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Expired · 19th January 2011
Ray Grigg
"Our brains have evolved to get us out of the rain, find where the berries are and keep us from getting killed. Our brains did not evolve to help us grasp really large numbers or to look at things in a hundred thousand dimensions." Ronald L. Graham, American mathematician.

Graham makes sense, no mean accomplishment for a modern mathematician. His allusion to "a hundred thousand dimensions" is probably a reference to String Theory, an incomprehensible attempt to devise a formulaic explanation for everything. Indeed, even without complex theories, big numbers do challenge our understanding. A trillion dollars is a stack of $1,000 bills a kilometre high. Or, should we feel inclined, we can reach a trillion by counting seconds for the next 32,000 years – make it a multi-generational family project.

We also have difficulty understanding small numbers. For most people, the functioning of computers, cell phones and the entire digital world is relegated to a bewildering process akin to magic. A nanometre, the standard measurement for micro technology, is 1 billionth of a metre, about 1/50,000 the width of a human hair, about 1/100,000 the thickness of a piece of paper, or the equivalent of 1 second in 32 years.

Such numbers hinder our understanding of environmental issues. For a species that has spent nearly its entire existence camped in caves and primitive shelters, gathering berries and spearing game, and clustering in protective families or clans to keep at bay marauding animals and enemies, we are not well equipped to comprehend or appreciate the significance of the numbers now inundating us. How can we assess the impact of the environmental changes occurring around us if the numbers don't relate to our experience?

The total economic damage caused by natural disasters in 2010 ‹ most of them climate related – was $222 billion (Globe & Mail, Dec. 20/10). Floods, heat waves, forest fires and landslides killed about 260,000 people, a mere abstraction unless we personally knew someone who died. A single storm, Hurricane Igor, did $100 million in damage to Newfoundland – another abstraction unless it was our home, road or waterfront that washed away. The same dilemma applies to the record floods in Pakistan. And Southern California. And Australia. After suffering the worst drought on record, Australia is beginning 2011 with a flood inundating an area larger than the combined size of Germany and France. If we can't conceptualize the size of Germany and France, the scope of this disaster is meaningless.

But, for coastal British Columbians who experienced the monsoons of last September, their understanding was less abstract. And those who endured the winter storms that caused power outages, road closures, cancelled ferry sailings and delayed flights, found them very real. Even when weather events are directly experienced as inconveniences or disasters, however, the dilemma is that statistics can't definitively link any individual weather anomaly to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Because no particular storm can be attributed to a warming planet, extreme weather is easily assigned to the category of the unexplainable. Although extreme weather is real and measurable, we can easily rationalize the cause and delay the corrective measures. We treat weather like the mystery of very big and very small numbers.

We also have difficulty conceptualizing the rise in sea level. For Canadians who are in a state of quasi-adjustment to metrification, how meaningful is it to know that the world's oceans have been rising an average of 1.7 millimetres per year for the last century. Isn't a millimetre very small? Since the early 1990s, the rise has accelerated to about 3 mm per year. Isn't three times small still very small? The total rise in sea level is about 20 centimetres in 100 years. Does 8 inches more meaningful?

These numbers begin to make more sense when they are linked to the 500,000 Bangladeshi farmers who have been flooded off their country's biggest island, Bhola, because of rising sea levels. Another 12 to 17 million Bangladeshis have become environmental refugees because of climate change. Not until 1.7 millimetres eventually translates into metres do we realized that, in a hundred years, the world's oceans will be at least a metre higher. But this, too, is just another abstract number if the imagination doesn't translate it into a warning.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels present the same problem as millimetres. If pre-industrial levels were 280 parts per million, what is the meaning of our present level of 393 ppm? Such a concentration hasn't existed for at least a million years ‹ if a million years has any inherent meaning ‹ and is presently translating into a global temperature rise of about 0.6°C. This doesn't seem like much. Unless you happen to be living in the Arctic with melting ice and permafrost. Or in the Sahel, the dry belt stretching across North Africa, where the heat has shrunk giant Lake Chad by 95 percent since 1963, and drought is forcing millions of people off the land.

Countries of the international community are now negotiating to limit carbon dioxide emissions to a level that may hold global temperature increases to less than 2°C ‹ just another abstract number until it is connected to day-to-day experience by the inevitability of future heat, floods, melting ice and rising oceans.

But, isn't the future we are bequeathing to others just another abstraction, like numbers that are too big or too small to understand? The future won't be our reality. In keeping with our evolved character, too many of us, it seems, are too busy fending off the rain, gathering berries and keeping ourselves alive to worry about such numbers and what they mean.