Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Audacity of Environmental Optimism

I am back from my talk at the Santa Fe Institute. I had a great time and met some fascinating people. SFI's scholars are in deep thought about complex system dynamics. A city can be thought of as a complex system. Where the math gets tough is thinking about "feedback loops" , "cumulative causation" and increasing returns to scale in determining a city's dynamics. Translated into english, consider the example of public transit. If a city builds a small public transit system (i.e one rail line), this system is unlikely to attract firms to locate near its stations or to encourage people to substitute from car transport to public transit. If the city builds an enormous rail system (think of NYC), these green outcomes are more likely and this outcome could actually be self-fullfiling. Anticipating that more people will commute using the rail system, firms locate near the station stops and nice restaurants locate there. Such firm's choices make using public transit more appealing because it now takes you where you want to go. So , in this simple example there are two different equilibrium. The second option would be much more costly and the optimism listed above is not a guaranteed outcome. So, as you can see making policy choices ex-ante depends on how you view the system as evolving and this creates a demand for Santa Fe Institute's talents.

Turning to the ecological footprint. This sounds like a funny TV show. It is a shame that I don't own a TV. I like the review's final sentence. At least this Times' reviewer is smart and subtle.

My causality question is; "if you watch this show, will you be shamed into changing your behavior? Is this effect a short run effect or will watching this show shrink your footprint forever?"

What power does information have on behavior when the consequences of your actions do not have immediate effects on your standard of living? If I inform you that a Chinese restaurant's food will make you sick, you will immediately not go there. But if I tell you that eating its food causes extra methane, you may still go there. In the second case, you don't bear the costs now and the costs are borne by all.

April 12, 2008
Television Review | 'Human Footprint'
Americans as Addicts of Consumerism

What pigs we are.

Or to put it even more directly, the “average American” consumes 1.7 tons of pork in a lifetime, according to one of the myriad facts and figures in “Human Footprint” on the National Geographic Channel.

This two-hour production, having its premiere on Sunday, with Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News as anchor, is never more than a commercial break away from another armload of weighty statistics.

Many are painstakingly illustrated by the average lifelong mass quantities of diapers (3,796), pints of milk (13,056), bananas (5,067), beers (13,248) and so on. In some cases a little product placement goes a long way, as when a prominent bread maker’s logo can be seen on a grand total of 4,376 loaves.

Later the filmmakers imaginatively use 28,443 yellow rubber duckies to dramatize a lifetime’s worth of showers at the expense of 700,000 gallons of water.

No special effects were used for any of these displays, National Geographic says. The signature overhead shot, in all its glory, is of 12,129 hamburger buns and 5,442 hot dog rolls arranged in the shape of the American flag. Be still, my thumping heart. But where’s the apple pie?

The statistics were compiled in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. They’re based on a life expectancy of 77 years 9 months, and a United States population rounded to 301 million. “Human Footprint” tracks supposedly typical consumers from diaper-wearing infancy to medication-dependent old age.

Not surprisingly, Americans continue to out-big-foot everyone else when it comes to consumption. Although only 5 percent of the global population, Americans are said to use more than one-quarter of the world’s energy.

Ms. Vargas dutifully spews out the stats like an old-school adding machine. But it all gets more than a little wearying, once the wow factor has receded. All right, all right, enough with the prolonged shower of a lifetime’s worth of 19,826 eggs sent splattering into an unsightly “omelet of a lifetime,” as she says.

The script is serviceable although at times a bit hackneyed.

“As much as we relish our hot dogs, that’s nothing compared to our love affair with the hamburger,” Ms. Vargas says at one point. She adds, “It’s an ugly fact that Americans spend more on beauty than on education every year.”

The review copy of “Human Footprint” is notably skimpy on what exactly to do about all of this — or how harmful it might be. National Geographic’s program materials say the final cut will incorporate public service spots and “Web pointers” with “suggestions for reducing your human footprint” and its attendant carbon dioxide emissions. Ms. Vargas, for her part, tells viewers that it would be a good idea to lower thermostats, use new energy-saving light bulbs and unplug appliances when not in use.

Parochially speaking, it might be good to keep one consumptive statistic in mind. “Human Footprint” says that each lifetime reader of The New York Times uses 40,040 pounds of newsprint.

Read into that what you will, but let’s not get carried away with any crazy starvation diets.


National Geographic, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Malcolm Brinkworth, executive producer for Touch Productions; Clive Maltby, producer, director and writer; Produced by Touch Productions for the National Geographic Channel; Howard Swartz, executive producer for the National Geographic Channel.

WITH: Elizabeth Vargas.