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« Where my questions have led me | Main | Is there a sapient form of governance? »

July 15, 2008


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Wayne Hamilton

To me, one cause of our global demise is our inability to put into practice what our math and science teachers told us about equalities like: y=ax+b, energy in = energy out, mass is conserved, energy is conserved … even e=mc2. That’s why I like the relatively new concept of sustainability. To me sustainability simply means “Obey the equations”! What I learned from my high school chemistry teacher was the root cause of my D grade in introductory economics in college. Miss Barber simply made a better argument than Professor Samuelson’s book. Her lessons also fit much better with what I’d already learned up to that point in life than those alluded to by the Prof’s arm-waving.

As a result, I’m one of those who believe our climate change and energy supply and food and water supply and arable land crises are tractable problems that can be modeled, using equations, to give us a much clearer idea of how to start fixing things that have become broken in the global society. I’d say that one root cause of this fine mess we’re in is our unwillingness to handle our affairs the way my wife handles the bank book reconciliation each month.

We have to start by considering the entire cost of something we use; for example the water that comes through the meter into our homes. We start by thinking, “That’s easy. Our water bill is about $30 a month”. In our case I’d add to that another $40 a month for the annual irrigation water bill; which is much greater in volume to keep our pasture, garden, trees and cattle happy than the volume for domestic use. But those are only our obvious costs that pay the monthly costs of our water and irrigation departments to keep water flowing our way.

The costs we forget are manifold. For every drop we take out of our supply, a spring and river water that requires softening and other treatment, the flow of our river (into which the spring creek flows) is diminished by the same amount. That means less water available for aquatic life in the spring creek and river and less available for other communities downstream. It also means a measureable lowering of the water table along that spring creek and the river downstream. There are also changes in the vegetation and soil organisms that occur when water tables drop and that diverted water is redistributed to other areas previously dry.

Some of that spring and river water eventually finds its way back into the river as groundwater, but the chemical composition of that water is now different from what was diverted. Domestic wastewater going to the ground from septic systems and sewage treatment plants contains a higher salt content because we all use sodium chloride as a seasoning. The irrigation tail water is also saltier and more alkaline because some of the water is evaporated before it can get back into the ground. Domestic tail water also contains other solutes like phosphates from doing laundry and that prescription medication you decided should be discarded because it was too old.

If the population of our town were static and per capita water consumption didn’t change on average, then our ‘cut’ of the river and groundwater budget would be constant over time. But unfortunately that is not the case. It seems that everybody wants to move to our town. With a doubling of population comes a doubling of the ‘cut’ taken from the river and groundwater budget and a doubling of the addition of salt and other more harmful solutes that go into the surface and groundwater.

A town might plan for the future, writing a regulation for example that zero water meters will be added in the foreseeable future. That sounds fine, but I remember when our town did that in the early 1980s it only took one serious threat of a lawsuit to change the town’s mind. The solution that was cheaper than paying damages in law suits was – build a larger treatment plant and get the State to issue a point of diversion from the river. There seems to be some unwritten law that says; “If you own property you must be allowed to build a home here and buy water from the town”.

Then there is the climatic factor, which is more drying and drought in our part of the country. When, not if, our river flow begins to decline year after year at a significant rate then water use in our town will have to be reduced. The reduction will of course be a larger quantity per capita for a large population than for a small population.

It’s my hope to model the water use in our town in order to identify the variables that most strongly affect balance in the water equation. My guess is that a sustainable water supply will require reduction in use on the supply side and added recovery on the disposal side. I encourage others to tackle similar ‘simple’ inequalities and see how to fix them. I say “Disobey the equations at your peril”! Even Lunch ≠ Free.

[GM: Edited 7/16/08 at authors request.]

George Mobus


The Global Sensemaking group is looking to develop a platform that allows attachment of models (various kinds) as nodes in a problem decomposition tree. One of the members, Robert Muetzelfeldt, has a lot of experience with the kind of modeling you mention. His language is called Simile and it is a systems dynamic modeling language similar to Stella.

Check out:
his web site.

PS. Yes there are many areas that are dominated by politicos, lawyers, and policy wonks that have no science background and continue to believe they do not need to know the science since they are dealing with 'hard' social problems. And that will prove to be the intractable part!

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