Saturday, January 16, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Three

I'm still grinding away at my essay instead of working on the blog. I have lots of great ideas for blog posts, but no time. :-(

Exponential Versus Linear Thinking

Beyond the issue of positive feedback, there is one further element of the current crisis that increases our danger yet few people understand. It results from a specific bias that seems inherent to the way most people look at the world. That is to say that the environmental problems we are facing tend to be exponential in nature yet human “common sense” limits most people to intuitively seeing the world in a linear manner.

This problem can be illustrated by a old teaching story about the man who invented the game of chess. He gave a set to a king who was so impressed that he offered the inventer whatever he desired in return. The inventor suggested that he would like an amount of rice calculated according to the following formula. The first square of his chess board would have one grain of rice, the second two, the third 4, and so on. In effect, he was asking for grains of rice doubled to the 64th power.

There are two things that need to be pointed out to the naive reader about this story. First that because of the “miracle of compound interest” the resulting amount of rice on the chessboard is astronomically large: almost 37 cubic kilometers. If people were asked to intuitively guess at what the total amount of rice would be, they would almost invariably dramatically underestimate the total amount. The second important point to realize is that one half of that rice, 18.5 cubic kilometers, is on the last square alone (that is, because we are talking about doubling the amount.) Again, if asked to intuitively conceptualize the way the rice is distributed, people routinely miss this point. Indeed, the reason why this story about the chessboard and rice has been handed down through generations of religious teachers is because it gives an example of how the “common sense” way of looking at things can dramatically misleed us.

The only explanation that comes to my mind for this particular failure of complehension is to suggest that people have a bias towards seeing the world through the lense of “linear” growth. By using the term “linear”, I am relating the lived human experience of participating in an activity that can be expressed by a so-called “linear equation”. If you remember high-school mathematics, those are the situations that end up being shown by a straight line (hence the term “linear”) on a graph. These are situations where one of the key variables stays the same. One example is when someone has to shovel a load of gravel from one place to another---the shovel he uses stays the same size from the beginning of the job to the end. “Exponential” growth, in contrast, is expressed on a graph by a parabolic curve that starts slow and then explodes into something huge, like the story of the grains of rice on the chessboard. The two failures of the imagination I have identified above come from the fact that the majority of people usually only come across linear functions in their day-to-day life (the amount of gravel that the shovel moves per scoop only seems to get larger as the job progresses.) As a result, people's “common sense” fails them by thinking that the rice will grow the same way that pile of gravel gets moved. (I suspect that this is why so many people get into trouble with their credit card debt---they simply can't understand in their guts the way compound interest can balloon when you get behind in payments.)

This perceptual bias causes humanity a problem from an environmental perspective because two very important human processes have a profound impact on the environment---reproduction and economic growth---function in a exponential fashion. This means that the earth's population and our industrial activity, like the rice on the ancient chessboard, grow much faster than people intuitively expect them to. And also, contrary to people's naive expectations, one half of the growth happens in the last doubling cycle. This means that the problems that grow exponentially cease to be governable before people expect them to, which means that they take too long to take action.

With regard to population, the number of people on the earth has effectively doubled in my lifetime (starting at 1959) from three to six billion. At the current rate of growth, it could theoretically grow to over nine billion by the year 2050 (this is a reduction in the rate of growth, but it is still a very signficant increase in the numbers of people on the earth.) In a similar fashion, the rate of economic growth in Canada has averaged over the last few years at about 3% and in China's case has oscillated between 8% and an astounding 15%. If those rates continue, in the next 80 years the economies of Canada would be about 10 times bigger and China's a little under 500 times larger than they are now. Even if we assume that energy and natural resource efficiencies in the future will be such that a unit of economic activity then will only use one tenth the resources that it does now (and that is a pretty big assumption), this means that Canada will still be creating as much stress on the planet as it is now and China's impact will be at least fifty times larger than it is now. If we think of these two different economic growth rates in terms of doubling frequency, we find that at 3% Canada's economy doubles in size about every 23 years; and at 8% China's at about every 9 years. This means that if life continues as it has up until now (or, as our politicians and economists are basing all their long-term planning on!!!!), in the years between 2066 and 2089 Canada's economy will grow larger by an equivalence of five times what it currently is. Similarly, in the years between 2080 and 2089 China's economy would grow by an astounding 250 times what it is today.

The impact of population growth on the regard the environment should be obvious to everyone. But some people do not understand (or, to be more accurate, are in denial with regard to) the way economic growth affects the environment. Strictly speaking, economic growth is usually measured in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP is the measure of all economic activity---both production and services---in an economy over a year. In effect, the GDP number is arrived at when all the things made and done in an economy for money are added together. If that number increases by 3% in a year, then the economy is said to have grown by 3%. As a rule of thumb, whenever the GDP goes up, so does the use of natural resources and the emission of pollutants do as well. Some people make a huge fuss about this assumption by arguing that it is theoretically possible for an economy to grow without having a corresponding increase in pressure on the environment. But in actual fact, this has never really happened in human history so raising this point is not much more than a rhetorical attempt to divert people's attention from a very disquieting fact.

The important point to understand about this mathematical process is that the growth is dramatically faster than people intuitively expect. What this means is the human institutions such as government and civil society are almost inevitably going to be “blind-sided” by the rate at which these two human process---economic and population growth---cease to be theoretical concerns and become practical catastrophies. Human societies take a certain amount of time to understand and react to change. If change happens faster than a society can understand and deal with it, then the nation becomes overwhelmed and loses the ability to effectively govern itself. At that point it simply blunders through crises without developing any effective means for either prevention or adaptation. That is the fundamental problem that humanity faces because its perceptual bias towards seeing the world in a linear as opposed to exponential fashion.

I believe that if people honestly look at the last few election cycles this inability to adapt to a changing reality expresses itself in the sorts of issues that dominate political discourse. For example, for the last twenty years global warming has been probably the greatest threat facing our civilization---yet the issues that have dominated have tended, in comparison, to be laughably trivial: gay rights, the cost of living, education, taxation, medical insurance, etc. (Please note, I am not saying that these are not important issues with very dramatic impact on individual people's lives. Just that they pale into insignificance when compared to the dramatic importance of dealing with climate change which will have a catastrophic impact on everyone's life.) It is probably true that given enough obvious evidence of climate change that governments will eventually start seriously working on the file, but if action is left too late our last doubling cycle will create so much new stress on the planet (because of things like positive feedback) that it will probably end up being a question of too little too late.


chmd said...

Do you see technology alleviating some of the problems you describe, or do you think society needs a deeper transformation? In energy for example, it’s now clear what we need to do, and that is switch to renewables: solar, wind, geo-thermal, tidal, etc. It seems quite feasible, both technically and economically. Some people stubbornly refuse to admit that. Do we need the Gandhi approach you described earlier to get them on board? One thing that worries me about technology is its flip side. It seems to me that more and more destructive power can be in the hand of fewer and fewer people. It is no longer farfetched to imagine a lone scientist, somehow, somewhere, having the knowledge and means to manufacture a major crisis. How would we fare in trying to sustain such a blow?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

There is a role for industrial innovation, but far too many people haven't really wrestled with the mathematics behind it and see the creation of new inventions as an excuse to avoid thinking about the way they live their lives. A good resource to understand the reality behind the myth is "Low-Tech Magazine"
( .)

I think Gandhi's example is worthy of understanding---but I don't have the same conclusions. He used a critical analysis of the impact of technology to reject it. I use it to suggest that we pursue one path versus another. The problem with people who see technology as a solution in and of itself is that they are naively following one particular path instead of realizing that society has a great many paths it can follow.

The issue of how easy it is getting to "hack" common technology into weapons of mass destruction is something I think about. It often occurs to me that our greatest salvation so far seems to be that the sorts of people who are attracted to becoming terrorists are so stupid that they never seem to realize the myriad of ways in which they could create real mayhem in society. (But that is hardly surprising---really intelligent, creative people would probably never be attracted to terrorist causes in the first place.)