What can Interstellar Teach us about the tragedy of the Commons? (spoilers)

This post will contains some minor spoilers for the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, then stop reading now.

The tragedy of the commons represents a common good that without proper communication and planning can be destroyed through maximizing an individual’s utility. What does that mean? Well, a group of ranchers are sharing a field. One of them decides to make some additional money by buying, just ONE more head of cattle. He lets it eat in the grass that everyone else is sharing. No negative impact happens, the farmers discuss the number of cattle, which they had all agreed upon beforehand to be a set number. Since he increased his, everyone else does the same, eventually the land will not be able to sustain all the extra head of cattle, and the next year cattle start to die of starvation. Creating a crash in the economy.

According to Stephen Gardiner¬†climate change represents a tragedy of the commons. However, instead of the ranchers, we have our great grand parent’s decision impacting our climate today. Climate change effectively started during the Industrial Revolution and our actions will be impacting future generations. Since the future generation does not have a voice in the conversation, it’s hard for us to put off current needs for future needs. This is further exasperated by the fact that we cannot even work to improve conditions for our own children, let alone some faceless grand child or great grandchild down the road.

Interstellar offers a glimpse into why this is so difficult. First, there’s clearly gaps in education, Interstellar points this out through exaggerating what a lot of school boards are currently doing, they go to the extreme to say that the Apollo missions are faked as a propaganda tool to destroy the Soviet Union. Second, Matthew¬†McConaughey is one of the few forward thinking individuals, but he knows that we are continually leaving worse and worse conditions for our children, as a farmer he can see how poorly we’re fighting the blight that is killing our crops. Third, the time dilation he experiences being close to a blackhole allows him, while he’s still young, to see the full effects of his generations decisions on his children. He’s fully impotent to do anything about it, but he knows that the choices they made have fully doomed his children. Finally and I think most impactful, is the scene where Murph dies. He sees his grand children and great grand children and doesn’t even acknowledge them. He did everything he could for Murph but had no interest in seeing how all of this impacted his’s child’s children. Furthermore, Murph didn’t seem to want him to try to bridge that divide. Rather than try to build a relationship with the world as it was she pushed him to reunite with a crewmate that came from the same “world” as him.

All of these indicate that we have a serious tragedy of the commons problem. That education is required to even have a hope to combat the tragedy of the commons for climate change. That we must figure out a way to see past the here and now and create a seriously forward looking plan. That we cannot simply rely on a few forward thinking people because even they are limited in how much they can look to the future.

This is a serious concern because we now have a leader on the environmental committee in the US congress that doesn’t accept the evidence presented by scientists. Furthermore, the fact that lawmakers aren’t scientists seems to excuse them from understanding what people are saying about climate change.

We cannot expect some “they” to come and allow us to rescue ourselves with “their” help. We have to figure this out on our own. We’re failing miserably right now.

Another book that does a good job outlining these intergernational problems is the Forever War.

Weather, urban planning, and regional differences

So, you may or may not be aware, Portland got some snow. Compared to my friends in Pittsburgh, it was about the same they were getting every few weekends. We got between 5-8 inches in the span of a day or so. The impact compared to the east coast city was absolutely insane. There were 500 accidents on Thursday night alone. The public transportation system was almost completely shut down and tomorrow may not be running – I’ll be working from home tomorrow because of that risk. I’ve seen more tire chains here than I have in my entire life having grown up in part of the Snow Belt. It’s amazing the differences.

The major highway between myself and Portland had multiple inches of snow standing on it after a full day with light snowing. I’ve never seen it before. There was actually a full lane missing because of it.

Why does this happen? Well, first Portland normally doesn’t get this type of snow, this was the most since 1971 or something like that. Second, they just don’t have the infrastructure for it. To buy enough salt or trucks to deal with this once in 30 year incident isn’t really responsible buying for a government.

Compared to Pittsburgh which deals with this sort of thing on a regular basis they have designed their infrastructure around dealing with snow or enabling people to get around it. Plus, they just drive through that stuff even if they shouldn’t because they have no choice. Unlike Portland, Pittsburgh doesn’t have as robust of a public transportation system, not that it mattered since the Max was down for a bulk of the weekend.

What does this tell us about urban planning? First, because of climate change, we need to begin thinking about how we’ll be experiencing more snow and extreme storms similar to this. How can we design our mass transit systems and our highway systems to be able to handle these extreme storms? In the case of the Max in Portland, I think they should install some sort of heating element into the switches, which apparently freeze over, so these don’t stop the Max from running.

I think the interesting thing about the snow here and in other locations is that it really brings out spaces that aren’t used by vehicles. This article really pointed it out for me: What Snows Tells Us About Creating Better Public Places. I think that it’s not just snow that points out the spaces that we to design better, but rain does so as well. Thinking back to the flash flooding we’d get in Austin and how that would impact moving around the city, we need to think about how to design these spaces to minimize the impact on people and the environment around the city.

Overall, we need to think about how to plan our cities better for new weather patterns. This is going to take some serious investment into our infrastructure. This will create jobs, but unfortunately mean we need to spend more tax money on our cities. Portland shouldn’t have been shut down from 5 inches of snow, especially not the public transportation, we need to figure out how to enable public transportation no matter what. People that don’t want to drive need that, plus parking in the city costs a ton more than parking. Let’s figure this out.

Climate change more than melting ice caps

Yesterday I heard a report on NPR about how climate change is interacting with natural wild fires. I found an article about the paper, which was published originally in Ecosphere, which discusses some of the long term impacts of the climate change on wild fires. To do this, the group used 16 different climate models which ranged from very favorable emission numbers to catastrophic emissions numbers. This allowed for a wide range of different types of human activities and reflective climate changes in the area to be tested. This is important as it gives the article much more validity than if they had simply decided to use the worst case, or best case. Of course, there will be people that will argue that man has nothing to do with the climate and we aren’t impacting it. However, that’s sticking your head in the sand. We know we have impacted the climate in the past (hello Acid Rain) and have actually fixed it though changing our behavior (Acid Rain again).

Just using the climate models isn’t enough to really predict how and where wildfires will occur in the future. The wild fire itself had to be modeled as something where the conditions it could exist in can be tested. The group decided to model wild fire in the same way that movement of animals are modeled. Under certain circumstances it’s likely that an animal group will move into a specific type of environment. This is based on the amount of water, the amount of vegetation and the temperature. Wildfires need the exact same resources to exist. However instead of being lush and moist, the area needs to be dry, but with enough water to have had plant growth to a certain size.

By combing the two techniques the team was able to show that the West is going to be burning a lot more frequently than they are not. This of course creates a serious problem. People like to live in those areas. People don’t like to leave their houses when there are disasters, which means that we’re going to have more people burning, like the one in Colorado.

The authors, in the NPR interview, argued that this means we need to learn how to live with wildfire in the same way that we’ve learned how to live with floods and earthquakes. How can we do that though? It is likely to be more difficult than flooding because you can’t just build a mound of dirt as a ridge to prevent fire from moving further. With water you can do this with varying success. With fire, that mound of dirt will eventually grow grass on the mound and would just as easily catch fire. Even stone walls would be passable as a strong wind could blow embers over the wall or heat the wall to the point of material catching on the other side.

These are issues that we will have to resolve in the next 10-30 years. This seems like a long way off, but time has a habit of sneaking up on you and before you know it we’ll be having wildfires like we had in Texas last year and are having in Colorado and New Mexico now. I’m glad we’re aware of the extent of the risk now though.

Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn’t exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you’ve seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it’s horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it’s talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it’s reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it’s fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I’ve discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.