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?