Sunday, November 15, 2009

Amelia Earhart and the complexity problem

As I watched the recently released film about Amelia Earhart, I couldn't help thinking about parallels between her journey and ours as an industrial culture. The Earhart in the film noted that her path up to time when she attempts to circumnavigate the globe had been free of major mishaps and had led the public to underestimate the dangers of flying. When she attempts to fly around the globe, she has her first major accident which occurs early in the trip. It happens during takeoff and leaves the plane heavily damaged, but the occupants intact. Despite this, she makes repairs and begins her fateful second attempt three months later.

What struck me about this audacious trip was how many things had to go right every step of the way: the weather, the availability of fuel and supplies, correct navigational guidance from the expert navigator who accompanied her, the cooperation of those on the ground (especially worrisome in countries that had only rudimentary aviation infrastructures), and, of course, the mechanical and electrical integrity of the plane and its equipment.

There are many theories about what brought Earhart's flight to an end somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. One suggested cause was simple poor planning and preflight checking. The plane may not have been fully refueled before taking off from New Guinea to cross the Pacific.

The public had perhaps been lulled by Earhart's past successes into believing that she would succeed in any bold undertaking. In the same way we today believe that our vaunted technology will solve every problem we face including finding enough food and energy for a population that is estimated to hit 9 billion by mid-century while simultaneously addressing global warming. All of this will, according to our current ethos, be accomplished as the standard of living for billions across the globe is raised to that currently enjoyed by wealthy countries.

Earhart lost her way on the final leg of her journey because of multiple breakdowns: The direction finder on the naval ship stationed near the island where she was to land and refuel lost battery power; the radio operators on the ship could hear Earhart, but she could not hear them; the antennae of Earhart's plane may not have been well-suited to the needs transocean flights; a flight pattern meant to bring her plane over the island may have been incorrectly calculated.

Like her, our civilization does not realize that it may not have enough fossil fuel to make the transition to a renewable energy economy. To build such an economy we will have to use current energy sources which are mainly fossil fuels. If we squander that patrimony on current consumption and continued growth, we may find our energy infrastructure inadequate to our needs as the fossil fuel age winds down. And, like Earhart, we are not getting the proper feedback to tell us what to do, she from her radio and we from the market economy which fails miserably to anticipate and properly signal us concerning long-term challenges such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion.

Unlike Earhart, we as a civilization do not seem to understand the difficulty of our journey, that is, our necessary journey toward a sustainable system. She had expert navigational advice and at least a modicum of trepidation about what dangers lay ahead. We as a civilization are relying on such directional beacons as Daniel Yergin, Julian Simon, and a broad cabal of cornucopian economists across the world to guide policy, and their message amounts to,"Don't worry, be happy." The result is that nascent efforts to meet the ecological challenges we face are being overwhelmed by the imperative of growth at any cost. That growth is wiping out gains in sustainability not only by negating attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of all types, but also by negating attempts to preserve and restore the fertility of the land and the productivity of the oceans.

We might as a civilization be able to address global warming. And, we might be able to address energy supply problems both by shifting to renewable sources and drastically economizing on energy use. And, we might be able to address the growing problems of soil degradation and food supply. And, we might even be able to devise a way to raise significantly the standard of living for billions (so long as we define that standard not simply as personal consumption) while minimizing our use of resources. But having to face all these problems at once significantly reduces our chances of solving any of them. In fact, they are all interrelated, primarily through the fossil fuel energy that is a significant contributor to global warming and the enabler of a modern agriculture. That agriculture, in turn, is simultaneously undermining the productivity of the soil while allowing us to feed (temporarily) an ever-growing population that consumes more and more resources every year.

Earhart had it much simpler. If any one of the problems cited above had not occurred, we might well be talking about Earhart's successful aerial circumnavigation of the globe.

Her aims were singular and focused: Get around the world in a plane. Ours as a civilization are multivariate and contradictory. Economic prosperity for a larger proportion of a growing population under our current infrastructure requires greater burning of fossil fuels, not less. Greater production of food requires either more land cultivation in the face of increasing urbanization which destroys farmland or more energy-intensive farming; either of these will only worsen global warming. Reducing global warming requires drastically less burning of fossil fuels and the reallocation of resources toward the deployment noncarbon-based energy on a scale and a schedule that would seriously erode people's standard of living, that is, as measured by current consumption.

Unlike Earhart who despite the complexities of her endeavor might have survived if she had gotten one lucky break, we are faced with needing virtually all our attempts to address critical problems to succeed simultaneously even though our current solutions are leading us in contradictory directions.

1 comment:

Life after oil said...

"There are many theories about what brought Earhart's flight to an end somewhere over the Pacific Ocean"

Another reason was that she was apparently a crappy pilot (had crashed several times before) but was photogenic, a darling of the camera. She was a truly "modern" women - quite directionless in her life, waiting for an opportunity to appear - and that opportunity, which she grabbed with both hands was to become a celebrity through becoming a pilot. No matter how bad she was at actually flying airplanes...

In former times, you didn't have the luxury of waiting around for an opportunity to do something with your life, so she was also a precursor to modern life/attitudes. This increasingly large "window of opportunity" (your big break might be right around the corner - why bind yourself down already today?) - a period of youth stretching out for years and perhaps even a decade or more - might come to an end with the end of affluence and choice that high-energy society has given us...

This line of thinking about Earhart borrows heavily from a book by brilliant but eccentric Swedish sociologist Johan Asplund (has for example forbidden his works to be translated during his lifetime)

There are perhaps some connections between my ramblings above and my text "Energy free of charge";