Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gods Themselves

 Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

This resonant quotation from Schiller ("Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain") provides the title for one of Isaac Asimov's best sci-fi novels, which I recently reread.

The core idea: On a future earth, the discovery of a new and apparently "impossible" material leads to the development of what seems to be an inexhaustible source of free energy - the "Electron Pump" - leading to fame and fortune for the discoverer, and a renewal of global prosperity.

But one scientist suspects that things are not as rosy as they seem.  In fact, the "waste product" of the Electron Pump - a local change in the laws of physics - may be disrupting the internal equilibrium of the Sun, heating it up and possibly turning it into a supernova.

He goes to a senior politician, Senator Burt, to explain his fears.  The senator responds:

“It is a mistake to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines. Now then, young man, don’t ask me to stop the Pumping. The economy and comfort of the entire planet depend on it. Tell me, instead, how to keep the Pumping from exploding the Sun.” (Asimov, Isaac (2011-05-04). The Gods Themselves (Kindle Locations 894-899). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

We do not like predicaments - problems which come without an obvious solution.  In the novel, Asimov manages to get the planet out of its predicament (after a long and highly imaginative detour into trivalent alien sex).  But are we going to find a way out of the predicament that the waste products of our favored energy source are producing?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Screwtape on Sustainability

I was talking with a departmental colleague the other day about my plans for a "mathematics of sustainability" course.  He is concerned about the idea that I may embroil our department in a "political agenda", and I think he believes that such an agenda can be expressed even by the mere asking of certain kinds of questions - whatever the mathematical answer to these questions may be.  During our discussion, this colleague (whom I greatly respect) quoted from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, chapter XV.

"We want" (says Screwtape, the devil) "a man hag-ridden by the Future - haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell on Earth - ready to break the Enemy's [God's] commands in the present if by doing so we make him think that he can attain the one or avert the other - dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see.  We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end - never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel with which to heap the altar of the future every real gift that is offered to them in the Present."

"That is how I see the environmental movement", said my colleague. 

Friday, December 7, 2012


This is re-posted from the Inside Higher Education blog "Getting to Green", written by G. Rendell. The link to the original post is here.  He writes

"I happened to watch an old movie last night.  Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.  1948.  Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglass.  A gentle comedy about a (generally) gentle man acting rashly, getting in over his head, coming out of it OK (because, after all, it's a Hollywood production).

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Far Do You Walk?

I was reading a review over at Books and Culture of "The Old Ways:A Journey on Foot" by Robert Macfarlane, and one phrase caught my attention.  "Macfarlane", says the reviewer, "has walked about seven or eight thousand miles in his life."

That's all? Hard to believe.

The odometer on Shanks' pony can clock up a lot of miles.  I have been privileged to live nearly all my life within walking distance of my workplace.   I've walked maybe four miles a day, five days a week, for the best part of the last  twenty-five years - not to mention the hiking and backpacking and running (does that count?) and climbing (ditto?) that have punctuated that twenty-five years and indeed the twenty-five years before that.

 I reckon I'm at 25,000 miles.  Time for an oil change.

But that's not much really.  The miners' path from the Ogwen to Llanberis valleys in North Wales is four miles (one way) and a thousand feet of elevation change.  Modern guides list it as a recreational dayhike, but it was nineteenth-century miners' daily commute. 

In many parts of Africa and Asia, collecting the daily water supply is "women's work". According to a Loughborough University web site, the average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water each day  is six kilometers (about four miles) and the weight of water they carry on their heads is about 20kgs (about forty pounds) - equivalent to the average airport luggage allowance. 

Something to think about.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thoughts on the IEA World Energy Report

It has been hard to miss the surge of media excitement about the recent International Energy Agency "World Energy Outlook".

With its forecast of a boom on "tight" oil and gas in the United States, leading to the US "overtaking" Saudi Arabia as the number one world producer, the report has been greeted (at least in this country) with unabashed jubilation.   "This is a real energy revolution," declared the Wall Street Journal, "even if it's far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates." 

I recently read a broader perspective on the report from Tim Michael Klare at Hampshire College.  On the "US boom", Klare writes:

Given the hullabaloo about rising energy production in the US, you would think that the IEA report was loaded with good news about the world's future oil supply. No such luck. In fact, on a close reading, anyone who has the slightest familiarity with world oil dynamics should shudder, as its overall emphasis is on decline and uncertainty.

Take US oil production surpassing Saudi Arabia's and Russia's. Sounds great, doesn't it? Here's the catch: Previous editions of the IEA report and the International Energy Outlook, its equivalent from the US Department of Energy (DoE), rested their claims about a growing future global oil supply on the assumption that those two countries would far surpass US output. Yet the US will pull ahead of them in the 2020s only because, the IEA now asserts, their output is going to fall, not rise as previously assumed.
 And of course the "good news" about fossil fuel production is not good news for the climate:
Of all the findings in the 2012 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the one that merits the greatest international attention is the one that received the least. Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in "a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C".
Read the full article here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 4

RiskAnother theme I want to address in the course is how we evaluate risk. This is a tricky but important task... On the one hand, there is an effective mathematical language, the language of probability theory, for quantifying risk and expectation. On the other hand, there is extensive behavioral literature which strongly suggests that when we actually make our decisions, we do not always do so in the ways in which probability calculus would suggest.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Falling on Aid

A couple of years ago, I fell from 400 feet up a cliff in Yosemite.

As expected, I did not take the big ride all the way to the ground.  My climbing partner caught me on the rope before I'd gone very far and I swung, ignominiously but safely, as I had done many times before.

But something was different this time.  Though the fall was "clean" - that is, in climber lingo, there were no ledges or projections of rock for me to hit on the way - I somehow swung hard enough into the wall to break my ankle in several places.  We eventually got down with the help of Yosemite's amazing mountain rescue team. (I wrote a more detailed account of the adventure here.)

What made the difference? I'd taken falls before, some just as long, without damaging anything except my pride.  Probably luck had a lot to do with it: but, when I think about the experience, I remember something else as well.  This was the first significant fall I had taken when aid climbing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How Climate Change Denial Is - and Isn't - Like Creationism

Here's an interesting video interview with Katharine Hayhoe. She is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech and the author, with her husband, of the book "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions".(Her name also came up in this year's Republican primary campaign, when Newt Gingrich thought it politic to remove a chapter that she had written for his forthcoming book Environmental Entrepreneurs.)

In this video she is talking about the connections between creationism and climate science denial.  (I shared some thoughts about this in an earlier post.)  One LOL quote: "To talk about human-caused climate change we only have to agree that the world is at least three hundred years old."  She also talks quite a bit about the upside and downside risks of climate change action (i.e. what if we take action and it isn't needed, vs. what if we don't and it is?)  Or, as this cartoon puts it....

Friday, November 9, 2012

Mathematics of Planet Earth

I mentioned a few days ago that i was planning to give a talk on "The Mathematics of Planet Earth" to the Penn State student math club, and this duly took place last week. There was a good crowd, including a few students from my Math 230H course lat year, and a group from the local chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World. I was encouraged by the turnout - and still more so (though a little scared) by a couple of requests that the lecture be posted online. So, above is a link to a YouTube video (in five parts) of the event.

I probably (okay, definitely) tried to say too much.  There were three points I wanted to make:
  1. The paradigm shift from "empty world" to "full world", and mathematical ways of understanding that.
  2. Pretty simple calculations can help us get a feeling for the magnitudes of the challenges ahead - I tried to illustrate that by doing some global warming calculations, though I maybe included too much chemistry (one person walked out when I put up the hydrocarbon combustion formulae, but maybe that was unrelated)
  3. There are contributions mathematics can make through education and through research (probably the weakest part of the talk, partly through time pressure, partly because some of my ideas were a bit unfocused).
You might recognize some of the ideas from "Do the Math" and "Azimuth", which I've mentioned many times before, being used in this talk.  I still feel I'm developing a personal way of speaking about these matters.  Having brooded about them for a while, it is hard not to want to say everything at once when one does get an opportunity to talk!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Remember when environmental protection was a bipartisan effort?

That's the subtitle of an interesting historical article published today in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It reminds us that many landmark US environmental laws (the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency) were the work of the Nixon administration, and date from a time when "Democrats were trying to appropriate the mantle of environmentalism from Republicans".   Sounds strange now.  What changed?  Here's how the article begins:

A prediction: When all the votes have been counted and the reams of polling data have been crunched, analyzed, and spun, this will be clear: Few scientists will have voted for Republican candidates, particularly for national office. Survey data taken from 1974 through 2010 and analyzed by Gordon Gauchat in the American Sociological Review confirm that most American scientists are not conservatives. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 9 percent of scientists self-identified as conservative, while 52 percent called themselves liberals. Only 6 percent of American scientists self-identified as Republicans. This state of affairs is bad for the nation, and bad for science.

It was not always this way. (Read the full article here.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A talk to the PSU Math Club

For those readers in my home area (State College), I will be giving a talk to the Penn State Math Club on Monday evening, on the title "Mathematics of Planet Earth". 

I'll talk about some of the basic mathematics underlying global warming issues, as well as giving a preview of some of the themes of my 2014 course.  If you are around campus, and interested, you are welcome to attend!  The talk is at 6:00 p.m. in 114 McAllister Building on the University Park campus.

If you can't attend, the link above is to a video of a talk by John Baez to the South African Mathematical Society on a similar theme.  I think this is a wonderful, inspiring talk!  For more about John's work visit the Azimuth Project.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Adventures in Composting

Adventure #1: I took a tour of Penn State's composting and recycling facilities (see badge on left for proof!) Extraordinary to see the variety of sorting, recycling and composting that is going on, which diverts thousands of tons of material each year from the landfill (the whole operation is paid for several times over by the cost savings on landfill fees).  PSU has just started including bins for compostable material into all the dining facilities, and will be extending this initiative more widely.  Compostable waste is collected daily in bags which are also compostable - made of cornstarch and cellulose. It then goes (still in the bags) to huge linear heaps (I think they are called "windrows" - I saw three or four, each easily a hundred feet long) where it is mixed with sawdust and turned several times over a several-week composting period. The heaps run at a high enough temperature to digest all the food waste, even cooked foods and meats.  The final product is screened mechanically and then goes to PSU landscaping.

Adventure #2: For me, this is just an adventure in reading - but for the two students who took it, it was a whole lot more than that.  An entry in the blog of the AASHE (American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education) describes the journey of two students who brought about a major change in their school's waste management policy.  Very refreshing to read about people moving from words to action in this way.

Adventure #3: Installed a compost tumbler in the garage.  (We'll see whether that is the optimal location - it makes unloading kitchen scraps into it very easy, and of course it keeps the temperature high; I'm trying to persuade myself that the "organic" smell in the garage is a pleasant plus, but the clouds of gnats every time I open the tumbler certainly are not.  If things get too bad, the tumbler will have to move outside.)   I grew up in a family that carefully composted kitchen scraps and it feels right  to be doing that again (not to mention making me much more aware of the part of our waste stream that can't be composted or recycled).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 3

The second of my four themes for the planned "Mathematics and Sustainability" course is "Changing".  I think of this as the core section.  I would like my students to develop some intuitions about stocks and flows, rates of change, and dynamical systems.

In putting this material front and center I am recapitulating an experience which was important for me both as a mathematician and as someone concerned about environmental sustainability: I mean reading, in about 1975, the famous book The Limits to Growth, which had appeared a few years before. The "System Dynamics" models in Limits (basically graphical representations of differential-difference equations) fascinated me.  I built models of my own of similar kinds, and explored them numerically with a hand calculator and (when that failed) through a dial-up link to a minicomputer, a Modular One located at the University of Warwick.  I don't think it is fanciful to see my research interest in "large scale" and "long time" properties as linked to these early numerical experiments.  More relevant to an undergraduate course, though, is the appreciation that this "playing" gave me for the robustness of qualitative descriptions like feedback, overshoot, collapse, oscillation, exponential and resource-constrained growth.  Despite its quantitative focus - inevitably controversial - the basic focus of Limits was, it seems to me, this qualitative one.

In order to help students share this kind of experience I would like to give them the opportunity to build models using a variation of the System Dynamics approach.  Nowadays there are several software packages available that build models directly from the kinds of diagrams that are used to represent system dynamics models.  I am looking at using Insight Maker for the course, because it is free and runs in a web browser.  I hope to have the students develop their own models using Insight Maker and share and comment on each others' models via the course blog.  At the same time I plan to use Insight Maker in class to explain some basic ideas like stocks and flows, exponential and logistic growth; and perhaps we'll construct some models (like an aggregated climate model) using Insight Maker just to show what can be done.

Evaluating student software projects is fraught with pitfalls (at least,so it seems to me) - I think that seeing how the students explain to each other via the blog what it is their models actually accomplish will provide important information about how good a level of understanding they have attained.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Eco-Law and Eco-Gospel

Saint Paul For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son...he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Thus Saint Paul, in the climactic eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, surely the charter document of "Pauline Christianity".  For seven chapters, he and his readers have wrestled with what he calls the "Law": the revealed moral code which points toward a life of holy integrityThe Law, comments Paul, has strength indeed to condemn those who go astray (and that is everyone, with Paul at the head of the list), but it has no power to effect what it commands.  So, although it holds out the prospect of a new and fruitful life, all the Law actually achieves is to show us how inextricably we are entangled in a God-defying system of domination (which Paul calls the flesh): the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me (Rom 7:10)  Moralizing is not enough: the negative externalities of the Law outweigh its positive effects.  Who shall deliver us?

 As I've joined more actively in religious-environmental conversation over the last couple of years, it has struck me how often this dialogue takes the form of the Law. "Thou shalt not...": it would be easy enough to write an eco-Decalogue. In it, sound science and a passion for justice (both of them good things, just as the Law is holy and just and good) would point the believer toward a life of "creational integrity". Fair enough - but we are wary of speaking of any transformation that can bring to effect the commands of this new Law.  And such transformation is needed, if we are to have a hopeful message to share.

In Romans 8, Paul's words are radiant with confidence that transforming power, such power as the Law did not possess, has been unleashed through the coming of Jesus. It is that confidence which propelled him in his extraordinary travels, in his preaching and writing and "sabbaticals" in various jails.  Not a new Law, but a new life.  He is like the man Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13:44, who finds hidden treasure in a field: "then in his joy he goes and sells all he has, and buys the field."

Do we (should we) have an eco-Gospel? A vision for a new way of living that is so attractive that "all you have" is not even a difficult price to pay? A transformed consciousness that empowers human beings to begin to live at peace with creation?  I don't know.  But I think that we sell our faith short if all we believe is that it can make us more effective preachers of eco-Law.  "Ethics interprets the Law as the form of the Gospel" says Barth, "i.e. as the sanctification that comes to humanity through the electing God." (CD II.2, 36, thesis).  I want to interpret the eco-Law as the form of the Gospel too

Friday, October 19, 2012

First law of thermodynamics, dammit!

Here's an example of why we need education in math for sustainability.

The Independent (a major UK newspaper) has an exciting headline today. Exclusive: Pioneering scientists turn fresh air into petrol in massive boost in fight against energy crisis  According to the Independent, this is a " revolutionary technology that promises to solve the energy crisis as well as helping to curb global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Well, what have they done? According to the article, "Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees has produced five litres of petrol since August when it switched on a small refinery that manufactures gasoline from carbon dioxide and water vapor...  'We've taken carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water and turned these elements into petrol,' said Peter Harrison, the company's chief executive."  (Petrol=gasoline for you USA types.)

In other words, they have reversed the combustion reaction
2C8H18 (1kg) + 25O2 (3.5kg) -> 16CO2 (3.1kg) + 18H2O (1.4kg) + 48 MJ
that powers our gasoline engines. This is a significant technical achievement (though, if I recall correctly, it is not the first time it has been done: wasn't this demonstrated at Sandia National Laboratories a few years back?)

But to reverse the reaction, we need an input of energy at least equal to the 48 MJ that are released when the reaction runs in the forward direction, that is, when we burn the fuel. (Probably a good deal more, because the process will not be especially efficient.)  In other words, what we have is a process for storing energy in the form of gasoline. This could be useful for some purposes, but it is hardly what is implied by the "turning fresh air into petrol" headline.

Let's see if the article acknowledges this. Sort of. It says, "The process is still in the early developmental stages and needs to take electricity from the national grid to work."  An interesting sentence! Neither clause is false, but many readers will receive the unstated suggestion that a fully developed version of the process would not need an energy input - and that is completely wrong.

I would hope that someone who had taken the "Math for Sustainability" course could read the article, perceive the basic issue that I have outlined above, and do for herself some simple calculations about the amount of (renewable!) energy that the process should draw if it were to have a significant impact on global CO2 levels.

I'd also like Independent journalists to be required to take my course!  Well, one can dream.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

Another excellent and thought-provoking post from Tom Murphy. Here's how he begins: "Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?"

Read the full article here. Please.

Monday, October 15, 2012

PAIPL Annual Meeting

I attended the annual meeting of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light in Harrisburg yesterday.

Rashly, they voted me onto the board.  (Still more rashly, the board then proposed that I serve as Treasurer - I guess they must have supposed that being a math professor had something to do with the ability to do arithmetic accurately).

Keynote speakers were Fletcher Harper from GreenFaith and Richard Alley from Penn State.  Alley is  PSU's Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences.  (The Evan Pugh title is Penn State's highest honor - there are only 23 Evan Pugh Professors currently active across the whole university, out of a faculty of over 2000.)  He is also the host of the PBS series Earth - The Operators Manual.

Here is a telling video clip from Alley's talk (courtesy of Jon Brockopp).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 2

In Mathematics for Sustainability 1 I explained that I want to develop a new Gen Ed course "to enable students to develop the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to reason effectively about environmental and economic sustainability".  With this as the general objective, what are some of the specific content areas that the course should address, and what should be the specific objectives within each content area?

Right now, I see four mathematical content areas:
  • Measuring
  • Changing
  • Networking
  • Risking
Measuring - using numbers (including "large" and "small" numbers) to get an idea of the size and significance of things.  Including, for instance: physical units, prefixes (mega, giga, nano, and all that), percentages/ratios, estimation, reliability.  That's a list of concepts on the math side but of course the examples should be sustainability focused.  So I'd like the students to be able to answer questions like
  • An inch of rain falls over a forest plot of an area 3.21 square miles.  How many tons of water fall? 
  • Roughly, what is the total mass of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere at present?
  • Suppose that a nuclear accident spreads 2.3 grams of cesium-137 uniformly over an area of 900 square miles. Compare the radioactivity from this source with the natural background.
  • On average, how many gallons of gasoline per second are burned on the Pennsylvania Turnpike?
  • A 10-acre farm near State College can produce enough food to support how many people on a vegetarian diet?  On a "standard American" diet?
  • Roughly, how many birds do you think there are in the world?   How accurate do you think your estimate is?
 Of course, part of "being able to answer" such questions is being able to know what additional questions to ask in order to give reasonable answers.

I am looking at several books in order to get a handle on this part of the course.  Right now I am reading The Numbers Game by Blastland and Dilnot.  It starts with an arresting example: how many centenarians are there in the US?  That should be easy: just count, right?  In fact, census returns ask people to report their age.  But the self-reported numbers vary wildly and are estimated to be exaggerated by factors of 20 or more in some cases.  Starting from this example, the book seems to give a good overview both of the difficulty and the importance of measuring, both in absolute and relative terms.

Any more suggestions for this part? Thanks!

EDIT: I am thinking now to put the important distinction between stocks and flows in this section too.  (We have to know what we are measuring!)   Logically, it might belong in the Changing section but pedagogically it seems better here.  A reader on Azimuth sent me a link to this interesting paper which points out how important the stock/flow distinction is in public (mis)understanding of the greenhouse effect.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Climate and the Presidential Debate

Climate change was not mentioned in the  first US presidential debate last Wednesday (despite a petition campaign to get it onto Jim Lehrer's agenda).

Bill Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project reflected on this in an interesting blog post today, and tried to figure out what the candidates might have said if they had been asked (or, at least, what they might have said if they had stayed consistent with their stated policy positions!)

By the way, despite its official-sounding name, the Presidential Climate Action Project is not an agency of the US government.  Its mission is "to develop policy recommendations on climate and energy security, with a focus on what the President of the United States could accomplish using his or her executive authority - in other words, without action by Congress."

Becker begins: "If Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had been able to look through the television cameras at who was watching their first debate, it undoubtedly would have been more interesting than the debate itself."

Read the full post here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Adventure Gap

Alpinist #40 arrived in the mail today!  IMHO, Alpinist is the best of the climbing magazines.  It's published only four times a year, so each new issue is an eagerly awaited event.

In this issue is an intriguing article by James Edward Mills, Exploring the Adventure Gap.  (I've linked to the article on the Alpinist web site, but it is behind the paywall at present - it may become free later.)  Mills begins thus:

"In 2006, with little fanfare, Sophia Danenberg reached the top of Mount Everest.  She was one of 493 climbers to summit that season, and her story was not widely reported.  Nonetheless, there was a historical significance: Danenberg was the first African-American to ascend the mountain.  Thus, for the first time, a black climber who was descended from our nation's past of racial oppression had succeeded in elevating herself to the highest point on earth..."

Mills takes Danenberg's achievement as a starting point for a discussion of the "social cues" that us to understand what kinds of behavior are "normal" for persons of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds.  Across the racial spectrum, he reports, Americans view climbing as "one of the things that white people do".  (For example, only 1% of the visitors to Yosemite National Park, the most renowned climbing area in the US, are African-American.)  Similar perceptions apply to other outdoor activities.  Mills names this disconnect "the adventure gap".

Does the adventure gap matter? Mills writes, "In any ecosystem, diversity is a sign of strength.  Any place that can sustain a variety of different individuals with wide-ranging interests and purposes is more likely to thrive...Inclusiveness will be a critical factor in the continuing viability of the environmental movement and in the protection of the landscapes that climbers love."

I'd add that it matters to disengage the narrative of care for and celebration of the earth - including its wild places - from the narrative of privilege and conquest.  Last year, Katie Brown and Alex Honnold (two of the best climbers in the world) made a commercial for Citibank that shows them climbing the extremely photogenic route Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers of Utah.  If you haven't seen it, take a look at the wonderful photography!  But what does it say that the final image  is not that of Brown's elated step onto the corkscrew summit, but of a credit card that promises "unlimited miles on any airline"? 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 1

Warwick University Maths Island This year, I want to develop a new math course.  Nothing surprising in that - it is what math professors do all the time!   But usually, when we dream of new courses, we are thinking of small classes of eager graduate students to whom we can explain the latest research ideas.   Here, I'm after something a bit different.

The goal will be through a General Education Mathematics course, to enable students to develop the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to reason effectively about environmental and economic sustainability.  That's a lot of long words!   Let me unpack a bit:
  • General Education Mathematics At most universities (including PSU), every student, whatever their major, has to take one or two "quantitative" courses - this is called the "general education" requirement.  I want to reach out to students who are not planning to be mathematicians or scientists, students for whom this may be the last math course they ever take. 
  • quantitative and qualitative skills I want students to be able to work with numbers ("quantitative") - to be able to get a feeling for scale and size, whether we're talking about gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, kilowatts of domestic power, or picograms of radioisotopes.  But I also want them to get an intuition for the behavior of systems (qualitative), so that the ideas of growth, feedback, oscillation, overshoot and so on become part of their conceptual vocabulary.
  • to reason effectively A transition to a more sustainable society won't come about without robust public debate - I want to help students engage effectively in this debate. Shamelessly stealing ideas from Andrew Read's Science in Our World course, I hope to do this by using an online platform for student presentations. Engaging with this process (which includes commenting on other people's presentations as well as devising your own) will count seriously in the grading scheme.
  • environmental and economic sustainability I'd like students to get the idea that there are lots of scales on which one can ask the sustainability question - both time scales (how many years is "sustainable") and spatial scales.  We'll think about global-scale questions (carbon dioxide emissions being an obvious example) but we'll try to look at as many examples as possible on a local scale (a single building, the Penn State campus, local agriculture) so that we can engage more directly.  
I have been thinking about this plan for a year or more but now it's time to put it into action.  I've been in touch with my department head and got a green light to offer this for the first time in Spring 2014. In future posts I will share some more about the structure of the course as it develops.  Meanwhile, if anyone has some good suggestions, let me know!

Photo: Warwick University Maths Island in Second Life, by Flickr user wordshore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dear Mitt

Thank you for your letter.  I have to say that it surprised me to learn that I am "one of the Republican Party's most prominent members" (although I suppose you should know).  And I must decline your invitation to "join your team as a major contributor".

In your letter, you describe your "pro-growth agenda" and promise a fundamental shift from "Washington's view of how economic growth and prosperity are achieved".  But both you and your opponent assume that those two things - "economic growth" and "prosperity" - are one and the same.  I wonder whether you are right.

Mitt, you know what it is to make wise use of inherited wealth.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, our civilization came into a vast inheritance - of natural resources like coal, oil, and ores, and of the ingenuity to make use of them.  We've paid for the growth that we have experienced since then - with all the many blessings that it has brought - by treating natural capital as income: by spending down that inheritance at an ever-increasing rate.

That is not wise use: it is not the conservative way.

Perhaps Americans are ready for leadership that acknowledges that Prosperity Without Growth (that is the title of a detailed book by UK government adviser Tim Jackson) is a possible, even perhaps the only possible goal.  Certainly statistics suggest that the growth of the US economy since the 1970s has had very little effect on the nation's self-reported happiness.

In a recent column, Ross Douthat notes this change of mood.  In keeping with the conventional wisdom, he sees it as a Bad Thing ("stagnation", "resignation"), and he suggests that it is an obstacle to your campaign. 

But perhaps you - or perhaps President Obama - may turn out to be the clear-sighted leader who can help us see that the end of growth may not be the end of the world, but the beginning of a new kind of society, as different from our growth-powered industrial age as the industrial age was from the agricultural: less frantic perhaps, but prosperous and happy, and with meaningful work for all.

You want to "restore our country to greatness" (I am quoting your letter again).  But when it was founded, America did not simply restore some Old World ideal of greatness: it defined for the world in a new way what greatness could be.  By showing the way beyond growth, could it do so again? On your watch?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 3)

Mining Revenue Sharing Agreement - August 24, 2010 Every now and then I look back on he statistics for Points of Inflection.  Consistently, the posts that attract the greatest number of hits are the ones on "Wanted: a theology of mining": part one and part two.   It's not hard to guess why: on the one hand, mining raises a whole cluster of significant theological and ethical questions and, on the other, it seems (at least from my searching) that there has been very little written about this relationship.  I hope that better qualified people than I am will get into this discussion!

Meanwhile, in this post I want to begin laying out some ideas about the methodology for a constructive "theology of mining".

 1. A "theology of mining" is not the same as an "ethics of mining", though it has ethical implications. "Theology of mining", like theology of anything else, should situate mining within the whole Christian narrative of creation, fall, incarnation, and redemption; should correlate the practicalities of mining with the large themes of grace, creation, and restoration.

2. A theology of mining should be attentive to the use of mining language in Scripture.  When such language is used at length, it is often metaphorical.  There seem to me to be two key metaphors:
(a) The search for wisdom is compared to mining, as in Job 28 which I already quoted. According to Crenshaw, wisdom is "the reasoned search for specific ways to ensure personal well-being, to make sense of vexing anomalies, and to transmit this hard-earned knowledge so that successive generations will embody it". To compare this search to mining both reflects an understanding of mining and encourages ecological reflection on the wisdom tradition more generally.
(b) The refining of metals is compared to moral and ceremonial purification, e.g. in Isaiah 48:10, Malachi 3:1-3.

3. However, a theology of mining should not be bound to the specific Scriptural references to mining.  Other theological themes will be relevant and important.  Among these, I'd include the "community of creation" theme (which in various places includes the stones and mountains, i.e. the objects of our mining enterprises, as part of the community that, together with human beings, praises God); the "community across time" theme (we are linked to future generations, and receive form the past); the "sacrifice" theme (related to meat-eating in the OT: after the Flood, animals yield their lives for human food, but they do not thereby become mere objects on which we act... an analogy for mining?)

4. A theology of mining has to be embedded in a larger theological story about what human beings are called to do on this earth and what "sustainability" means in a biblical narrative that has a beginning and a goal.

Photo:  British Columbia Govt Photo, licensed under Creative Commons.   Mining Revenue Sharing Agreement - August 24, 2010 - Forests Minister Pat Ball, front right, and Mining Minister Randy Hawes, second right, with Chief Shane Gottfriedson of the Tk'emlups First Nation, left, at the historic mining revenue-sharing agreement between B.C. and the Stk'emlupsemc of the Secwepemc Nation in Kamloops.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Have we reached the end of economic growth?

That's the title of a piece in the Washington Post this evening.  (link here).  The picture on the left also comes from that piece, with the caption "Only flying cars can save us". 

The article reports on an  analysis by Robert Gordon at the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitled Is US Economic Growth Over?  The article is fascinating as evidence that the possibility of a "steady state" economy is entering mainstream economic analysis.  But don't expect any discussion of the positive benefits that such an economy might provide.  The prospect that Gordon might be right is described in the Post piece as "doom and gloom", "unnerving pessimism", and so on.

But why should this be the case? It is equally plausible to envisage the "end of growth" as a process of maturing, like a teenager entering adulthood; or even as a process of transformative change, like a caterpillar (another voracious consumer) becoming a butterfly. 

It would be a troubled teenager who regarded the news that s/he could not physically grow for ever as "doom and gloom" in any serious sense.

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Sustaining mathematics" - a colloquium

My department runs a weekly "Mathematics Colloquium" - a presentation, usually by a visiting speaker but sometimes by a department member, which introduces and explains some new development in and around mathematics.

This week, for the first colloquium of the new academic year, the colloquium committee invited me as the outgoing department head to share some reflections about what I'd learned since taking up that office in 2007.  I tried to organize my thoughts around the theme of "Sustaining Mathematics", and on sustaining four "ecosystems" each of which is embedded in the next one:
  1. Personal intellectual life
  2. The culture of mathematics
  3. Public support for and understanding of mathematics
  4. The global environment
... and under (4), I gave a quick run-through of some basic calculations related to climate change (mostly working from the excellent blog Do The Math, especially this post.)

If you are interested in the presentation, you can find the slides here.

 For my mathematical audience, these calculations were easy to follow.  Nevertheless, it seemed to me that quite a few had not really engaged with this material before, even at this quite modest level.  One of the points I tried to make - I don't know whether I succeeded or not - is that as technical educators we have a responsibility not just to think about these questions for ourselves but also to develop our students' ability to engage with them in an informed way.

I'm interested in hearing about other peoples' efforts to do that.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book review: "Fixing the Moral Deficit"
I recently finished reading Ron Sider's new book on "the deficit".  "America faces a historic choice", he writes. "We have a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis and a justice crisis. And they are all interrelated."  With the appointment of Paul Ryan as Romney's vice-presidential nominee, this book becomes even more timely.
This is a really helpful, detailed and yet passionate analysis of the federal budget deficit, the Obama and Ryan budget proposals, and biblically-based principles which Sider sees as applicable to federal budgetary decisions.  It concludes with a specific set of proposals (Sider is not content with the easy work of criticism, but is willing to but his own ideas out there) and then an encouragement to individual action ("We Can Do It").
I very much appreciated the wealth of detailed information about budget numbers, poverty, healthcare spending and so on in the first chapters. Sider recognizes that it is hard to give "just the facts" but he makes a good-faith effort to do so, and I felt that I understood things much more clearly as a result of reading these chapters.
I appreciate also his eirenic tone. True, some things aggravate him, especially politicians who make bold statements about deficit reduction and then carve out special exceptions for their own constituencies.  But he is not out to trash either the Obama or the Ryan plans, though he finds both of them inadequate, nor to paint either of their authors as beyond the pale.  (And I am glad to see the acknowledgment of the impact that G.W. Bush's PEPFAR program has had - it is a deep shame to see this compassionate initiative now on the budgetary chopping block.)

Finally, I appreciate and affirm Sider's conviction that the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest and poorest members. This has been his consistent message through his work with Evangelicals for Social Action and since the publication, in the 1970s, of the ground-breaking Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  In this book, with its focus on debt and deficits, this conviction is expanded also to a focus on intergenerational justice - how are we treating our children and grandchildren, including those not yet born?
Here are a couple of questions that the book left me with.
1. What are the limits of the analogy between debts incurred by a household and national debts? On a household level, it is easy to think of "spending money" as something like "eating food" - in either case, once you eat (or spend) it, it is gone. But of course that is not really correct on the level of the larger community: the money I spend is someone else's income, whereas the (excuse me) waste products of my dinner are not anyone else's food. In the same way, a substantial portion (not all) of "US government debt" is also "US citizen savings".  This thought makes language about the "national credit card" a bit oversimplified. 
2. Sider writes at one point, "We cannot find long-term solutions to our debt crisis without sustained economic growth." This is standard thinking, of course, and it reflects why people go into debt in the first place: you take out the student loans now because you expect, later on, to be making more money and able to pay them off.  But "long-term sustained economic growth" - a continuous global increase in the production and consumption of goods and services -  is probably not on the agenda any more.  So where does that leave the questions of debt and intergenerational justice?
3. As society moves towards a lower- or no-growth model, many writers see us developing a greater degree of local and regional resilience, rather than reliance on large national and global institutions.  The book is strongly focused on the federal government (since its subject is, after all, the federal budget deficit) or, in the last chapter, on individual actions.  Where does Sider see intermediate levels of social structure fitting into the picture?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sustainability and STEM event at PSU

 Here is an event that may be of interest to Penn State faculty and students who are involved in the STEM (science-technology-engineering-and -mathematics) fields.  I heard Tom Pfaff speak at the Join Mathematics Meeting last winter and am very glad that he'll be coming to our campus to talk about his work on integrating sustainability themes into calculus courses. 

Registration is now open for a professional development workshop on 

Multidisciplinary STEM Engagement through Sustainability Education
September 13 and 14, 2012, 
at Penn State's University Park Campus 

with invited guest, Dr. Thomas Pfaff, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Co-Director of Multidisciplinary Sustainability Education Project, Ithaca College

Sponsored by the Penn State Center for Sustainability, the Department of Mathematics, and the Eberly College of Science Center for Excellence in Science Education 

Monday, August 13, 2012

"The Coal Question"

 Today (August 13th) is the 140th anniversary of the death of the British economist William Stanley Jevons (pictured at left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Jevons' is no longer a household name, though he is famed among economists as one of the originators of the "marginalist revolution" - the application  of the ideas of calculus to economics. Keynes was later to say of Jevons that he was "the first theoretical economist to survey his material with the prying eyes and the fertile, controlled imagination of the natural scientist". Jevons was also the inventor of an early computer called the "Logical Piano", whose name is so intriguing that I wish I could say more about it.

But it was for "The Coal Question", published in 1865, that Jevons became famous. He wrote at a time when coal was by far the primary industrial energy source and feedstock - just as oil is today - and when Britain was by far both the largest producer, and the largest consumer, of coal.  Since the Industrial Revolution of a century before, Britain had known steadily expanding production, population, and prosperity, and had acquired a worldwide empire. Jevons' book brought the unwelcome news that coal, the foundation of all this prosperity, was a finite resource that would not be replenished, and would quickly be exhausted by continued growth.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beans, carbon credits, and partial derivatives

Anybody remember this little jingle from childhood? (Warning: may be NSFW)
I'm often tempted to use this in Calculus III to help explain the difference between partial derivatives and total derivatives.

If you have a system in which all sorts of quantities x, y, and z and so on are varying, the partial derivative of z relative to y (say) measures the rate that z would change if y was varied and everything else was somehow held constant.  ("The more you fart, the better you feel" - assuming you ate a constant quantity of beans to start with).

The total derivative though (of z relative to x, say) measures the rate that z would change if x was varied and everything else in the system responded in the "natural" way ("So eat baked beans with every meal" - we are not holding the fart rate constant here while changing bean consumption - I don't even want to think about the experimental protocol to achieve that.)

These ideas are not the same and confusing them can lead to some paradoxical policy advice (as in the jingle!).  I was reminded of this when reading an important article about the unintended consequences of emissions trading.: "since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means, critics say, that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage."

Typically, economic incentives are constructed based on partial derivatives - if I increase the price of good g, and everything else stays constant, then the consumption of g will drop.  But in reality, everything else doesn't stay constant.  And the response of the economic system as a whole may be very different - even in the opposite direction - from what simple thinking about one effect in isolation might suggest.  (If g is a Giffen good, consumption of g may rise as its price increases.)

The complexity of the economy's response to incentives at least raises a question about the assumption that "experts" will be able to construct an incentive scheme that stably guides the economy to a "safe" level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fletcher Harper's Visit

Here's more information about the State College visit of Fletcher Harper which I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, will appear at two events at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, University Park, on September 8, 2012

Saturday, 2:00-5:00 WORKSHOP
 “Are you a Good Steward?”
In this two-part event, Fletcher will describe environmental teachings from the world’s great religions, with a particular focus on Christian and Biblical teachings on the Earth.  Participants will gain resources to enrich their faith and to support their preaching and teaching on the importance of care of Creation.  

Refreshments will be provided from 3:15-3:45.  In the second segment (beginning around 3:45) Fletcher will address the questions, tensions and challenges that religious communities encounter when they address environmental issues – including religious, economic, political, scientific and cultural concerns.  He’ll then suggest ways to frame to environmental efforts in genuinely religious ways which empower faith communities to take action for the Earth.

University students and faculty and the local community are welcome to participate in this workshop.  You are welcome to attend only one part if that is what your schedule permits. 

Saturday Evening 7:30- 9:30 KEYNOTE
“Greening Our Faiths, Greening Our Lives”
Fletcher will speak about the Christian foundation for the care of Creation, and describe why this topic is vital to the future of the church.   He will present information on programming related to worship, religious education, sustainable consumption and advocacy, and will describe the GreenFaith Fellowship and Certification Programs, which provide opportunities for houses of worship, clergy and lay leaders to become religiously-based environmental leaders.  Participants will gain a range of free resources which they can use in their settings.

All are welcome; members of all local congregations, and pastoral staff, are warmly invited to hear this important message.  Participants will hear the witness of scripture and tradition, learn about the challenges of the times, and catch a vision for a hopeful future.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Central PA news and events

 Something to look forward to, something to report, and something to mourn....

1. On September 8th and 9th, Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, will be visiting State College to conduct a workshop on "Caring for Creation: an Introduction for Members of All Faith Communities".   I've had many opportunities to interact with Fletcher over my year as a GreenFaith Fellow and I can strongly recommend his presentation - which I expect will be both inspiring, challenging, and hopeful.

The workshop is from 2 - 5 p.m., Saturday September 8th, at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State campus, and Fletcher will then give an after-dinner keynote address at 7:30 p.m. that day.  (There are also other events planned, including an opportunity for local faith leaders to meet with Fletcher over a meal... if you want to know more about this, shoot me an email.  Here is a Facebook invitation to the main event.) 

2. I was privileged to share lunch yesterday with Penn State biology professor Chris Uhl.  I've long been aware of Chris' occasional columns in our local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, focusing on "developing ecological consciousness" (which is also the title of his first book).  He's been active in teaching ecology to generations of Penn State students and in the "Green Destiny" initiative early in the 2000s which laid the foundations for the university's sustainability focus.  It was a great encouragement for me to talk with someone who has been thinking for years about questions which seem only recently to have surfaced for me.

3. Near where I live in State College, 154 agricultural acres (mostly cornfields) are completely surrounded by residential development.  The Circleville Farm land once belonged to Penn State and is a reminder of its original agricultural mission as the "Farmers' High School".  But a few years back the university decided that the land was surplus to requirements and it was sold to a developer for a reported $2.9 million. Since then, every time I run through the cornfield in the early morning dew, I wonder whether I will see these growing things again...

 Last month the newspaper reported that "earth-moving is likely to begin" and this morning, as I am running through, I see that the trucks, mowers and chainsaws are at work.  At the end of the trail I pause for a photograph, to mourn the standing corn.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is the outdoor industry really a "green giant"?

Interesting question from High Country News.  Their conclusion: "The outdoor recreation industry needs to start walking its talk to become the force for conservation it claims to be."

Read the full article here.

Image is of Paul Larmer, the High Country News reporter responsible for the quoted article; image is linked from the article's website.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Conservation emulation

I received an interesting message from West Penn Power (our electricity company) the other day.

I thought it was a bill, so I'd put it aside with other bills to pay.  But it turned out to be something much more interesting - a comparison of our electricity consumption to that of similar-sized households in our neighborhood.  Here's a snippet from the letter (this is for the most recent 2 months).

Wow! We are more efficient (by a few percent) than the average of our "efficient neighbors" (studying the fine print reveals that that means those in the lowest quintile of energy consumption in comparable-sized houses).  I feel pleased to have gotten two smiley faces - maybe my efforts with TED are paying off! - and motivated to keep our lead over our neighbors.  (Now, if I could only get one of those chili peppers over on RateMyProfessors as well...)

There have been academic studies of these kind of efforts (for instance this one, which seems to be about exactly the same kind of information that I received from West Penn Power), and they show that simply telling people how their power consumption compares with their neighbors' produces sustained community-wide power savings.  The effect is "equivalent to that of a short-run electricity price increase of 11-20%" - not enough to save the world, but a substantial payback for sending out a bunch of letters. 

Of course you might worry that, now I know that we use less (electrical) energy than our neighbors, I might be tempted to relax my energy vigilance a bit - maybe I can run the A/C more and still come out better than average?   The study cited above looked for this kind of "rebound effect", but didn't find it.  And it does not really fit with the competitive spirit: if I am winning a race in which there are ten runners, will I be satisfied to drop back to fourth place just because I will still be better than average?  I have some questions about the value of competition but here at least it seems to be working in our favor!

Further reading:

Monday, July 23, 2012

A time for lament

 I've recently started reading Leslie Allen's book, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. This is a verse-by-verse commentary by a Hebrew scholar who is also a hospital chaplain,ministering regularly to people walking through grief and loss.  His proposal is that Lamentations "be read as the script of a liturgy performed to help the people of God come to terms with the fall of Jerusalem and the national catastrophe it entailed".

The first word of the book of Lamentations is ekhah in Hebrew, which Allen translates as "How terrible!" It "traditionally belonged to the funeral dirge and introduced a contrast between a grim present and a good past, a chasm that bereavement had created...It is a shriek, a scream..."  Suddenly, the city whose destiny was supposed to be "the joy of the whole earth" has become empty, desolate: a wasteland (2:15). At some level, people knew that their priorities were amiss: but had they deserved this sudden judgment? Should the innocent also suffer? (2:11)  Has God forgotten them? (5:20)

The church has forgotten how to lament, says one reviewer of this book. "Committed to celebration, it has few tools to articulate excruciating grief at a loss, to confess sin and accept divine judgment, or to express frustration with God in times of trouble."  Here in Central Pennsylvania, a season of judgment has come upon us with the revelation that the revered football program - a local idol - harbored a child-destroying monster, a Molech, at its heart. I hope that we in the faith community can learn from Lamentations how to walk through this season.  I'm especially shaken by the Freeh report's timeline that Penn State's awareness of the abuse began in 1998.  That is the very year that I moved to Penn State - this has been going on my whole life here.  It feels something like original sin.

But I didn't begin reading Lamentations to think about the Sandusky scandal. It seems to me that grief work is going to be a necessary and important part of any faith-based approach to sustainable, post-growth living.  Yes, one can articulate a positive and and attractive vision of the steady-state economy.  But to get there requires us to abandon the humanistic dreams that have powered the Western world for the past 150 years, and we probably won't do that until circumstances compel us, until judgment (at least a preliminary and proleptic judgment) falls.  Advocating for creation care now is right and good, but we're fooling ourselves if we think that a "green" makeover can leave the growth model fundamentally unchanged.  Are we ready to comfort the afflicted and the grieving, those whose dream has failed?  That is also a spiritual journey.

The only book that I'm aware of that starts off with this kind of question is Sacred Demise by Carolyn Baker.  And this is not a book with much sympathy for Christianity - Dr. Baker fully accepts the indictment that makes the "Judeo-Christian worldview" responsible for the dominating, destructive, objectifying (etc) aspects of industrial civilization, and takes it for granted that the spiritual resources necessary for post-industrial grieving will be found elsewhere.  Where should one begin thinking about these questions from a Christian perspective?