Tuesday, June 12

Averages and Absolutes

I have always hated being graded on the curve. My physics teacher in high school tried to explain that the curve is just a way of assigning grades to the natural distribution in class and plotted several sets of test scores on the board to demonstrate how sensible it was, but that only increased my resentment. I am much more of the kind of person who likes a list of expectations that I can live up to. Although my favorite grading system of all was the class where there were 1100 points available on assignments during the semester and if you got 900 to 1000 points you got an A.

There are two things that frustrate me about using the bell curve as a standard. First, my results are as much dependent on what everyone else is doing as they are on my own efforts. If I start out in the average range at the beginning of a class, and we're all presented the same opportunities to learn and take them at the same rate, I am still looking at a C, regardless of how much I've learned. Yuck. Second, the curve is completely reflective of groupthink. If in that physics class, we all had decided that it was fun to give the wrong answers on the test, we would have instant grade inflation.

So, when it comes to talking about what our carbon footprints look like, it frustrates me that all the carbon calculators talk about results in relative terms. Okay, so I'm doing better than average for a US citizen. Fine. Tell me how I'm doing in relationship to what it would feel like if the US had signed on to Kyoto and if we were actually holding steady at 1990 emissions in spite of increased population.

The Riot for Austerity -- 90% reduction rules take what looks like a really good stab at that. They are using the figure that the world needs to reduce its emissions by 80% to reverse global warming, and since the west, and primarily the US contributes the most, we need to cut farther for it to average out. This is beyond Kyoto, but it targets the final destination: getting the ice cap and glaciers back soon enough that species like the polar bear have a chance at survival.

Of course, being a real-world event, carbon emission does follow a bell curve. And volunteering to be 5-sigma on the austerity end of the curve reshapes the curve when what we actually need is to move the curve. I wonder about this with gas. So I volunteer (and am planning) to make further changes that will allow me to save 500 gallons a year over what I was using two years ago (15,000 miles at 22 mpg verses 6,000 miles at 34 mpg). With the way things are, it's not like the 500 gallons aren't going to be burned anyway. They'll be burned, but at a modestly lower cost for the person who buys them because demand is down.

So in addition to personal action, we also need community action so that people who might have consumed more but who are able to consume less make different choices, and we need political action. We are in another energy crisis, not because of a lack of supply, but because of the negative effects of trying to consume an over-abundance. We should be looking at what worked in the 1970's to address that crisis and look for ways to build that into our system today.

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.