Sunday, June 1, 2008

Missing the Big Picture

The cool thing about Peak Oil is that it makes you think. It makes you ask questions. What am I doing, and why? How do I fit in? What is my "footprint," and I don't mean just carbon.

But we live in a world where many things are compartmentalized, specialized. People tend to focus in on one little part and miss the big picture. As an example, I was recently teaching an 11 year old the "lift equation." The formula that explains the relationship of the factors that make things fly. 

Flight is one of man's greatest achievements and it still amazes me every time I execute a takeoff, or landing. In the course of the discussion about the "four forces," you know, gravity, lift, thrust and drag, we used substitution to explore the magic of one of the natural effects that God hardwired into the universe, lift. The key thing to understand about the lift equation is that lift varies with the square of the velocity. This is an incredible thing, somewhat similar to the power of compound interest.

If you double the velocity (airspeed) from 50 knots to 100 knots you don't just get double the lift. The lift increases from 2500 units to 10,000 units! I think this is very impressive and demonstrates a real world example of the power of an exponent that you just don't get by cranking through your algebra homework and getting an "A" on a typical math exam.

The interesting part was when the 11 year old asked me, "Is this math or science?"

"What a great question," I answered. "What do you think?"

I then realized that the education system this 11 year old was participating in had taught him that things are separate. You take one class for math and another for science. He hadn't really seen the connection between the two before.

Check out this video of Mark Bittman talking about food. He makes an interesting exploration of the US system of "industrialized" food production. And he presents some impressive numbers and even gets you thinking about global warming by proposing that cows (and the associated problems with industrialized food production) are affecting humanity in a similar way to how the threat of nuclear war affected humanity(and still does).

But he doesn't seem to make the connection between food production and Peak Oil. Or food production and sustainability.

This is very typical. Many otherwise intelligent people just aren't making the connection. The awareness of the Peak Oil problem just isn't mainstream. The new media darling is global warming. Not Peak Oil.

Mr. Bittman proposes that "the current health crisis *** is a little more the work of the Evil Empire." This is a veiled comment about the endemic corruption in the US and the system of corporate lobbyists influencing government policies.

The good news, he points out, is that animal products and junk food are not necessary for health. Bravo! And he explains that "marketing has created an unnatural demand(for animal products and junk food)."

Bittman goes on to explain the history of food in the US and effectively reminds us that in 1900 all people ate locally produced food. Interesting. Especially since that is what Peak Oil experts are suggesting will be part of the solution. Producing food locally.

I liked this presentation but it is a good example of the danger of compartmentalization and specialized study causing intelligent people to miss the big picture.

Bittman is right. Global warming could have catastrophic impacts on humans (IF global warming is happening, IF it is caused by men. We don't even know if there is such a thing as a climate!). But he misses the big picture concept that we can't fix global warming if we don't have any ENERGY!!! It is going to take huge amounts of energy to change the systems we use that caused the global warming in the first place. That is why Peak Oil is so important.

This is not a case of picking one football team over the other. Peak Oil and Global Warming are infinitely more complicated. But that is the challenge that America faces. American culture is permeated with a value system that places great emphasis on football, or NBA basketball and intentionally ignores real world things like the asteroid of Peak Oil.

So check out the video of Mr. Bittman. But remember to fill in what is missing. The fact that Peak Oil is the gorilla that is going to overpower other issues like eating "too much" animal products and junk food.

As a matter of fact, Peak Oil will "solve" the problem of eating too many animal products simply because the crash after the Peak will prevent the business as usual continuation of industrialized food production. There will still be some animal food production, probably through channels like Permaculture. But depending on how rapid and severe the oil crash becomes, industrialized food production will change radically and eventually will be forced to sustainability. That will be good in the long run, maybe on the 50 to 100 year scale. The problem is in the medium term with the Peak Oil crash.


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