Friday, January 25, 2013

There Will Be Oil

I won't be there, but a got a notice about what sounds like an interesting lecture from Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion.

It's titled "There Will Be Oil" by Darren Dochuk, a professor at WUSTL.  From the web site:  This talk will reveal a hidden history of petroleum politics during the early Cold War period, one in which “oil patch” evangelicalism plays a vital role in forging new oil frontiers and expanding the interests and influence of American petroleum on a global stage. Drawn from his current book project, titled Anointed With Oil: God and Black Gold in Modern America, Dochuk’s talk will employ untapped church and corporate papers, and the personal records of powerful industrialists... to chart religion’s impact on an industry and business culture that has defined American society in the modern age.

Read more here.  If anyone reading this attends the lecture and wants to comment, it would be very interesting to learn more about what Dochuk had to say.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

IPAT And Other Tautologies

Rhetoric 1 - The Broad MassesI believe that a mathematical, quantitative understanding can be really valuable as we try to gain some understanding of the environmental challenges ahead.  After all, many of these challenges amount to questions of scale - the "how big is my footprint?" issue - and such a question is a quantitative one.

That doesn't mean, though, that every mathematical formula that can be introduced into an environmental discussion necessarily contributes to improved understanding.  Some strike me more as attempts to harness the prestige of mathematics as a rhetorical device.  Among  these questionable formulas is the so-called "IPAT" equation
which purports to describe human environmental Impact (I) as the product of Population (P), Affluence (A) (defined as GDP per capita), and Technology (T) (defined as environmental impact per unit of GDP).  Related is the "Kaya equation" which expresses carbon dioxide emissions as the product of four quantities: the carbon content of energy, the energy intensity of the economy, the GDP per capita, and population.

These equations are tautologies - they are true by definition of the quantities involved.  But one often sees them invoked in arguments such as the following: "The IPAT equation shows that to reduce overall human impact, we have to stabilize the population, end our question for greater affluence, and develop improved technologies.  If we don't take care of all of these, we are in trouble.  The mathematics proves it!"

I don't think the policy recommendations are necessarily bad, but mathematics doesn't add anything to the reasoning process involved in getting there.  To illustrate, let be develop a new equation of my own - the "ILUV" equation
I = L*U*V
Here I is human impact, as before, L is the average number of Lectures in mathematics per year delivered in an average university, U is the number of Universities, and V is the aVerage environmental impact per lecture in mathematics.  This equation is just as much a tautology as the previous one.  But it would be fatuous to use it to argue that "The ILUV equation shows that we have to reduce the number of mathematics lectures, shutter universities, and...."

Since the one equation is mathematically just as valid as the other one, the difference that makes one argument at least plausible and the other one stupid is not found in the mathematics.  Instead, it is found in the way in which the IPAT analysis (perhaps) corresponds to real structural features of the world we inhabit (principalities and powers?) and the ILUV analysis obviously does not.  And the extent to which an analysis really corresponds to the structure of the world is a disputable, political (even theological) question. Throwing around some tenth grade algebra won't allow us to dodge the real work here.  

(For anyone who wants to explore these ideas further, it would be interesting to read about the dispute about Samuel Huntingdon's election to the National Academy of Sciences.  This web page might get you started...)

Image from Flickr user Marty Coleman, licensed under Creative Commons.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Triple Bottom Line
From TriplePundit via kwout

At the recent GreenFaith retreat, we visited a number of sustainability projects in the city of Philadelphia.  At one point, one of our guides mentioned the phrase "the triple bottom line" and showed a diagram like the one on the left (except that I think the bottom circle said "Prosperity" rather than the more unambiguous "Profit").   "Our building was designed for the triple bottom line", the guide said.

It is dangerous to show a Venn diagram to a mathematician.  Because s/he is going to start wondering what each of the eight regions in the diagram actually denotes.  In my case I started wondering about the bottom part of the bottom circle - the region that denotes "prosperity" (or "profit") but NOT "people" and NOT "planet".

What, in heaven's name, could be in there?   What kind of "prosperity" could there be that is NOT prospering any actual people and is NOT nurturing the planet either?

(Yea, maybe the answer is "the kind that a lot of us spend a lot of effort pursuing".  But I think it would be better not to call that "prosperity" at all.)

If we want to do an "end-product analysis" (a phrase I learned from David Ehrenfeld's Arrogance of Humanism) of our building or company or life-project, I think it would be better to ask a double question: how did we prosper people and nurture the planet?  The question, Did we make a profit?, seems to be a question on a different level - a question about the means to our goal, not a goal in itself. 

To be fair, some of the writing that I have read about the triple bottom line suggests simply that a company or institution should present three sets of "annual accounts" - a "people" and a "planet" balance sheet to accompany the accountant's usual financial version.  These three sets of accounts would provide a three-dimensional perspective for stakeholders on the institution's activities, but would not attempt to combine them into a single "bottom line" figure.

Once all an institution's activities are summed up in a single "bottom line" figure, the stakeholder's ethical duty seems to become clear - to maximize that figure. (This may even be a legal duty in the case of a corporation - see the famous case Dodge v Ford where the court ordered Henry Ford to pay a dividend to his shareholders rather than to reinvest his profits for the benefit of the workers.)  In fact, though, ethical choices are concealed in the construction of the single figure.  The "triple bottom line" makes explicit the landscape of the investor's choices - s/he can no longer outsource ethics to the accountants.

That is rather different, though, from using the phrase in a way that suggests that we can somehow "have it all" - planet, people, and profits - if only we look at things in the right way.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Last Few Yards

Inaccessible Pinnacle Yesterday was my mother's birthday.  She is in hospital in Shrewsbury recovering from surgery.  I'm in San Diego heading for the airport.

My brother and I make a plan.  He'll be visiting my mom and he will call me on his cellphone so I can wish her Happy Birthday.

It works... sort of. Communication over 5000 miles from California to England: no problem.  But the cell signal drops out next to my mother's bed.  To connect with me, my brother has to stand in the doorway - and my mom isn't yet mobile enough to walk over to him.

Technology connected us over 5000 miles - but it can't bridge the last couple of yards.

Later in the day I am heading back to State College on a much-delayed flight.  The weather is foggy.  As we glide in for our landing the lights below flicker in and out through the clouds.

Suddenly, there is the runway!  Just a few yards below.  The plane flares for the landing - but then the pilot decides that we are too high.  The engines roar and we head back in to the clouds and to a diversion airport.

Nearly made it - but we couldn't cover the last few yards.

These stories make the point that distance is not always the best measure of impact.  Those last few yards count for as much as all the previous miles.

I sometimes think of this when I hear about how many miles our food travels to get to us.  It may be that the last mile or two (in a private car) are much more significant in terms of environmental impact than all the previous miles (traveling in bulk).

I'd like to include some quantification about this in my "sustainability math" course.

Photo of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, Skye, copyright Flickr user "Bocian", licensed under Creative Commons

Sunday, January 13, 2013

At the Joint Mathematics Meeting

I know... I haven't posted anything for a couple of weeks.   My bad.  Sometimes other parts of life catch up.

Right now I am at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, CA.  This is an annual event where members of the USA's three major mathematical societies - AMS (the American Mathematical Society), MAA (the Mathematical Association of America), and SIAM (the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) - get together for discussion, presentation, and learning new ideas.  Several thousand mathematicians all in one place can be a bit overwhelming! Here are some highlights from my experience at the Joint Meeting.
  • I began the meeting by attending a two-day short course on conceptual climate models. This involved a mixture of theoretical presentations and hands-on calculations using MATLAB (as a MATLAB neophyte, I found this part difficult.)   From the course web site: "In this two-day short course, the presenters will introduce various conceptual models of the Earth's climate system. The first day will be devoted to Energy Balance Models (EBMs)—differential equations which express the physical law of energy conservation in mathematical terms. It will be shown how the models can be modified to include the effects of greenhouse gases and the ice-albedo feedback mechanism. The second day will be devoted to paleoclimate studies. It will be shown how observational data from the paleoclimate record and computational data from simulations of the Earth's orbit during the Pliocene and Pleistocene can be incorporated into EBMs."  There were a good number of participants ranging from the mildly curious to the highly committed.  I'm thinking that I can use some of what I learned in the course I'm developing, and I might discuss some of the more advanced parts in a seminar.
  • Several of the plenary sessions focused on climate issues including a talk by Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey and another by Ken Golden from Utah.  Emily's talk was fascinating for the way in which the abstractions of dynamical systems theory suddenly became concrete --- for example, stable and unstable manifolds became actual currents in the Southern Ocean, and Lyapunov exponents quantified the behavior of buoys which were dropped from a ship which traveled to a critical point located by satellite measurements.
  • I attended an inspiring presentation by my friend Francis Su from Harvey Mudd College, one of the winners of the Haimo Award, a national teaching award from the MAA.  In this very personal talk, Francis shared the lesson that "a person's value does not depend on their accomplishments" but is affirmed when another person meets them with grace, and talked about how teachers can be grace-givers.  (UPDATE: Here is a link to the text of the talk.)