Quantitative thinking and environmentalism

I like the BBC podcast More or Less, which analyzes news stories from a quantitative perspective.  It tries to teach the skill that one might call “data literacy,” that is, the ability to examine statements about data and statistics critically and logically.  I’ve unsuccessfully argued in the past that data literacy should be an explicit goal of our education system.  Until we reach that goal, we could do a lot worse than make this podcast required listening.

The most recent installment (most recent installment) began with an interview with David MacKay, the author of a book that quantitatively compares different approaches to reducing carbon emissions. Afterwards, Rebecca Willis of the Sustainable Development Commission offers a rebuttal of sorts:

David McKay’s position on nuclear power, I think, exposes what for me is one of the weaknesses of his book. His approach is to boil it all down to a giant equation … It’s not about giant equations. It’s not about which mix of electricity generation we need.  It’s essentially about how we can lead happy lives, while using less than a quarter of the carbon that we do at the moment.

This sort of talk infuriates me.  The last sentence is certainly true, but the way to get there is to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and yes, that means equations.  People who want to achieve Willis’s goal should be embracing the mindset of people like MacKay who are trying to figure these things out.

I haven’t read MacKay’s book, and I have no idea whether his calculations are right or not.  But Willis doesn’t say anything (in the above quote or elsewhere in the inverview) suggesting that the calculations are wrong — it seems to be the whole idea of calculations that bothers her.

I don’t mean to pick on Willis, but it seems to me that this attitude is common among environmentalists.  I think the problem is that, if you view bad environmental behavior as a personal moral failing, then thinking about it in merely quantitative terms seems inadequate.

The same thing comes up in discussions about the purchase of carbon offsets.  Is it OK for me to fly on a plane, if I purchase offsets to account for the associated CO2?  It seems to me that the answer to this is technical: If carbon offsets actually work (that is, if they result in the promised amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere, when it otherwise wouldn’t have been), then the answer is clearly yes.  Of course, it’s hard to answer that technical question!  But it seems to me that many people object to offsets, not on the grounds that they don’t work, but on the grounds that even framing the question in this way is wrong: If you view carbon emission as a sin, then offsets are morally unsavory “indulgences” you can buy to atone for the sin.  I think that this Manichaean mindset is unhelpful: what’s good in this case is what works, and calculation is the way we figure out what works.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

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