Cultures of Energy Undergraduate Fellow Spencer Shaw on Scale and Global Warming

Posted by on Jun 7, 2013

A Sense of Perspective

“Space” wrote Douglas Adams, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.” Discussing his experience in space, Neil Armstrong said,it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” So many astronauts have reported such feelings that they created a name for the heightened sense of perspective: the Overview Effect. “What was most significant about the lunar voyages was not that men set foot on the moon, but that they set eye on the Earth,” said Norman Cousins after his space flight.

A sense of proportion is a tenuous thing. The people listed above each had a particular insight into the true size of some aspect of reality, either through their own unique outlook on life or a transformative experience. As humanity has expanded its collective knowledge about history and space, the fact that people without such experiences fail to understand such scales has become more and more obvious.

How does this relate to sustainability? Three scale errors cause the breakdown in human thinking that keeps us from attaining a sustainable culture; time, space, and resource use. Physicist Albert Bartlett went so far as to claim that “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” Since the numerical logic of humans seems so compromised, other methods of understanding the systems we live in must be achieved. Numbers have their place, but other, more holistic methods might be more effective. Let us examine these three scale errors of the human mind: space, time, and energy.

Would it surprise you to know that the Earth, if shrunk down to the size of a bowling ball, would be smoother than any billiards ball? That is how small the imperfections like Mt. Everest are compared to the microscopic bumps on a smooth pool ball. Would it then surprise you to learn that the atmosphere is not a vast smothering cloud of gas, as it appears to a human clinging to the surface of the planet but a slice that would be as thin as a layer of paint on our bowling ball? It shouldn’t be too surprising. You’ve seen pictures of the Earth before. Yet many people are surprised.

Would it further surprise you to know that the age of the Earth is only one third of the age of the universe? A mere ten billion years separates the Earth from the genesis of the universe. And of those remaining four billion years on Earth, how long would you guess humans have been around? You know we arrived late, but how late? If the history of the Earth were represented as a single day, land dwelling vertebrae would come in with 3.5 hours left before the present day. Humans would appear within a few thousandth of a second. We can hardly understand the dramatic population growth of the past century without understanding the time scale it happened on. Most people could be told that the population of Earth followed an exponential growth pattern, but that doesn’t quite capture in people’s minds the dramatic increases we’ve seen. Even the graph has limited explanatory power, although it is more visceral than the mere numbers.

Humans will most likely always be limitedin their perception of numbers. For instance, it is hard to imagine a person who can understand the number 10^120, even when told that it is a standard approximation of the number of possible legal chess games. It might help to know that that number is more atoms than there are in the universe, or that a player who is visualizing more than eight moves into the future of the game would have to imagine more stars than are in the Milky Way galaxy to see all possibilities, but such numbers are still primarily out of reach. Many such numbers, such as the highest known prime number, or the famous googolplex, are irrelevant to modern life outside of theoretical mathematics, but here is a number that is relevant: 7,000,000,000. The approximate human population.The energy used by a population of that size approaches even more incomprehensible numbers.

How can these numbers be understood? How can we make these numbers be understood?They are essential to the future of the human race, and yet they are larger than any single experience in any average human’s life. We could depend on education, trust in the logic of humans, but this approach seems impotent in a culture that has been bombarded with statistics and data for decades, including environmental data ever since the 1970s. If data could change a human’s mind, many problems would already be solved. One author writing on the ubiquity and impotence of big data made the particularly salient point that “we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.” Numbers can convince in some cases, but ideologies often supersede them in the human mind.

So if logic can’t change us, what can? A more holistic approach, perhaps? BronTayler identified in his recent work a phenomenon that he calls Dark Green Religion, a modern belief movement that is decentralized and unorganized, and is characterized by a focus on the world we inhabit, instead of focus on a next world or a higher deity. Most importantly, Dark Green Religion implies a re-embracing of imagination, and the ability for humans to accept that they do not understand some things. It is a reaction to both the increasing modern idea of rationalizing everything and understanding everything through science, and the old but still living religious idea of attributing mystical reasons to all things. Instead of turning to another explanation, Dark Green Religion simply admires that which it cannot explain, or only explains it tangentially, as through metaphor and story. Science expects people to be rational. People often act irrationally. But we know that spiritual belief is a powerful driving force for people. Why not redirect that force, use it constructively? This is the power of Dark Green Religion to alter a culture; it offers an alternate method of communication from logic.

In explaining an idea to someone, youcan try to model the real world directly by creating a mathematical or linguistic representation, or you can attempt to lead someone to the conclusion or idea themselves. The first type is like telling a child that stealing is immoral, but the second type is like telling the child a story about a person who is stolen from and thus has lost the money that they worked for and needed. Myths and metaphors are ways to point at the idea. They are road signs.  Stories have a powerful ability to represent the world in a way that we can understand. There are many critical essays written about works of fiction, analyzing the themes and messages of the stories, but for all that an essay might succinctly explain how The Great Gatsby portrays wealth, the message does not stick as well without reading the book, without experiencing the story.

Of course, one must remember thatTaylor and others, who would support the power of stories, come from strong humanities points of view, and are therefore biased in favor of their fields. Statistics and data should certainly not be tossed aside, but they should also not be treated as the single cure for a lack of perspective. Conversely, myths can be misinterpreted. Instead of relying on one, the synthesis of myth and science, imagination and logic, seems most powerful.

So how do we combine these two systems of human understanding to allow us to understandthe large-scale issues facing us? One powerful example is the metaphor of Earth as an organism. Humans are full of bacteria, yet we do not think of ourselves as one organism encapsulating many others. The brain cannot function without the heart, and vice versa, and they are merely parts of the same organism, yet many ecosystems involve mutually symbiotic relationships and they are classified as a set of discrete organisms. It seems simple to say that life stops at the skin when so much else is essential for life to continue. In a vacuum, most life dies, so how then is it supposed to be a discrete life form? The Earth isn’t even self sufficient; almost all of our energy comes from the sun. The metaphoric story of the Earth as an organism has powerful implications, some of which have already been explored. Most people understand the concept of sickness, understand at least in a basic sense how diseases spread within us, and how a great number of little organisms are the cause of large changes. Even a fever in the metaphor of sickness lends itself to climate change. Numbers activate logic. Stories activate more basic emotions. Selfishness. Our only source of life in the universe is ill. It is feverish. Fear. It could die. These emotions can change people’s actions.

It might seem like a foolish idea that a simple rephrasing of climate change, from logical to emotional, would have an impact when logic has failed for so long. However, one example of a psychological phenomenon comes to mind that demonstrates the way the human mind occasionally works. One lab test had subjects look at an image of an inclined plane. The image was removed and the subject was asked to approximate numerically the angle in degrees that the plane was elevated from the ground. Then the subject was asked to place her hand on a board that could tilt freely, and position the board such that it was at the same angle as the hill. People were far more accurate with the second method. The theoretical explanation is that there are two different pathways in the brain that can be activated for similar tasks. One is activated when the person is perceiving for the sake of perception, and the other is activated when someone is perceiving in order to take a directly resulting action. Another example comes from a case study of an individual with brain damage in one of these pathways. If asked to orient an envelope such that it fit in a mail slot, she could not do it. She oriented the paper almost at random across a number of trials. But if she was asked to mail the letter, her action pathway was brought into play and she was thus able to mail the letter.

The use of metaphors and stories as compared to statistics and data is not scientifically comparable to this example of cognitive processing, at least as far as current research can tell us, but it is an example of how the brain responds differently to the same information phrased differently, especially when the two different phrasings are either mathematical and spatial in nature, or active and purposeful. Perhaps more holistic and purposeful explanations of the large-scale problems of sustainability can more readily bring out more effective responses in people.

Deep time tells us that anthropocentrism is an illusion, forcing us to recognize how small of a part we played for so much of history, until we began to multiply so recently. An understanding of the size and ecosystem of the Earth lets us understand how fragile it is, and how much of an effect we can have on it, as does seeing energy usage as expenditure instead of an invisible presence in the walls. Perspective alteration is powerful. When you alter a person’s perspective you engage their creativity, a far more powerful ally than their mere cooperation. A person who is told to save electricity might turn off the lights conscientiously before a week long vacation. A person who has truly learned to see electricity as a commodity will think of a hundred little ways to save in their daily life, without even trying very hard. It is the difference between teaching a child not to throw money into the sewer and teaching her how to save it by acting with economy.

Most of the large shifts in perspective in history have come from science, from discovering the structure of the Earth or the solar system. These have had an effect, but it is time for more holistic attempts to show people exactly what reality is. Some might say that an attempt to use stories to describe the world would impose morals and judgments on the descriptions, but in fact they do not need to argue for any agenda. They are about changing people’s vantage points and letting them draw their own conclusions once they reach those new vistas. So spend some time thinking about how big or how small or how far or how near things really are. Once a new perspective clicks in you, you’ll find it hard to see the world the same way again. Every person who learns to perceive the world a little more accurately as a whole is a person who can apply their own unique mind to treating it a little better.