Wednesday, April 22, 2009

21,108 Days Remaining, 13,305 of Them Happy

I got a very strange email the other day. The subject line was: [Reminder] 10,000 days alive @ Sat Apr 11, 2009. After racking my brains and asking a few friends if anyone had hacked my google calendar, I eventually concluded that I set this reminder myself. I used to work with a lot of time data and it would have been a trivial task to write a little computer program to tell me the date of my birthday + 10,000 days. Today, Earth Day, April 22, 2009, I am 10,011 days old.

According to the Happy Planet Index survey, this means I have 21,108 days remaining. My overall score was 54.7, which I have equated roughly to "years of sustainable happiness." If we assume that I've already used up some of them by living happily 2/3 of the time, then I have 13,305 days of happiness remaining: about 2/3 of the total days I have remaining, which is a comforting thought.

I stumbled across the Happy Planet Index , ironically, not really thinking about Earth Day at all.

GDP is frequently used as an indirect measurement of happiness. And whenever you can only measure the success of a goal indirectly,i.e., by measuring something which is related to the goal, sooner or later, there will be a subtle shift in efforts from achieving the ostensible goal to achieving increases in the thing being used as a proxy for that goal. And so, in an effort to measure how happy people are, we measure the GDP. Except that somewhere along the line increasing GDP replaced our happiness as the end goal. And now, the entire economy is hell-bent for election on increasing GDP without regard to how it affects our happiness.

There has got to be a better way, I thought. So I started looking into it. It turns out that the wikipedia article for GDP contains a list of alternatives to the GDP. I strongly urge you to check out any or all of them. The one that struck me as including most of the things that are important to me while still being simple enough to calculate with real data was the Happy Planet Index. It includes both subjective happiness and objective sustainability.

So if you didn't do anything else to celebrate Earth Day, go take the test. And if you did do something to celebrate Earth Day you'll get a better score on the test. And isn't that the important thing? Getting a better score?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Part of the Precipitate

I came up with a plan, last week, to solve both the economic crisis and the climate change crisis. Climate change is caused by an imbalance between the energy coming into the earth-atmosphere system and the energy exiting that same system. Almost all of the energy coming into the system is in the form of light from the sun. Almost all of the energy exiting the system is radiation, the amount of which is dependent on the temperature of the earth-atmosphere system.

At present there is more CO2 in the atmosphere than there has been for a very long time. CO2 effectively blocks some of the radiation that is trying to leave the system: there is now more energy coming in than there is going out. The result is that the temperature of the earth-atmosphere system will go up, shedding more energy in the form of radiation.

If the problem will correct itself as the temperature of the system changes, who cares? Well, there are a few important things to consider:
  1. We keep adding to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere which means the temperature has to increase at an even higher rate to keep up.
  2. As the temperature of the system increases, more water will evaporate, which will block radiation from leaving the system, which will increase the temperature, which will cause more water to evaporate.
  3. Coral reefs are sensitive to temperature. If we let the temperature rise too quickly we could find that 70% of our planet's surface is covered by septic tank rather than ocean.
The way I see it, if things stay the way they are, we will turn the whole planet into a giant cesspool.

Solutions to this imbalance come in two flavours: decrease radiation entering the system; increase radiation leaving the system. Actually all of the currently proposed solutions that I know of are of the first flavour. So why, thought I, aren't there any of the second flavour?

My proposed solution is this: We build an enormous geothermal power plant. Normally this would result in no net change in the radiation of the system. But, what if we use the electricity generated by this system to power a giant laser which is tuned to the atmospheric window? Bam, we have now increased the amount of energy leaving the planet. And, since building a giant laser and a massive geothermal generation facility is no mean feat, we will have to employ thousands of labourers, thus sovling the world's current economic woes.

No plan is perfect, of course. Drawbacks of this plan include a defacto no-fly zone in the beam of the laser (I propose we place the laser in an area with a high seagull or pidgeon population) and the possibility that we will accidentally hit a distant planet, thus precipitating an interplanetary war thousands of years in the future. But really, that is some future generation's problem.