Tuesday, August 12, 2008

China's Hidden Export: Air Pollution

The run up to the Beijing Olympics was full of photos and news reports of Beijing's legendary smog. Almost any distance shot comes automatically with a smog-induced atmospheric view. The reports talked about concern over the affect of the air pollution on athlete performance. Well I'm starting to wonder, with everything that China is making and exporting over there, How soon before they start exporting their air pollution all the way to California?

The Bay Area has been environmentally concious for a long time. But I can't help thinking that some of this came easy. When it comes to air pollution, we of course have rules designed to minimize power plant and factory emmissions but we are also blessed with a steady stream of fresh air off the Pacific.

I went to school in the 80s in upstate New York. Acid Rain was a common topic of interest at that time. Lakes were dying because the coal induced pollution was raising the PH of the lakes to a level where they could no longer support life. It was particularly dramatic in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. The Adirondacks are one of the larger wilderness areas on the East Coast and yet they were being heavily affected by the output of far away industries. At the time, NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group was spending a lot of time on the issue. They determined that industries based in Ohio were partially to blame. Ohio's coal, tire and steel industries were releasing a tremendous amount of sulfur into the atmosphere. Once in the air, the pollution would move east with the weather. Eventually it would rain and the sulfur would mix with the water to create sulfur dioxide: "acid rain". It became an eye opener to many that actions in one state would have most of their impact felt in the next state.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I remember thinking how lucky we were to live on the Pacific coast with regards to air quality. There's no Ohio sitting next to us spewing sulfur into the air. But now I'm starting to wonder. It might not be next to us but China is a lot bigger than Ohio and putting a lot more up into the air.

How bad does it have to get before California, the most ecologicaly-minded state in the US, gets on the pollution watch list. Of course LA is already legendary for its smog. But smog in LA is a very local phenomenon. It is a combination of locally generated pollution, weather and geography. The hills surrounding much of the city give the smog no easy exit so the problem is both contained and concentrated.

According to this article, China is now opening up two new coal-fired power plants a week. Coal represents one of our biggest challenges with respect to global warming. It is possible the dirtiest carbon-based fuel but the only one the countries like the US and China have a large supply of. With oil prices skyrocketing, the temptation to burn even more coal will continue to grow. How long before our beloved cool Pacific breezes start to feel a bit warmer and take on a brownish tint?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Thousand Drums in China

2008 to be precise. If there's one image that I will remember from the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies it will be this one (photo by Michael Macor of the San Francisco Chronicle). 2008 individual drummers in perfect synchronization. What made it even more amazing is to see them drumming independently one second and then in absolute sync the next. The effect was all the more apparent when the lights were out and each drum lit up as it was hit. You could see all these drummers with separate heart beats playing independently and then, with some invisible order, they were all in sync. I can't think of a more potent symbol of today's China... 1.4 billion people who are more and more independent yet willing to march in perfect step when the government asks. Amazing and scary.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Science of Gods and Variables

It occurred to me that there is a similarity between the number of variables in scientific models and the number of gods worshiped by people of faith. It seems like the trend over the millenia has been to reduce the number of variables and gods respectively. In the case of variables, the goal is zero while in the case of gods worshiped the trend has been towards one. But it makes me wonder if the ultimate trend for both is zero.

The evolution of science starts with a world where almost everything in human experience is a mystery. Over time, as cause and effect are discovered, the mysteries are removed. As science becomes formalized, scientists sought to broaden their knowledge by coming up with new theories for how the universe works and testing those hypotheses through experiments and measurement. Early in an area of study, there are multiple variables. But as theories are refined, more and more of the equation becomes known resulting in fewer variables. Theories on the cutting edge of how the universe works try to unify all the known forces into a single, elegant equation. There are still variables that are not fully understood but fewer than there were a decade ago.

Computer modeling follows a similar but inverse path. Predicting the weather is done by running complex models. Early models were simpler due to the limits of both understanding and computer power. Simpler models have more external variables in that fewer of the contributing forces are being factored into the equation. Over time, our understanding and processing power have increased and this has allowed us to reduce these external variables by incorporating them into the models.

This sounds very similar to the history of religion. To early humans, everything is a mystery. Cause and effect is beyond understanding and so, to compensate, gods are created that "cause" certain things to happen. With so many mysteries in the world, many gods are created, each responsible for one or more effects. One god is the sun, giver of light, another god brings the rains and yet another brings abundant or scarce harvests.

I don't know when the religions of the world peaked in numbers of gods worshipped. Poly-theistic religions remain to this day. But eventually a turning point was reached and religions decided that there were too many gods. This resulted in a slow but steady trend towards worshipping fewer gods. Religions that worshipped multiple gods were seen as engaging in "idol worship".

Catholicism tried to sit on the poly-theistic/mono-theistic fence by introducing the concept of the holy trinity: essentially saying that their one God is simulataneously made up of the father, the son and a very fire-like holy spirit.

Islam took a firm, mono-theistic stance with the Koran saying, "there is no God but God". Islam was laying down the law... that's it, there's only one.

Sir Richard Dawkins made this trend humorously clear in a speach I heard him give on problems of discrimination against atheists in the US. With all the focus we put on a candidate's faith here, an atheist, even if he/she was an amazing statesman, could never be elected president. Dawkins then made an interesting point. The general history of religion has been towards worshipping fewer and fewer gods until we reached the current situation where Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship one god. "Atheism is not that different", Dawkins said, "we just go one god further."

I don't know if the two trends are linked. But it would seem natural that as science has illuminated more and more of the World's mysteries it would impact religious beliefs. As the sun is revealed to be a ball of burning gas, it makes less sense to keep telling everyone that it is a god. Perhaps the current debates over things like evolution are because some of the more extreme faith-based leaders worry about what comes after "1" when you are counting down.