The Most Important Graph in the World

Saturday, June 6, 2009

More on phosphorus, climate, oil, and other long-duration problems

Seeking Alpha has a great introduction to a critical idea, the reason that M. King Hubbert was pretty much laughed-at and ignored in the 1956 when he predicted that US oil production would peak and begin an inexorable decline early in the 70s and why James Hansen and Al Gore are being ignored and ridiculed today:
The other limitation that Jevons’ work revealed was the human difficulty in seeing large scale, long duration problems. We are not wired to see large systems, as being in motion. The larger the phenomenon, the more stationary it is likely to appear to us. Given that Jevons was a polymath, with interests from art to topography and demographics, I thought it appropriate to link to a fantastic piece of contemporary art which reveals the problem of scale, and time. Slow Motion Car Crash by Jonathan Schipper advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision. What is instructive is that no one visiting the gallery to see this work can actually see the cars moving. The movement is so slow as to be invisible.
The bottom line is that humans are evolved to detect and respond to immediate threats, generally detected visually --- the saber-toothed tiger charging, if you will. Our brains give so much processing space to visual inputs that we respond without (perceivable) delay to threats we detect visually.

The other senses generally put us on alert (our response to the snap of twigs or an odd smell is typically to freeze and begin scanning for a visual clue to the source of the input), but they don't have the power to put is into immediate reflexive motion the way that threats that come to us visually do.

Thus, problems that appear only in data sets --- climate disruption, depletion of nonrenewable resources (oil, phosphorus) --- are problems that require us to use an entirely different part of the brain to process, a part that is much smaller and that evolved much later.

Worse, problems that emerge only on careful consideration of numbers are dealt with in the part of ours brains that often produces ideas that are radically at variance with the flood of much happier sensory input that are occupying the other, majority sectors of the brain. Thus, on a beautiful day in June, it's quite hard to concentrate on abstract threats like a destabilized climate or a drastic reduction in food availability due to phosphate depletion. These threats only appear visually when it's too late. The ability to draw meaning from numbers --- to extrapolate from CO2 concentration tables to melting polar ice caps --- is not universal and is not even well-honed in people who have it. Humans are not preferential thinkers; we prefer to do other things. Generally, we think only as long and as deeply as necessary to solve present problems, and few of us look for other problems to think about.

Books like "Earth Under Fire" are attempts to deal with this, by engaging with our deep visual bias.

When thinking about these long-duration problems, it's helpful to think about things visually.

For example, when thinking about phosphorus depletion, imagine what Salem would look like -- how it would work -- with no fertilizers in the stores, with animal wastes being the only sources of usable phosphorus (without which there is no plant growth). That generates such a wealth of images that the other parts of your brain get engaged; once engaged, it's as if they give the cortex permission to keep exploring phosphorus a while longer, even though you're well-fed at this moment and there seems to be plenty of food about.