Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unreasonable Expectations

Vice President Joe Biden recently received criticism after commenting about the country’s problems that, “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30% chance we’re going to get it wrong.” He should have received kudos for some much-needed honesty, and a refreshing grasp of probability. He clearly understands that there is an amount of uncertainty build into everything we do, imposed by events and actors beyond our knowledge our control, which even under optimal conditions tends to add up to 30% (and more commonly, 65%).

During the run-up to last year’s election, Biden and Barack Obama aimed at increasing energy efficiency in the U.S. by about 25% over the time that new technologies would take have an impact. This is a reasonable expectation if the best case target is 70%, the amount my calculations show that the world must meet for energy and everything else by 2030 (as well as keeping consumption constant) so we can avoid disaster; that is, we must “do everything right.” Reaching the more achievable goal, even with constant consumption, would only buy us less than a decade.

The alternative is to effectively kill ourselves or wait for Nature to find its own solution, which will be far more painful. Something like the swine flu outbreak now in progress, should it become a deadly pandemic, may give humanity (and the rest of the natural world) more time, but with unacceptable losses.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Uncomfortable Engagement

There are still many (and perhaps most) people to whom the economic and environmental events we are experiencing are merely extreme case of what we have faced before. As before, economic growth is the answer to most problems, albeit of a different variety (“cleaner” and “greener”). To suggest otherwise is to appear extremist or, at best, out of touch with reality -- the reality of the present, and the reality of what is practical. In part, this is due to an uncomfortable choice forced by one’s recognition of the true state of affairs: the choice to accept responsibility for the far-reaching effects of our actions and limit personal gain, at least in the conventional sense, or to get as much as we can under current rules and ignore the consequences for others.

The new reality is one of limits, a concept that is greeted no less strongly than the inappropriate use of profanity by the majority of us who have lived most of our lives in a culture of growth. Cutting back on world consumption is an abstraction we can almost accept, but it is akin to stealing if applied to our personal future or that of someone we depend on.

I have struggled with these facts on every level: personal, professional, and political. My growing desire to act on my emerging world view is seen almost as an act of treason by my friends, family, coworkers, and members of my larger community. Only the people who have followed a similar path understand, and some are even willing to go much further than I have contemplated. I sometimes suspect that those closest to me think that I’ve been co-opted by a cult.

An obvious option is avoidance, which others like me have openly suggested in one form or another: If you meet with resistance, don’t waste your time trying to force it and simply move on to someone else. This feels wrong, and ultimately is wrong, since our fates are all tied together; everyone must deal with these issues to resolve them, and eventually action will be forced on all of us, and in much more uncomfortable ways. It is, however, the easiest option, given the huge amount of inertia aligned against changing core beliefs and behaviors, which manifests itself most strongly in the dependence of our daily survival on the system that is diminishing our species’ long-term prospects for survival.

Until recently, I felt I had found a good compromise: choose venues where discussion of these issues is appropriate (such as this blog), and try to increase the number of such venues. Supporting this decision were exceptions with friends and family that overall did not go well. Now I am being forced by circumstance to take a more active role: I can’t put off planning for the future because the future is almost here (see my latest population projections), and I can’t exert sufficient control over that future without deviating much more from conventional norms.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Planning Constraints

Hypothetically, achieving a desired outcome depends on three independent variables, each contributing to the probability of success: strategy, ability, and knowledge. The value of each variable has two independent components, one related to the activity yielding the outcome and another unrelated to the outcome; treated as a vector, a given amount of effort will at best contribute 70% (the sine of 45 degrees) in the direction of the outcome. The probability of reaching the outcome, the product of the values of the three variables, is therefore 35%.

Not surprisingly, this probability agrees with the high end of efficiency for energy generation in both biological and non-biological systems. In my experience, the amount of effort (often translatable into time) that it takes to complete a project with an acceptable amount of quality is the reciprocal of this probability, about three times the most optimistic estimates (which tend to be the ones used by managers I have worked for). On the flip side, using the most optimistic estimates for planning results in a roughly two-thirds reduction in quality.

If costs and prices in an economy are based on optimism about what is involved in people getting what they want (the basis of demand), it can have up to two-thirds of waste built in to its consumption of resources. There is a built-in incentive for producers to be dishonest and for purchasers to be willfully ignorant in such a system, absent any correcting mechanisms such as laws and inspection by social agencies such as government, investigative agencies such as the press, and employee organizations such as unions.