Posts Tagged ‘environmentalism’

Earth to Humans: You’re Doing It Wrong.

April 24, 2012

Here’s my Earth Day article. You may notice it’s late. That’s because I didn’t realize it was Earth Day until a few hours after midnight when somebody said something dumb. Here it is:

The founder of a popular British festival has even said that he would consider powering the event on beer piss, should science find a way. Don’t laugh — human beings collectively produce around 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, so an effective way of harvesting energy from this golden wonder-fuel might end our fossil fuel dependency overnight, as well as mitigating the effects of one more way we go about polluting the environment.

We do not produce 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, even on a steady diet of coffee, alcohol, and the vague first-world boredom that leads to a bathroom break every half hour or ten games of Draw Something, whichever comes first. The 6.4 trillion figure is around 250 gallons of urine per person per day. If that were so, your urine would fill two midsize cars every week. At an average flow rate of 20 mL/sec, you’d have to pee for fourteen hours every day to get it all out.

That’s the dumb part – a silly gaffe. But there’s a stupid part, too. You can’t get more energy out of beer urine than you can get out of beer. You can’t get more energy out of beer than you can get out of beer plants. You can’t get more energy out of beer plants than you can get from the sunshine they absorbed. Processing your sunlight by way of a barley seeds, the digestive system of yeast, and a human liver is, as a thermodynamic strategy, piss poor.

Humans are not energy producers. Any energy we output came from our food and represents our bodies’ inefficiency. Only a fraction of the energy we eat can be reharvested, and the energy we eat is about one percent of the energy we use on all our gadgets and things. Measured purely by energy consumption, it’s as if every person in the US has 100 personal servants. Recapturing energy from our bodies is like realizing our 100 servants are too expensive, so we make one of them give us a percent or two of their wages back. That means we can only ever get a miniscule fraction of the power we need from any human activity – urination, generators inside exercise equipment, piezoelectric thingymabobbers in the floor, engines run on body heat, etc.

Even if you crush your enemies and drive them before you, the lamentation of their women will not provide much power.

Why bother, then? Why is there a dance club whose floor generates electricity for lighting as revelers hop around on it? Why don’t they just dance during the day?

Human-generated electrical power could make sense in special circumstances – charging your bicycle light with energy from the bicycle, for instance, but as a general plan it’s insane. The floor in that club is not about generating electricity. It’s very unlikely that the energy generated could ever recoup the cost of the installation – if you exercise for an hour, you’ll generate around a penny worth of electricity, and that’s with high efficiency. Instead, the floor is about advertising that it generates electricity.

This is what we’ve done with energy conservation – made it into a luxury item more about social signalling than ecological benefit. How many people, proud of their environmentally-conscious Prius, have any idea how much energy went into the car’s manufacture? How many of them drive it alone? (Though Prius owners may deny it, the car’s popularity is mostly about social signalling. For cars that come in gas-only or hybrid variants, the hybrids don’t sell well. If it’s not a hybrid-only brand, it’s a lot harder for people to recognize how environmentally-conscious you are.)

No one would tie a helium party balloon to a hippopotamus and say, “See? I did my part to help it fly!” Yet they feel just like that when they bring their own bags to the grocery store. On Earth Day, people turn their lights out for an hour. (Did that happen this year? Or is it some other day? Whatever.) If everyone turned all their lights out in their homes all the time, it would reduce power consumption in the US by about two percent.

The lights-out thing is symbolic, of course. It’s there to remind you of the importance of energy conservation, and to show other people you think energy conservation is important. The problem we’re facing is that everything is symbolic – our efforts at conservation are almost random, showing no systematic effort to focus on the big-ticket items, or even knowing what they are. How many cell phone chargers would you have to unplug to make up for the energy spent on one cross-country plane flight? Most people don’t know, and so most effort put into energy conservation is wasted.

Worse, if you’re conserving energy because you want the warm fuzzies associated with it, you get your warm fuzzies based on how much you inconvenience yourself and how much you show off, not on how much energy you actually save. You feel just as good about unplugging cell phone chargers as deciding to stay local on vacation. Our emotions have no sense of scale.

Even worse than that: when we talk about energy conservation and environmentalism, we’re largely bullshitting, and people pick up on that. That’s the thing with signalling to your tribe. It gets the other tribe pissed off. (And as we’ve learned, piss is not very productive.) The worst part about energy conservation and environmentalism is that they’ve been wrapped up into one issue and shipped off to the place where good debates go to die – politics.

If we could separate our conservation efforts from our warm fuzzies, we’d send out fewer of the pheromones that rile up political associations and drive out even the possibility reasonable discourse. Fewer news stories. Fewer buzz words and applause lights. More Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and The Azimuth Project. That is how you get a hippopotamus to fly.

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Let’s Read The Internet! Week 1

October 12, 2008

Earth From Above

Sensory overload.  Thirty photographs of socially-relevant scenes from around the world, each of which could easily launch me on a few hours of reading and comparing.  Taken together, they present an overwhelming mosaic of a vibrant, living, interconnected, diverse, and changing planet.

But, damn, I just noticed that the story has gone from displaying 30 photographs to just ten, and the impact is nowhere near as great.  It seems hypocritical that the coordinator of the exhibit (not the artist) should ask the website to take photographs down, when the whole point of the exhibit, as expressed by the artist, is that it be completely free and displayed out on the streets in cities across the world to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible.

Not the end of evolution again!

  John Wilkins at “Evolving Thoughts”

You might have heard about some guy telling the media that human evolution is over because we now care for our sick.  Wilkins presents a brief, irate counterargument.

I’ve done some reading on evolution from time to time.  What I’ve learned is that’s it’s deceptively difficult to understand.  Although the basic idea that heritable variation and selection pressure combined lead to evolution is straightforward, there are an awful lot of intricacies you find when you begin to look more closely.

There are some things you can do – such as study genomes to see how closely-related two species are, or study fossil records to document the evolutionary history of a species.  But there are a lot of things you can’t do, such as say, “Dinosaurs evolved to be really big because they were in an arms race.  Prey got bigger, so predators were forced to get bigger, and then prey got bigger again and off they went.”  That is not a falsifiable hypothesis, because you can’t go back and test it.

You can study evolution mathematically, and you can make falsifiable predictions, and then compare those predictions to observation.  But statements like, “human evolution is over because we care for our sick” are basically pseudoscience.

Extremely simplistic thinking about evolution leads to paradoxes.  For example, now that we first-world men don’t have to worry much about dying in our mothers’ arms during infancy, getting killed in battle at age 16, or starving to death when the buffalo find a new migration route at age 27, shouldn’t the biggest factor left in our reproductive success be how good we are at attracting women?  And therefore, shouldn’t every man spend all his effort spreading his seed far and wide?  Shouldn’t guys just be thinking about sex all the time…  Oh, never mind.

How We Evolve

Benjamin Phelan at Seed Magazine

A lengthy article about the sort of thing I referenced above – collecting data from genomes to study evolution.  Here, the scientists took genomes from humans of varying ethnic background and looked for characteristic differences in their DNA as evidence of evolution.  Bottom line: Yes, people are still evolving.  For example, as a white man, I am a highly-evolved lactase-producing being, unlike the those primitve, dairy-bloated Asians.

In Defense of Difference

Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin at Seed Magazine

In a companion article to the one above, the authors discuss why we might want to save the rainforest, anyway (because we like rain?).  Not just because we like toucans or want to display a World Wildlife Fund bumper sticker on our Prius.  Because it has economic, social, medical, and scientific value to humans.

The idea is that biology is a huge information-gathering system.  From a protein to an organism to an ecosystem, evolution allows biology to record information about how to live in the world, and also provides a ready-made task force 10^30 cells strong that will do its best to find out how to live in a changing world.  The more stuff we destroy, the more Earth loses the ability to adapt to hard times.  Clear the rainforest to raise crops, and disease or natural disaster or pollution find it much easier to brutally rape the new, homogenized biosphere.

The argument is then extended to such things as preserving human languages, which record the results of thousands of experiments in creating human culture.  So nature is basically a billion billion whatever tiny lab books full of experiments, and instead of reading them, we’re throwing them out.

Nobel Sur-prize

Peter Coles at “In The Dark”

Particles are everywhere.  While you read this, particles are in your home, in your infant child’s crib.  In her anus.

I don’t understand them.  But here’s a fairly simple explanation of the work that won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics.  Basically, the uproar is that this guy Cabibbo had a big idea about physics that helped explain a mystery about particles.  Later, Kobayashi and Maskawa solved a mathematical problem that expanded on Cabibbo’s idea.  Both were important – the original idea and the difficult mathematical extension to it – but only one was awarded the prize.

Also check out a more basic article from Mark Chu-Carroll at “Good Math, Bad Math”

What positive psychology can help you become

Martin Seligman on TED

A talk interesting enough that I watched it twice.  The second time while smiling. Seligman decided to break happiness, or life satisfaction, into three categories.  (To me this is rather arbitrary.  It’s not like the categories of happiness are just sitting out there, waiting to be discovered.  But it’s a persistent plague among people who study such things to break them down into categories they believe are fundamental. i.e. “four personality types”, “two political ideologies” (left/right), or even “four kingdoms of life” (some people now say up to 13.  others 2))

The categories are: surface pleasures like active social life, good love life, and sensual pleasure; “flow”, or the state of intense focus and concentration associated with, say, rock climbing or physics sets; and “meaning”, or finding something greater than yourself to dedicate your life to.

Seligman describes the beginnings of a movement to apply a scientific approach to the study of happiness, as opposed to the traditional psychological model of simply curing mental illness and depression.  He claims that it is possible for people to increase the fulfillment they feel in life by a concentrated effort in the right direction.  It’s a summary of the beginning of a quest to understand people in a new way, and apply that understanding to make life better.

Worldmapper

A site you may have seen before.  They use maps of the world to visualize data.  For example, compare a map where each country’s size represents the number of personal computers in that country, to a map showing how many people died of “often preventable deaths”.

There are a lot of technically-interesting things about this project.  How did they get the countries to fit together, when their land area needs to be fixed at some arbitrary size?  What sort of properties of the standard world map’s topology were they trying to preserve?

But more interesting are the social, economic, and political insight you can get.  Compare this project to the Gapminder.

Small samples, and the margin of error

Terry Tao at “What’s New”

Terry Tao tones it down a notch to present something even I can understand.  He discusses how a random sampling of just 1000 people can give an accurate picture of the opinions of a nation of 200,000,000 voters.  He also gives a short proof of the accuracy of the sample, without resorting to the binomial distribution.