maintain a new “tribe”. The tribe of doctors, the tribe of lawyers, engineers and so on. Jargon protects information from being freely available to all and helps define and create a tribe upon which others are reliant. Pat has the opposite goal - to educate and unite large numbers of people and he has done this very successfully. He provides a book which is a rarity, a book which is an extremely interesting and entertaining text book open and accessible to all (and I do not know of many books in this category – publishers take note –a new and profitable category !). The book also weaves the concepts and messages around the very human story of Pat’s life. Again this is a common and successful strategy in popular science books. Scientific breakthroughs are told through the lives and eyes of the scientists who made them. “Simple Solutions” achieves its goal and that is to “facilitate” to educate, explain and help people understand the challenges of providing energy to a growing world population, so that in doing so the readers begin to move and do things on their own that they might never otherwise do. It’s a type of leadership which leads without leading but which shows people the way, and allows them to walk that path. There’s a Confucius quote on this somewhere.
So buy this book on Amazon now ! Its less than $20 and is a great story book which is also a text book and also part biography but above all, a very enjoyable read. I would even encourage Oprah to include it in her book club because of the seriousness of the environmental issues that it covers. The book is divided in rainbow themed style into colour coded chapters. Chapter 1 is appropriately about black energy, coal and oil but also includes gas and nuclear. Pat suggests a simple solution is to tax carbon emissions and promote research into nuclear fusion. In Chapter 2, Green energy is all about “good” energy. Solar, wind and biomass. In addition, hydroelectric, geothermal and other energy sources are described. And its very interesting to note that Pat’s Grandfather was instrumental in developing hydroelectric power on Hawaii. Leading edge energy policy happened early on Hawaii due to the fact that it is very far away from any energy sources and, unlike mainland locations energy was already a severe problem from the start, with oil prices artificially high due to the cost of getting the fuel to Hawaii.
But we use and some would say are addicted to black energy. Again, this is because mankind is a simple tribal beast and will pick “low hanging fruit” first, unless it harms him to do so. Of more relevance to readers of this journal is Chapter 3, where Pat has colour coded hydrogen energy as silver. Nice. He even provides a “roadmap to perpetual energy” on page 143. But the major stumbling blocks are not science or technology but human agreement. Pat realised this very early on in his career and as a result chose to work in Washington DC to try to make a change. But agreement amongst tribes in notoriously different. They have evolved NOT to agree. But to achieve this needs leadership and communication. The blue revolution (marine) in chapter 4, covers the major role of the oceans in the future of mankind. It is presented in an extremely engaging manner, with the history of interactions with people, and how things actually got done. It is very rare indeed that these things are documented and Takahashi is to be congratulated for providing such careful historical insights. I was interested to note the lack of enthusiasm for the Blue Revolution that Pat found in Europe, as I too struggled for many years to enthuse the “old continent” with the potential for this area. It has taken the vigorous strides of the asian economies in this area to wake Europe up and result eventually in long awaited investment. Amusingly this is again a very primitive response. Wow, look at how hard our neighbours are working in this area, we better do something ! Thus, often, action is taken not because it is inherently thought to be worthwhile but in order to compete.
The colour white labels chapter 5 and describes a “white out” scenario of the conversion of earth into an inhospitable planet similar to Venus as predicted might happen by Stephen Hawking and as result of a catastrophe caused by global warming. The simple solution? Reduce global warming - a very poignant piece of advice which, is being heeded, increasingly by each younger generation. The book concludes with a series of summaries and useful appendices presented in a very digestible manner which left me feeling positive about the future. But I am still concerned that the human race’s tribal instincts are not adapted to planetary survival. I hope and believe we will adapt, but some of the selective pressures may be very painful. The emerging fight over rich man’s fuel or poor man’s food in the biofuels arena is a case in point.
Throughout the book Takahashi’s marvellous sense of humour shines through, and his descriptions of pivotal meetings taking place while eating fugu testicles, or the moment when he finally purchased a mobile phone in 2006, years after the “tipping point” had me smiling and even laughing out loud. A first for a textbook.
Professor of Marine Biotechnology
University of Newcastle
The Dove Marine Laboratory