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.

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