UNDERSTANDING SCALE: THE KEY INGREDIENT IN PROBLEM SOLVING

Occasional Address:  UWA Tuesday 9th March

UNDERSTANDING SCALE: THE KEY INGREDIENT IN PROBLEM SOLVING

I feel rather strange here tonight accepting a degree when I’m probably the only one doing so who doesn’t own an iPod, doesn’t Twitter or Blog, and doesn’t have at least 50 Facebook friends.

 

If we observe the UWA crest or logo, we see the motto “Seek Wisdom”.  I know this because one of my cheekier students, now working for NASA on the back of his excellent UWA degree, added “Elsewhere” to the “Seek Wisdom” on our four-wheel drive bush vehicle.

 

The normal progression in life is to seek information and from this extract knowledge, which, if used sensibly and coupled with experience, becomes wisdom.

 

In today’s world we are increasingly overwhelmed with information, less and less of which is peer reviewed, so it is becoming more and more difficult to extract useful knowledge.  It is even more difficult to obtain wisdom, as we can see from the many poor decisions by world leaders and the broad decline in social values globally.

 

All of you graduating tonight at UWA will have been presented with the best information available.  However, how many of you have acquired wisdom from the knowledge that you should have gained during your studies?

 

During my studies at the University of Tasmania, Professor Sam Carey who was far ahead of his time, introduced his students to continental drift and global tectonics way back in the 1950s and 1960s.  He imparted two pieces of wisdom that were to help shape my academic career at UWA.

 

The first was:  “Disbelieve if you can”.  Never sit back and accept what you read or are told.  Question it rigorously and then if you do accept the model, you have verified it for yourself.

 

The second was:  “To resolve problems, you have to view them at an appropriate scale, including an appropriate time scale”.  The inability to do this has led to many of the global problems of modern societies, because the policies of world leaders are often dictated by decisions based on visions at too small a scale or too short a time scale.

 

Let’s look at climate change for example, or more specifically global warming ascribed to increased CO2 emissions by human activity, which has become THE political paradigm of the past decade, resembling the dogmas of the flat Earth or the Sun’s revolution around the Earth of past centuries.

 

If we view this at the correct time scale, we know from our geological and astronomical knowledge that the Earth is a dynamic planet wobbling through the solar system, on a dynamic journey through the variably energetic galaxy.  This produces cyclical climate changes, the largest cycle 143 million years and the shortest group of five cycles between 210 years and 11 years. These climate changes can be quite sudden.  Geologists, in their wisdom, have known this for two hundred years.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, the whole Earth is thought to have been ice covered and named the Snowball Earth.  One thousand years ago Greenland was green and farmed by the Vikings, and three hundred years ago the Thames River froze over and so on. 

 

If we look at Australia’s coastline, 125,000 years ago sea level was 7m higher than now.   It was much lower about 50,000 years ago when our first inhabitants crossed land bridges and narrow seas to Australia.  The coastal plain probably stretched intermittently out to Rottnest Island.  Then, just 6000 years ago, sea level was 2m higher in Australia.  So sea level rise and fall is not a new phenomenon.  Throughout these climate cycles in geological history, there were natural changes in the CO2 content of the atmosphere but no evidence of correlation between high CO2 and warming periods, often the opposite.

 

Despite doubts that we are actually causing global warming, the attention this has received, in combination with much more conclusive evidence for negative environmental impacts, for example increasing extinctions of species, severe atmospheric and water pollution, should alert us to the larger scale cause of these symptoms.  We are overpopulating the Earth: overall we are increasing our standard of living and, with it, overusing our non-renewable natural resources; we are a serviced society out of equilibrium with our natural environment; and we no longer follow Darwinian natural selection.

 

The challenge for us is how to deal with these problems.  In the short term, it would be much better to revive the lungs of the Earth in the Amazon and other jungles than to spend billions of dollars on Carbon Trading Taxes.  In the long term it is to consider the consequences of the projected global increase in population from 6 to 9 billion by 2070, in terms of natural climate change and other natural phenomena such as earthquakes and tsunamis with greater and greater population densities in vulnerable areas.  The increased population will also enhance the vulnerability of those areas to disasters such as landslides by over-clearing of vegetation.  We have only managed to rapidly populate the Earth with 6 billion people, because of the Utopian climate of the past 100 years.  A sudden cooling would be more of a problem than a sudden warming and sea level rise, because of the effect it would have on habitation and crop production in the Northern Hemisphere.

 

In terms of these global concerns, Australia is still the lucky country with a relatively small population and extensive natural resources.  Despite political posturing, our carbon footprint is still like a flea in an elephant’s ear!  However we have predictions of increasing population without clear strategic plans for water and urban development, and a desire to cut CO2 emissions with no real alternative for energy production, particularly since nuclear energy is a political taboo.

 

As graduates here today, you represent a section of the UWA graduates for 2010.  You face some of the greatest challenges that humans have faced in their long history.  There has undoubtedly been more change in the past 80 years than in the previous million years of human activity, the rate of change is accelerating and we are thinking on a shorter and shorter time scale.   If I don’t Twitter or Blog soon, I will cease to be seen to exist!

 

Let us be confident that you have acquired sufficient knowledge and wisdom at UWA now, and have been taught to seek knowledge and wisdom throughout your lives.  Some of you should be among that group of people who really make a difference, who can help resolve problems by viewing them at the correct scale, and who have the ability to instil wisdom in decision makers.  The challenge to “Seek Wisdom” is yours!!

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