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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Unit-fication
May 19, 2010 - 9:09pm

I confuse easily. I 'm aware of that fact and, being aware of it, take solace when I learn of someone else who confuses as easily as I do.

Someone ostensibly named "Dan Barrett" apparently falls into the easily-confused category. According to an item in the Feedback section of an old NewScientist magazine (is that a contradiction in terms?), Barrett was sitting in an unspecified location in his house, reading the information (as one apparently does in locations unspecified but inferable) on a package of toilet paper. Daniel was puzzled by the fact that the packaging specified that each of eight rolls contained approximately 360 sheets, that each sheet was 124 x 110 millimeters in size, that the average roll length was 44.64 meters, and that the average total area for an entire package was 39.28 square meters. Barrett's response to this information? To consider it silly, to wonder whether others were using TP for some non-obvious purpose such as papering a wall, and to ask "why are they not using a more standard unit of measurement, such as the football field?"

Now I always thought that, as units go, the square meter (or metre, NewScientist being published in the UK) was about as standard as can be. Football fields, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, depending on whether you're in the USA, Canada, Australia (or anywhere else where they play by Aussie rules), one of numerous places where they play one of the various games which have gone by the name of "Rugby", or the rest of the world.

The whole situation reminded me of one sort of question which always perplexes me at work. If I calculate that a certain sustainability-related initiative will reduce (or has reduced) Greenback's GHG emissions by a certain number of metric tons, I'm often asked to express that in cars taken off the road, or hamburgers not eaten, or trees planted. Now I understand that many people have difficulty visualizing a metric ton of CO2, and that they have an easy time visualizing a car or a burger or a tree. But the reason we have units of measurement is . . . ummmm . . . to measure. And to allow the measured comparison of two disparate objects or quantities. And even if I tell someone that a set of emissions eliminated is equivalent to the result of taking 100 cars off the road for a year, has meaningful measurement taken place? Is measured comparison going on? Is a sense of scale really being created?

So the GHG emissions reduction you achieved is the same as would be triggered by taking 100 average cars off the road for a year. How much CO2 does an average car produce in a year? Most people don't know. Most people hear "100 cars for a year" and discern from that a number and an object. But the object, for all its familiarity, doesn't imply anything meaningful. How many cars are there in the USA? The world? How much of the world's GHG emissions are created by cars anyways? If all the world's GHG emissions were to be generated by cars, how many cars would that take? And what portion of that is 100? And when we say "average", do we mean US average, North American average, global average, or something else? The statement "x metric tons of CO2" has meaning. The statement "equivalent to taking y cars off the road" does not. It has, at best, an appearance of meaning. In reality, however, it boils down pretty much the same as "a whole lot" or "not very much".

And anyway, it takes more cars than that to fill a football field. Unless it doesn't.

 

 

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