Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Green Paradox


Being able to see the correct model of reality is often the key to finding the solution to a complex problem. Take Zeno’s paradox of infinite regression: “Suppose Homer wants to catch a stationary bus. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a fourth, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.” Zeno's paradoxes - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you remain fixed on solving this paradox mathematically or logically, you’re probably going to be frustrated. Makes sense in a way, but it cannot be! Obviously, Homer will make it to his destination without getting lost in an infinite regression of half-distances. But, focused merely on the internal logic of the question can make this paradox unsolvable. The answer (provided by Aristotle) is that distances can be halved in your mind, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve been noodling over this old philosophy puzzle because I see a connection between Zeno’s paradox and the flurry of articles on wind farms and wind turbine placement in our region lately. This present controversy, whether our region should support or avoid wind turbines, is spreading like wildfire. Lots of folks are getting mad as hell. (Check out these local newslinks on the matter: http://www.rochesterenvironment.com/Issues/Wind_Power_NewsLinks.html)

Here’s the connection to Zeno’s paradox: No doubt most people in our region have an opinion about whether we should allow wind turbines in our area. Some may agree that wind farms or just wind turbines are OK, depending on where you place them. But mostly, opinions run strongly in favor of them or against. Groups have formed to accentuate the positive arguments and other groups quite the reverse. You can find the list of groups against wind power in our area and all those for this renewable energy source at: http://www.rochesterenvironment.com/wind_power.htm

I myself almost got caught by the Green Paradox in an online discussion (friendly argument) with a physicist who asked me just how many wind turbines did I think it would take to replace one coal-fired plant? He was fixated on forcing me to admit that it would take a lot of wind turbines, in terms of megawatts—which, of course, it would. However, agreeing with the physicist would be like falling into the problem of the paradox:

The question “How many turbines does it take to replace a coal-fired plant” derives from a wrong model of reality. The physicist’s assumption was that maintaining our present and future base load energy needs will not be supported by wind turbine technology. Likewise, most of the discussions by individuals, groups, town boards, politicians, and business, for and against wind turbine placement have good logical arguments—if you accept their premises. Premises, like aesthetics, property rights, energy base loads, costs, lawsuits, bird kills, noise factors, land value, are all good arguments, except they are all trumped by reality, Climate Change.

Any other line of reasoning that doesn’t assume the need for renewable energy sources allows us the illusion that we have choices other than a healthy environment. If you are against renewable energy sources like contributing wind power from our area and don’t consider the repercussions of Climate Change in your decision, then you are going to get lost in an infinite regression of good arguments that fail to see reality. When you fill your atmosphere with greenhouse gases, weather gets screwy and warms up. QED. Here’s a more appropriate paradox for our times: How has such a supposedly intelligent creature as Homo Sapiens put environmental health on the backburner and placed all other considerations before it?

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