One death is a tragedy — a million deaths is a statistic.” That epigram, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, neatly sums up two characteristics of our species: sentimentality and innumeracy.
We don’t like to think about large numbers, big data or inexorable fate. We’d much rather focus on our own lives, the lives of those we know, and the lives of those we think we know.
But the big numbers don’t care about us. They’re not real, just data streams that symbolize realities we can scarcely imagine or comprehend. We pick and choose, approving some and dismissing others.
Big data, big numbers and dispersed consequences allow us to pick and choose the things we worry about.
My friend Gary is deeply alarmed by the multi-trillion-dollar debt that the federal government has incurred. He thinks that, absent drastic measures to reduce that debt, a terrible reckoning may come. Fiat currencies, he reminds me, all fail eventually. We may think that we’re exempt from the simplest laws of political economics, but history says otherwise.
Gary doesn’t worry much about global warming.
“You’re worried about the Midwest warming up?” he asked me the other day. “John, Chicago was under 1,000 feet of ice a few thousand years ago. It’s still warming up — those are natural processes.”
I don’t worry much about our debt, preferring Dick Cheney’s maxim:
“Reagan taught us that debt doesn’t matter.”
All we need is some old-fashioned economic growth, and we’ll be fine!
So I bombard Gary with facts about global warming, which he receives with amused skepticism, and eventually we settle down, stop arguing, and enjoy Friday night at The Famous.
Big data, big numbers and dispersed consequences allow us to pick and choose the things we worry about. I hope that Gary’s wrong and I hope that I’m wrong — but there’s not much either of us can do about it.
Yet we have the numbers on our side. When Gary points out that the national debt is more than $17 trillion, I can show him that economic growth is already working its magic.
Budget deficits have fallen from the 2009 peak of $1.4 trillion to $680 billion in FY2013 and the Congressional Budget Office expects a further reduction to $492 billion in 2014. So Gary, no problem.
At this rate, Obama will leave office with a balanced budget!
And if I hammer Gary with carbon-dioxide emissions numbers (31.3 billion metric tons of CO2 worldwide, 5.4 billion from the U.S.), he can point out that we’re doing our share to reduce those numbers.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “CO2 emissions in 2013 are slightly more than 10 percent below 2005 levels, a significant contribution toward the goal of a 17 percent reduction in emissions from the 2005 level by 2020 that was adopted by the current Administration.”
But the numbers are still scary, especially if reinforced with bizarre factoids.
Such as this one:
During this year of 2014, approximately 1.2 million human cremations will take place in the United States. A single cremation requires average temperatures of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to be sustained for two hours or more. The process releases about 573 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, or a national total of 312,545 metric tons of atmospheric CO2 annually.
Is that a lot? Nope.
It’s a little more than one-quarter of the amount of CO2 released annually by our downtown coal-burner, the Martin Drake Power Plant.
Clearly, then, if we re-purposed Drake as a giant, gas-fired crematorium capable of filling the needs of the entire nation, we’d be a far greener city. And we could pursue more funding from the state Regional Tourism Act. After all, the mega-crematorium could draw more than 1 million new visitors!
So what if they’re dead?
Gary and I will continue to disagree, and hope that the other’s concerns are baseless.
If I’m right, the oceans will rise, heat and drought will kill Western forests, water wars will rage between the seven Western states that depend upon the Colorado River, and world food shortages will create unimaginable human tragedies.
If Gary’s right, inflation will trigger a sudden migration from dollar-denominated investments, triggering a catastrophic worldwide financial crisis. The middle class will see its savings wiped out, companies will collapse, jobs will disappear, The Famous will close, and I’ll get on my bike and head for Maine — maybe my son will let me pitch a tent somewhere on his organic farm.
And if neither of us is right, life goes on … Gary, see you Friday night at The Famous!