I'm a bit worn out. I've been firing off black humored emails to my friends with rants and vignettes like this:
Person, tidying up a hospital room, holds up small bottle: Is this bottle something we should take home? What do we do with it?
Saheli: Well, what does the label say?
Person: It says, "All kinds of dangerous."
And calling them up late at night with inane requests for advice because I can't think straight. C'est la vie
. Somehow, we have to make sense of it and do the best we can. Ah well, please be patient.
Anyway, you'll note that I have added a blogbadge to the right-hand sidebar:it's a link to a CIVIC/GiveMeaning campaign to raise money for medical care for two Iraqi women, Manal & Aliyah
, who are civilian collateral damage from our little adventure there. I'm afraid I can't compose an eloquent appeal beyond asking you to read their stories. The director of the campaign emailed me personally to ask for help, and I cringed when I saw that the day they'd been shot by American troops in a checkpoint misunderstanding had been my birthday.
Anyway, below the fold, find some thoughts on the 62+ comment thread about Petroleum and Breakfast.Continue Reading Here.
First, to the main point at hand--how can we better engineer our consumption to be more sustainable?
I think a lot of this discussion is being skewed by our not being practiced at holding multiple causes in our heads. In particle physics we would always talk about modes of decay--multiple phenomena could lead to the final event recorded in our detector, and our job in analysis was very often to tease out how much of the signal was due to cause A, how much to cause B, cause C, etc.. If the interactions of the tiniest particles can have so many components, much more complex phenomena, like ecology and behavior, almost certainly do. I don't want to *demonize* anything, but sprawl AND highways AND inefficient vehicles (AND computers AND agricultural subsidies AND. . .etc..) are all to blame in various amounts. My original plaintive request--for a little "engineering"--was essentially a request for some hardheaded tools of analysis for teasing apart these modes of destruction, figuring out where there was leverage and how an individual can figure out how their life interacts with those points of leverage, and how they can best exert the personal energy and resources they have to devote to the cause in the most optimal way. That's what I mean by engineering, not building a better car or better solar cell. Engineering as the systematic, quantitative solving of problems.
Rishi wrote: Echan brings up a great point, which is when you start to question any particular energy expenditure, the cost / benefit value of the use versus the environmental cost (assuming we value the environment very highly) seems to make any activity wasteful. . . My point is not mass suicide, of course, but to point out that when you start to think of any action on a micro level, including your drive to the store, or eating your bowl of cereal in the morning, you are never going to find an environmentally efficient one. It is only on the macro level that these questions even make sense.
This is true, but its truth shows that I did not express my original quest very well. Reductionism is always dangerous if you don't keep the big picture in mind. But reductionism is a tool for holding the big picture in your mind in the first place. It can't be dismissed out of hand. Spherical cows are also absurd, but they can still be useful.
Michael brought up the footprint calculator, which was actually sent to me by Peter during the initial conversation that led to the blogpost. I agree with TK that equal sharing of all resources is a useless and unnecessary thing to strive for--some poeple don't even want to have the what would be their equal share of the whole, and what you work for has to be taken into account somewhere--but I disagree with him that this makes the footprint calculator fallacious. Even if we were the average world consumers, the equality assumption in the calculator would be a good metric of how sustainable our consumption was. As it is, we are almost certainly at the high end of consumption. Our high demand is driving up the price for everyone so that some people can't even surive. Also, as Michael replied, we already have the 6 billion people. Even rapidly declining birthrates isn't going to decrease that number without equally drastic amounts of death and suffering. I'd like to find some other way.
When you actually think about the mechanics of the problem, it mostly has to do with things like habit, convenience, and imperfect information. So I'm actually interested in building practical tools. I'm thinking of actual calculators, software for a cellphone, notebook templates and worksheets for keeping track of purchasing choices, 12-step programs, diets, something--to make for better habits and routines. There's a lot of hyperbole about going on a "shopping diet," but it's actually a powerful analogy if you're willing to get beyond faddish advice. For example, I've lately had to think a lot about how to construct a very specific diet for someone with a lot of health issues. What was before a casual, effortless thing--eat three times a day, what you mostly feel like, trying not to make it too horribly unhealthful--has now turned into a carefully recorded and planned excercise in adding up calories, grams of protein and percentages of potassium, and balancing that against palatability and ease of preparation. When someone is healthy, anything goes. When someone is sick, you have to engineer their diet. Our planet is sick.
Finally, I'm not going to contort myself into philsophical knots trying to defend my desire to make sure the environment isn't irreparably damaged and the planet lasts for a good long while, despite the eventual heat death of the universe. Of course we have to balance that with other concerns--but we're wasiting time in doing that complex balancing act if we're still arguing about the validity of the concern. I just assumet that it is a valid concern. Conversations have to have some basic assumptions and that's mine. :-p
And I'm tired, so I'll talk about more meta-matters of social activism, capitalism, and the like later.