A Problem of Scale

Sharon July 8th, 2009

It isn’t just artists who sometimes have trouble with perspective - all of us do.  Consider our tendency, for example, when speaking of history to pick and choose the historical periods we consider relevant. Thus, for example, proponents of the traditional family emphasize the 1950s and ignore the 1940s, although there’s certainly a case to be made that American history has enough wartimes, which inevitably upend gender roles, that the periods of stability in between were not normative.  Or consider narratives of, say, European goodness and American awfulness, which are moderately credible if history begins in 1980, say and not at all credible if it begins in 1930.  Or whatever.  All of us generally prefer the long view to the short one, the small historical model in the short term to the big sweep of history and all its variations.

Bigness is one of those things that is remarkably hard to estimate - I can show my children a picture of a New York City Building, a Redwood Tree, an elephant and a child to give a sense of the size of a Redwood - but until you have craned your neck and looked up and up and up and up some more at a tree that goes on forever, perspective remains a flat thing, rather like the medieval painting from exemplum, rather than from life - thus we make the images in our heads of things, and thus we are astonished by the vitality of reality.

This problem of flattened mental visions of vast things confronts us everywhere, most notably as we attempt to navigate our collective ecological crisis.  The sheer vastness of the scale of our problems is one most of us have no ability to come to grips with - indeed, are never asked to come to grips with.  We are shown our problems in flat terms, ones that many of us do not fully understand - that is, it is hard to imagine the hugeness of a Diplodocus over an elephant, particularly if one has never actually seen an elephant up close, never been close enough to one to see how enormous it really is - and then to imagine 50 of them…one’s mind tends to look and say “ok, that’s big, and the other thing is really big.” 

Consider the problem of soil - I’ve heard some people say it isn’t a problem at all, after all, soil can be built. And this is absolutely true.  One simple way to do so would be to buy some straw or old hay and place 6 bales together, making a bed.  Fill this bed with woodchips, some more straw, some grass clippings, some brush and leaves, animal or composted humanure, a few shovelfulls of dirt from a forest floor, water it, perhaps pee on it, and go about  your business.  In a few months, the fungi and bacteria will have feasted upon the organic matter, and produced a lesser amount of glorious growing medium, which carefully nurtured and sustained will bring forth food in perpetuity.

It is even possible to imagine a concerted national effort to do this - national “build a garden bed day” in which almost all Americans not needed elsewhere did this.  There would be stiff competition for brush and straw, of course, but it is possible to imagine that at the end of the season, 100 million new 4×10 garden beds would be constructed.  Done in fall, that’s 400, 000,000 new square feet of growing space, more than 300,000 new acres of land available for growing.

Of course, 300,000 acres is no more than a drop in the bucket, in terms of total national acreage needed (don’t get me wrong, it would still be a good idea!).  And therein lies the problem of course - there simply isn’t enough straw or forest soil, grass clippings or manure to fully restore our topsoil for a really, really long time. There aren’t enough animal manures either - which is why we’re going to have to come to terms with the question of humanure, and probably right quick now.

Or consider the solar panel - it seems like such a good idea to simply power everyone’s house with solar, whether individual panels or vast plantations in the desert.  We keep being told we use only a tiny percentage of the solar energy that pours forth upon the earth.  Ignoring the fact that it is actually kind of horrifying to imagine human beings using all the energy the sun pours forth ;-), there’s the fact that those vast plantations of solar panels must be built in the Gobi and California deserts, where people do not live.  They cover vast areas, and aren’t near much - in order to build them, one must first build housing and shelter for the people who build them, and run water there.  Then one must truck in concrete, with its enormous ecological footprint, and again, run water for the process of installation.  Meanwhile, at a distant factory one must manufacture not thousands but millions of solar cells, from trace minerals that must be mined.

The ecological cost of all of this is high - I’ve pointed out repeatedly that in fact, we may actually cross our climate threshold by building out resources to prevent further climate change, an irony I don’t find at all appealing.  All the energy must be fronted - that is, all of the renewables require a front investment in fossil fuels, that are burned and will never come back.  Moreover, they require an upfront investment in money - which means people rich enough to tie up their money for a long time awaiting returns. 

And because solar panels are far less energy dense, with a lower EROEI than most fossil fuels, in order to replace 1 barrel of oil, we have to build 5 solar cells - that is, we aren’t replacing the billions of barrels of oil 1-for-1, but 5-for-1 which drives up the scale even further. Most of us are no longer actually holding an image in our head of what that means in miles of panel, tons of concrete, tonnes of carbon dioxide, mining equipment or anything else.  We’re back at looking at how big the dinosaur was - big vs. really big.  And because we know we’ve already done some really big things - the moon launch, the nuclear program, we don’t even bother calculating how big - if we could do one big thing, we must, by logic, be able to do another.

We have in our own way as much problem with perspective as artists do - there’s as much to say, although I won’t say it today, about our problem with perceiving small things, except to quote Gaston Bachelard, from _The Poetics of Space_ in saying “Distance, too, creatues miniatures at all points on the horizon, and the dreamer, faced with these spectacles of distant nature, picks out these miniatures as so many nexts of solitude in which he dreams of living” - and observe that it isn’t just that we decline to see the vastness of our problems, we are attracted to them, miniaturized by distance and unfamiliarity. Thus the electric car looks adorable, endearing, a place to keep the dream of private transport alive, as long as we do not look to close at the realities of our dreams.

Perspective is not easy, and it isn’t a problem that is fully soluble - the long view leaves things out as much as the short one, and vice versa.  No view is perfect - looking up at the Redwood, the Cathedral, the elephant, one is prone to overestimate, to factor in the direct experience of shock and overstate things.  And yet, knowledge by authority, analogy and example were insufficient - there’s a reason that Renaissance art, with its emphasis on focused perspective based on observation is a stunning leap over the best of medieval art - not because the Renaissance painter was the first to see, but because the Renaissance painter insisted that if you could not get all the perspective needed, you could at least insist on grounding authority in experience and reality.

Most of us need to get up close and personal with things like numbers and other evidence of scale - and those of us who write about this stuff need to work harder at illustrating the problems of scale - because we face an audience that does not understand them - they think they are looking at two large creatures, one big, one bigger - they do not realize that the difference between technological and real solutions are the difference between absent dinosaurs of surpassing hugeness and ordinary, just really big elephants.


17 Responses to “A Problem of Scale”

  1. kathyon 08 Jul 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I think you really nailed this Sharon. It is the same for many solutions that begin with the phrase, ” All we need to do is…”. None of the really big problems sitting here in our collective living rooms can be solved with an “All we need to do is…”. We long ago passed the point of having easily solvable problems. We are left with bad and less bad solutions in many cases. True for food and health care and energy and raising our kids. I only hope I will be strong enough to rise to the challenges that are galloping towards me.

  2. MDon 08 Jul 2009 at 4:20 pm

    That’s why I get frustrated with so much of the hand-waving in environmentalist circles when it comes to the practicalities of reducing “carbon emissions”- the discussions often don’t include real numbers on how we’ll reduce them by “80% by 2050″ without killing off a bunch of us by starvation or freezing to death in our darkened homes. The currently available technology simply cannot do it. My husband has an engineering background and I taught math and science for years, so we look at the “go green, but otherwise keep your lifestyle intact, and save the planet!” movement as rather silly.
    My former assistant principal did not want to hear you coming to him with a problem, unless you had thought of one or more viable solutions to discuss. I would take the environmentalists a LOT more seriously if they didn’t say stuff like “we’re ruining the planet- buy CFLs and bike more!” If they actually told the truth about the sacrifices they expect us to make (and all of us too, including the Gores of the world, were expected to make them), and gave practical means to get there while minimizing human suffering (which is why I like your blog- you are honest), I might believe them. Otherwise I’m highly skeptical that all the fluorescent bulbs and solar panels and wind turbines and electric cars (charged on what grid, with what energy?) will do much good.

  3. Bill Harshawon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Didn’t you drop some zeros? 100,000,000 beds X 40 square feet each = 4,000,000,000 square feet.

  4. Dianeon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I was going to bring up scale in response to your post on doing without grain because several people wrote comments about foraging. Given the population densities on both coasts I would guess that wild populations of anything edible would disappear in days if there were a real food shortage. Many years ago I found a patch of chanterelle mushrooms in the Rocky Mtns. Over several years I harvested a very small portion and they continued to increase. Then, after a local whole foods market began selling wild mushrooms I found the patch completely destroyed, just the bottoms of the stems remaining. There were chanterelles in the market that week but the patch never came back. Here in Rhode Island I have seen shellfish beds disappear because of overharvesting and a few families could wipe out every wild berry in our town of thousands. The deer wouldn’t last long either. Foraging is definitely not scalable.

  5. Berkshireon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:12 pm

    One of the areas of perspective often lacking in discussions of energy, climate and how many potatoes needed to feed 180 close friends through the winter is basic mathematics. I think they stopped teaching this semi useful skill in the 1960s. I suggest buddying up with an engineer to gain this power of 10s perspective. They love to show off these skills and are quite logical in their chosen fields – even though most have under developed social skills, have little patience with bs and don’t smell real nice.

    Archdruid Greer suggests acquiring a slide rule to calculate the way through a battery less future. My suggestion is to stash away several Texas Instrument solar powered scientific calculators. Several as the key boards are susceptible to failure over time. They are cheap, don’t require batteries and provide the accurate calculating power of a large room full of 1940 engineers equipped with manual slide rules. I still have a slide rule but would have to repeat my 1959 high school classes to refresh my skills. Does that mean a 50th reunion this year (math test here)?

    I find that separating the possible from improbable is usually a few minutes with a calculator and a table of conversion constants. You can spend a lot of time and money on projects and ideas that have no or minimal payback. I’ll leave it to others to ponder the unknowable.

  6. KFon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:55 pm

    The best example I’ve seen for visualizing scale is the short film “Powers of Ten” from a couple decades ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2cmlhfdxuY to watch it on YouTube, info at wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powers_of_Ten). It is instructional to start thinking about what even one or two “orders of magnitude” or powers of ten adds to the complexity of a problem - and then start thinking about how many orders of magnitude on many different scales we are facing in order to solve just the climate crisis, or just the energy crisis, or just the food crisis: an order of magnitude in population sizes (up or down), an order of magnitude in side-effects of decisions, an order of magnitude in deployment complexity. I think the scale problem is why so many people throw up their hands and say “there isn’t anything I can do, so why bother” and go sit on their couches and watch TV.

  7. steve from virginiaon 08 Jul 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Big problems, small solutions.

    (I usually say there are no solutions, only coping strategies.)

    The only solution is conservation. It has instant payback. No upfront costs. Decreases pollution.

    Americans could probably cut their energy use in half and not even notice it.

    Great gardening info, by the way … :)

  8. gaiasdaughteron 09 Jul 2009 at 6:33 am

    Well said, Sharon! I get so frustrated with people who adamantly believe that scientists will fix all our problems with a few wonderful new inventions and growth will go onwards and upwards into a Star Trek version of the future. They have no idea of the scale involved, or the time limits, or the limits of natural resources, or . . . well, you get the picture.

    On the positive side, there are amazing people doing amazing things that give me hope that we can just possibly keep people reasonably fed. Will Allen is one of them. He is growing an incredible amount of fresh, organic food on a couple of acres in inner city Milwaukee. He composts garbage from local restaurants, breweries, etc., feeds it to his worms, then mixes it 50-50 with coir to create a planting mix for his greenhouses. Fish inside the greenhouse supply nitrogen-rich water in addition to being edible themselves. *And* he employs locals. *And* he sells fresh food to inner city residents who don’t usually have access to such high quality fare. *And* he shares with the needy. *And* he is a great role model who is neither white nor hippie.


  9. Heatheron 09 Jul 2009 at 7:12 am

    I agree completely. I’ve followed your blog for 2 years. At first I thought you were crazy, then I started to realize that I was just trying to avoid the topic. It seems to be such a monumental task. Sometimes I wish it was just a really big elephant. I’m trying my best, but that will never be enough.

  10. WNC Observeron 09 Jul 2009 at 9:37 am

    I doubt that most people - even most Americans - are ever going to be able to have enough PV panels on their rooftops to power their homes at current typical US household levels - let alone enough extra to substitute for any NG or heating oil they have been using, plus recharge several electric cars.

    First of all, I would venture to guess that at least half of all the houses in the US do not have their rooflines oriented on an east-west axis. Nobody ever mentions that, but it is actually a very huge obstacle to overcome. You can use racks to support the PV panels perpendicular to the roof line; I suppose that will work - until the high winds or ice storms hit. (I am fortunate in that my home IS situated on an east-west axis with good solar potential; then again, that was a major consideration when I bought it, and that apparently wasn’t the case for 99+% of the population.)

    Secondly, there is the cost, which is huge. Buying the PV panels, batteries, and all the other required equipment to supply all of my electricity needs is totally out of reach for me, and probably always will be. We are probably a little above average in terms of our per capita or household income, and if it is out of reach for us, then it is probably out of reach for most people. If a deal could be offered by the electric utility to front the cost and spread the repayments out over the useful life of the equipment, that would help considerably. However, the cost per kWh would undoubtedly be higher than what I am paying now. As long as there are any economies of scale to be achieved at all in electricity generation and distribution, then I suspect that one would end up paying a premium to have self-sufficiency in homesite electricity generation. While the manufacturing costs for PVs will undoubtedly come done as manufacturing capacity increases (economies of scale, again), demand is also likely to increase, and may outpace supply. I am therefore not very optimistic that PVs are ever going to be a particularly cheap supply of electricity for anyone.

    On the other hand, what I am actually considering doing is to install just enough PV capacity to power a freezer, a refrigerator, the blower and control systems for our propane furnace and propane water heater, the electric fence, and maybe a couple of household circuits for a few CFLs, a couple of fans, and a couple of appliances. That is a considerably smaller-scale proposition, and may be within the range of affordability - eventually. Even with this less ambitious system in mind, it may take us a few years before we can afford it, and we may have to install it in several stages. If and when we get an NEV and/or a PHEV, we might also consider adding enough capacity to charge its batteries as well; we’ll see about that. I would also see us having enough of a battery bank to power the above items for several days. In fact, that would be a major reason why we would bother to do this: grid system unreliability. We are in an area that already experiences frequent outages (several times per year), including one incident several years ago when Ivan went through and we were without electricity for the better part of a week. I expect the grid to become more unreliable in the future, and for the outages to become more frequent and last longer. Having the battery backup to power some essential circuits for several days, and the capacity to recharge those batteries ourselves, could be crucially important. This, I think, will be a major consideration for many other people as well.

    I am also planning on eventually installing solar water heating, and probably some solar space heating. Solar thermal is MUCH more affordable and a MUCH more cost-effective proposition for most people. If we ever see solar panels adorning more than just a few rooftops, these are what we are most likely to see. Quite a few people who will never be able to afford to put in a single PV panel will nevertheless be able to convert to solar water (and maybe solar space) heating, eventually.

    So there you have my vision for the future (for the US, at least): solar water heating systems on most residential rooftops, solar space heating panels on many residential rooftops, and a few PV panels on some - but not nearly enough to provide more than a fraction of the electricity that the average home now consumes. Even getting to this level is going to be a big challenge, but I just don’t see any realistic hope that we can do more than this.

  11. Brad K.on 09 Jul 2009 at 10:05 am

    @ Bill Harshaw, at 4 billion square feet, that would make 91,827 acres (at 43,560 square feet per acre). Even at 30 times Sharon’s 3,000 acre number, that isn’t a large change in scale. Why, that would be just over 15,000 miles of 50 foot wide right-of-way. Or 2,525 miles of interstate-type 300 foot wide right of way.

    I wonder how many acres of housing developments get started in the same year, even at the current lower rate of construction.

    @ Sharon,

    It isn’t only the vast scales that often escape us. I know people that feel their day is devastated if they cannot park within 10 spaces of the front door of Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

    I cut and put up loose hay off a small bit of pasture - using scythe and a wheel barrow. If you aren’t used to the effort, even putting up enough to fill a 5×5 foot space 6 foot high seems like a surprising amount of work. I enjoyed cutting the grass, laying out and turning windrows and watching the hay cure. My pony enjoyed the hay. This was a garden or boutique scale of farming. Yet I have a better appreciation for what is possible, than before getting out there, both as to the time and work involved, and as to what I can accomplish.

    Then, too, I raised a Belgian Draft horse filly. That gives one an appreciation for size, for strength - and for discipline. Also for providing feed, keeping picked up, arranging for hay and pasture, etc., etc.


  12. risa bon 09 Jul 2009 at 11:12 am

    One encounters mindset issues twelve or twenty-two times a day. A visitor is shown the bean vines, the bok choi, the peas, the shelves of plum sauce, the new-potato soup simmering in the solar cooker, the chickens scratching around, and then it’s lunch time:

    “So, would you like a green drink, or some soup, or I could make a salad or a stir fry with some hard-boiled eggs?”

    “Uhhhh, that’s okay, don’t put yourself out … Got any bananas?”

  13. Katon 09 Jul 2009 at 11:31 am

    I really needed to hear this today, as I am feeling very small in this scale of change - so many things I need to do to be ready when the next shoe falls. I think we need to get used to the idea that electricity just isn’t going to be an option for a lot of us in the near future. And that’s a pretty hard bite to swallow. The sad thing is that friends and family still don’t want to hear any of this. Even after the exorbitant gas prices and the economic crash last year, they prefer to keep their heads comfortingly in the ground where they can’t see what’s going on. I guess I should be glad that my married children do believe me (Depletion and Abundance is making the rounds!) I just finished reading The Long Emergency and am reeling from the truth of it. And wishing I’d read it four years ago!

  14. Jerryon 09 Jul 2009 at 11:33 am

    I also think that solar power is way to expensive for the average cash strapped homeowner. All the things that you talk about just don’t scale up for everybody to be able to afford. The future does indeed look grim with the majority of people being in the have not group versus a small minority of people having the capital to continue their present lifestyle.
    I can appreciate your comment on how much work that gathering and making loose hay is. I’ve said it before that most people would not do that and expect someone to do it for them. Physical work is for someone else to do in this country.

  15. Sharonon 09 Jul 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Oops, Bill, you are absolutely right - sorry for the stupidity ;-).


  16. homebrewlibrarianon 09 Jul 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Alaska always seems to come late to the party. We are just NOW starting to consider alternative energy forms. Of course, we can’t let go of the idea of building a natural gas pipeline, but then our economy has been supported by oil extraction for decades. We’ve built one pipeline, why not another one?

    Solar for electricity is not really feasible here. Sure, we get plenty of it in the summer (over 19 hours in Anchorage) but no battery can store that much electricity for the six or seven months that would be needed. Thankfully, that isn’t being marketed as a “cure all.” No, we’re looking at wind, geothermal and tidal hydro energy sources. The legislature actually threw some money towards evaluating options.

    That’s all well and good but like pretty much everyone has pointed out, nobody is offering up reduction as a way of taking the pressure off the environment (Well, I take that back. A few small organizations will print up checklists or brochures of ways to either 1) save money or 2) save the environment and cutting back on electricity usage is always listed. However, nothing is said about natural gas or water usage. Interesting). I sense that the feeling in Alaska is “if we could just build a natural gas pipeline, all our problems will be solved” but barring that, the feeling is “the scientists will save us with technology.”

    I do not see anyone at the State level advocating for reductions across the board, not just because they feel it would be political suicide but because I don’t think they see the connection between environmental degradation and energy usage. While we can see the dramatic effects of climate change (polar regions are ground zero for this), we can’t see how our actions are contributing to it.

    We haven’t even gotten to the perspective issue yet but I expect that we’d fall into the “big and bigger” manner of understanding once we do. By then, it will be too late.

    Kerri in AK

  17. Anion 09 Jul 2009 at 4:37 pm

    But the reality of the situation is more than most people want to accept- and political suicide for any elected official to be upfront about. So we will continue to dance around the issue, with virtuous feeling people content that they have done their all for the planet having changed out a bulb or 2 or 3, and having traded the car in for a new Prius all the while they are flying to Costa Rica to do some eco-vacationing and buying their clothes from Patagonia and the latest yuppie “green” offerings from the catalogues……

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