Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reliving the 1980s

The world changes. But do we notice?

I'm always impressed by the power of negation, dissonance, and disconnection to persist in peoples' minds as the world changes around them.

In my field of renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate change mitigation, I deal with this daily at the individual, community, and regional level, as Maine villages and towns struggle with the impinging reality of $4/gallon gasoline and $3.60/gallon heat oil.

I sometimes visualize myself uncomfortably as a kind of fat grumpy male midwife, as ideas that I've been conscious of for twenty, or in some cases, thirty years struggle to be born in the minds of people disconnected from what I think of as the "real" world of energy, food supply, and climate change.

The primary difference is in the "mental models" folks are using This is relatively old social science now. My former PhD committee member Willett Kempton and his graduate students first applied mental models to the social milieu of American environmental problems in the mid-1990s, to what I still think was rather profound effect.

Basically, people tend to explain complex phenomena by recourse to abstract cause and effect models (which may or may not be accurate or correct) we carry around in our heads.

If you ask an ordinary non-electrician person to explain how household electricity works, for instance, they may use the mental model of flowing water. This is actually not such a poor model to use some of the time, because household electricity is a physical flow of something: negatively charged subatomic particles called electrons. The mental model works just fine for some purposes, such as imagining electrical connections as if they were connections of pipes in a water system.

But as any physicist, professional electrician, or hapless handyman can tell you, the model fails badly when it comes to explaining what household electricity can do to the human body, if inadvertently connected to the ground through that body.

Take home message? It's not water, Einstein.

What I notice as I try to communicate with ordinary Mainers and New Englanders in general about energy supply, food security, and climate change is that many older people have a mental model of energy politics that was forged in the 1980s, and that we apply this model to today as if the world of the 1980s was still around us.

While our mental models of climate change are yet more dissonant with the reality I perceive through monitoring climate science.

The two sets of models combine to affect food supply issues.

This is all very contentious, since I have no social science basis for these assertions, and I really should know better. But I have to have a mental model too, don't I, to help me understand why people think the things they think about energy and climate change.

So we're talking about older folks here, middle aged people from say age 45 and up. The kinds of folks who contribute disproportionately to important decisions about things at a local and regional level. They run business and government offices. They teach schoolchildren and even college students.

I suppose the defining criterion might be that you had to live through the 1980s as a more or less grown-up, conscious person, paying attention to politics.

If so, you would have noticed things like the oil crisis of the late 1970s, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, the Reagan presidency and the economic recovery that followed, and the decade of the 1990s with its relative prosperity and economic growth (which masked a terrible growth in the American class divide, and may have heralded the end of the American dream, but we'll save that discussion for another day), leading to the Internet Age.

What perfectly reasonable mental model of energy might ensue from this biography?

Well, you'd be rationally justified in deciding that the energy fear of the Carter era, specifically the short-lived energy crisis that President Carter told us was "the moral equivalent of war," was just a big fat stinky red herring.

You'd come up with a mental model of energy crises as things that somehow come and go and pass, a bit like economic recessions, perhaps. And you'd conclude that things would return to normal, eventually.

You'd just wait it out.

No need for a big panic. No need for new technology. No need to insulate that home or change those leaky windows. Get a more fuel-efficient car? Maybe for a year or two. Trade in that eight-cylinder Detroit boat that gets 16 mpg for a six or four cylinder model that maybe gets 25 mpg, until around 1992, when gas is down again, and those new SUVs again offer the familiar comfort and security that one can only get from driving at least three real American tons of solid steel down the freeway.

Back to the womb.

"Wind turbines on my mountaintops? No need for that. Nuclear power in Maine? Close down Maine Yankee forever. New powerlines? Don't need them. Solar PV or solar hot water? It'll never work. Electric cars? Believe it when I see it."

"Passive solar? Heating a house without a heating system? Not even conceivable. And if we can't even imagine it, we certainly don't need one."

So much for energy, and you can see where this leads naturally. After a while our hapless 49 year-old is living in a house that costs $5,000 a year just to heat, driving a car that he or she can't afford to fill with gas. Waiting for the price to come down. Because it will, right? It did in 1990. It will again.

(I'm picking on 49 year-olds because I am one. Don't take it personally. Just feel empathy for me turning the big 5-0 this year.)

What about climate change?

"It's just so hard to understand, isn't it? All those scientists telling us what to do with our lives. I don't trust science. The newspapers always seem to be able to find a contrarian scientist, so not all scientists believe in climate change, do they? How do you know what to believe? Fox News say it's all a conspiracy. I'm not sure I agree with that but you never know."

"And that winter was cold. Brrr."

Can't possibly be right.

And food prices?

Well, if you're still in denial about putting $80 of gas into that SUV each week, a little ethanol might seem like a good thing. If you're even paying attention to what goes into your tank at that level of detail.

It's really hard to notice hungry children in, say, India, from the forecourt of your local short stop, when the stuff gushing out of the hose looks and smells just like the stuff that's gushed out of the hose since you were 18, in 1979, and you filled the tank of your first car.

(Mine was a Mini. A real British Leyland Mini, that got 40 mpg in 1979 and that I could rebuild myself on the side of the street, not a silly marketer's simulacrum for which you can't buy parts. But that's a whole another story.)

When you've been doing the same thing for thirty years, when it looks and feels and smells pretty much the same, it's hard to notice the small differences...

...like for instance that it says 10% ethanol and uses 40% of the US corn crop and now costs $4/gallon.

...or that we just had the highest recorded flood peak of the Mississippi River in a hundred years and the most tornadoes ever recorded in one day or that 2010 was the second hottest year on record.

Like a frog in a saucepan, you may not notice the changes until it's too late.

A bit like the size of my pant's waist measurement, also now entering the 40's and in denial.

How long can we keep on doing this until we notice the changes?

I wish I knew.

I really do.


Anonymous said...

"How do you know what to believe? Fox News say it's all a conspiracy. I'm not sure I agree with that but you never know."

It's not a conspiracy but it is warped. I personally know a scientist who is a vocal outspoken climate denier, but yet he always finds a way to link his research to climate change so that he secures his funding for the year. His research is not commercially useful so his funding must come from government, that’s simply the way it is. He admits it goes against his principles, he hates to do it but he is a pragmatist, he knows how to play the game and the stakes of game are his career and putting food on the table. It is not a conspiracy, its simply life. Scientists are just like the rest of us, they need to bend a few rules and tell a few untruths to keep the whole ship afloat. If I personally know a scientist who is a denier yet still links his research to climate change, how many more are out there? It might appear to be a conspiracy, but I think It’s just scientists doing what they must to carry on.

Mick said...

"It" is warped?

First off, let's make sure you realize I was role-playing in that portion of this post.

Then we can ask about "warped."

How can several hundred research projects and several thousand papers a year be warped?

They can be diverse, run the gamut, look at the issue from all different angles, atmospheric chemistry, physics, biology, geology, economics, etc.

But they can't all be warped. Some of them can be. Some probably would have to be, law of averages.

But not all of them. And in fact not even very many of them, given peer review.

BTW, proposals are generally peer-reviewed too, as well as papers.

BTW, I allowed this post once, but I generally don't authorize anonymous posts.

One thing about scientists is we all have emails and phone numbers and even office hours, and we are all responsible to the general public for the knowledge we produce.

If you want to participate, you can follow the same rules.