Earth Day

Eyjafjallajokull – try saying that 10 times in a hurry

It has come to my attention that today is Earth Day… or perhaps it was yesterday, or the day before. In fact, it may have been the case that all three days were “Earth Days” which seems a little silly, or perhaps I got it wrong and it is actually Earth Week. When I first came to the realization that it was Earth Day, I felt a little bit bad for not knowing, and felt that I should have done something specifically on that day to show that I did in fact care for our pale blue dot. Then I had a realization – I already do. My life has more or less been pointed in the direction of saving the world for some time now, and unlike those sportspeople whose sole physical exertion takes place during competition or, at best, during the weeks leading up to it, I am (as my speed skating experience may indicate) putting in the hard yards in in a long-term kind of way.

I am currently in one of my favourite cities in the world – New York. I am told that this is one of the most energy-efficient cities on the planet. This may seem difficult to believe, especially if you’ve ever walked through times square at night and wondered about the kind of obscene energy bill that those few city blocks must incur. However, there is a wonderful side-effect that you get in cities that comes from increasing returns to scale. Because cities are so much more densely populated than rural areas, the ability for members of the population to share resources makes everything just a little more efficient. Actually, I suspect the largest contributor to NYC’s energy efficiency is the decreased transportation costs that come from the increased population density and public transportation system.

I was once told that there was an academic paper that showed that New York’s public transportation system consumed as much energy as the equivalent number of passengers would have expended, had they been in cars. This is almost a ridiculous assertion, and if I ever get a hold of the paper, I’m sure I’d have fun ripping it to shreds if someone hasn’t already done so. The most likely mistake is the common academic one of assuming linearity. Linearity is simple, and our minds are fairly good at dealing with it. Of course, we live in a non-linear world. Per unit increase in input, the outputs don’t necessarily increase in proportion. Traffic in New York is a good example of this. If the number of cars on the road goes from say 0-1000 cars, the increase in energy consumption would increase in proportion. However, as the number increases past a certain point, the energy increases by ever increasing amounts per car because traffic causes trips to take longer. If you were to close the subway, you would have an extra 5 million or so passengers to take care of every day. Sure, many of them wouldn’t take cars, but I fail to see how this could possibly decrease any measure of per-capita energy expenditure.

Being inadequately equipped to deal with non-linearity is one of the great problems we face today. It is not that we haven’t in our possession the necessary mathematical tools to understand and deal with these problems – such tools have existed and been understood for a long time. The real problem is that most people just don’t understand. Take the example of a volcano spewing volcanic ash into the atmosphere. Our inconveniences stemming from such an obviously unlikely and far-fetched scenario do not increase linearly with the increase in ash. They increase in steps, or more likely giant leaps. Between each of these steps, there would exist a small amount of linearity, but not very much. To start with, the nearby glaciers will melt causing local flooding. A relatively small inconvenience involving having to evacuate and relocate people. Increase the ash output a little though, and you can shut off air travel in almost all of Europe for a few days – more than just a minor inconvenience. Keep increasing the output, and you will start to get fluctuations in the climate (and possibly a global shutdown of air travel). At a certain point, the output of volcanic ash can effectively block out the sun for a long enough time to be very inconvenient to the continuation of human civilization.

These non-linearities can be found everywhere. Take for example the giving out of cash handouts by governments when it comes close to election time. Do these handouts make a difference to anybody? Not really. But they can get a government elected, after which it can steal spend vastly higher sums of money on other things. Yet a great deal of time is devoted to educating people about systems with linear returns, or at most slightly decreasing or increasing returns to scale. Once upon a time, this may have made sense, since the world that lay within the sphere of humankind’s influence behaved in a mostly linear way, but now, humanity is able to influence extremely high-impact events (because it has created for itself a huge, interconnected world where small disasters can propagate through the network and become very big disasters very quickly).

Another rather large problem the Earth is facing this Earth day is the disconnect between people and the planet. Now, I’m not one of those crazy people who advocates going back to living like the “good ol’ days” because, frankly, the good ol’ days were not a very good time to live – life was short, people were generally hungry and vulnerable to disease, and most of the world’s population, even in supposedly wealthy countries, lived in abject poverty. However, because of technology and urbanization (2008 was the first year in human history where more people lived in cities than in rural areas) our productivity has increased enough to provide a very large proportion of the population with living standards to rival that of a king as recently as 200 years ago. One of the side-effects of this though, is that people have lost their connection with our planet. By “connection” I don’t mean that we don’t hug trees often enough (although I am not opposed to hugging trees per se), I mean it in a more pragmatic sense. In the sense that, most kids leave school not understanding why the seasons are the way they are, and why they are flipped in the southern hemisphere (and some kids don’t even know that they are flipped in the southern hemisphere).

What is needed is better education. People should know where their food comes from, how it is grown, how it comes to be in our supermarkets to be had at such great convenience. Umberto Eco articulated in a great essay from La Repubblica: “Science, Technology, and Magic” about how we treat modern technology like magic in that we don’t really understand what goes on behind it. There have been many brilliant attempts at getting this kind of information out there, such as the story of stuff project, but sadly there are not as widely-known as they ought to be. Some might argue that there is little value in understanding these things, and that all we need to do is accept that they work, and move on. I disagree, in fact, I very strongly believe that one should understand the tools before one is allowed to use them. For example, very few people really understand how utterly dependent on steady, predictable rainfall our complex civilization really is. Recent price fluctuations in oil have started to make some people realize how dependent we are on cheap energy. But most take it for granted.

The real problem with this disconnect is that it leaves us very unprepared for unexpected events. If recent history is any indication, people don’t realize anything until there is a crisis. Moreover, people won’t care unless the crisis has a direct impact on their lives, by which time it is either too late, or too expensive to be able to come up with a good solution, and people get suckered into accepting very bad solutions. In fact, Milton Friedman is largely responsible for advising governments to use crises to pass legislation that would otherwise be too unpopular to be passed under normal circumstances, thus short-circuiting the entire democratic process. Most people would agree that such compromises are a bad thing, but try to get them to agree to a carbon tax, and it’s a different kettle of fish. Even though that money spent now will save a lot more money being spent later.

Investing early to save inefficient emergency spending later does not only apply to money. Being well-educated about how our world really works would save invaluable time and grief later. An investment in good information in a knowledge economy should be a no-brainer. But instead, we leave these things until the last minute, when the only sources of information (and I use the term very loosely here) which can tell you what you think you want to know in a short time are news reports and made-for-TV documentaries which invariably have to filter information, and often with an editorial slant. Indeed it is very sad that this is the means by which most people have learned about such weighty issues as the world economic crisis, and climate change.

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” ~ John F. Kennedy

This Earth day, spare a thought for the Earth, but remember that to truly understand many of the complicated earth systems which affect us takes time and effort (and I should know, I did a whole masters degree in it, and still only scratched the surface). Go out and learn about where your food comes from, how stuff gets made, and what happens to things after we throw them away. While you’re at it, learn about how the Coriolis effect works, and why the seasons are flipped in the southern hemisphere. Maybe teach yourself why the world’s deserts are located where they are, and not over the equator, where you might expect (because that’s where it is hottest). But most importantly, remember that the problems we face can’t be solved in one day, nor can an understanding of them be achieved in one day. Remember that, no matter how selfish you think you might be able to get away with being, we all share the same planet, and with matters relating to it, we must be better than our own selfish instincts. We must think on a planetary scale, and that means long-term, and wider-reaching than “my back yard”. Respect the Earth, it is the only one we’ve got, and if we’re not careful, we might break it in a way that we cannot fix, then we’ll be really be in a fix.

2 Comments on Earth Day

  1. Good post, Daniel! It’s interesting how every smooth curve looks linear on a small enough scale, but the picture changes completely once you zoom out. I think that we are perhaps evolutionarily adapted to think linearly and it’s really difficult to imagine that phenomena could be non-linear…

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