Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Day 576: The Lesser of Two Evils?

Ah, Beijing, the smog-filled capital of the new world. The possibility! Breathe it in! Akkkkggghhh– wait, actually don’t just yet.
China’s capital has officially announced that it is taking action against its extreme pollution by banning the use of coal by the end of 2020, with the intention of prioritizing electricity and natural gas. This move comes in response to mounting international pressure for the country to clean up its pollution.
According to China’s official news agency, coal comprised about 25 percent of Beijing’s energy consumption in 2012 and 22 percent of the particles floating in the city’s air. Coal has been largely responsible for China’s economic growth, providing three-quarters of the country’s primary energy supply and burning more than the rest of the world combined each year. But the smog in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou is responsible for around 250,000 deaths every year.
Still, banning coal in one city will likely not have much of an impact on the country’s distinction as the largest emitter of carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases.
In the past year, the Chinese government has made it a priority to fight pollution, and its first step has been to move away from coal. According to Quartz, Beijing’s coal will be replaced with synthetic natural gas, or syngas converted from coal, which isn’t much better.
Quartz’s Gwynn Guilford explains:
Created by burning natural gas developed from coal, this form of energy creates a fraction of the pollutants spewed out by coal-fired power plants. But it also emits up to 82% more carbon dioxide and guzzles huge amounts of water.
Cleaning up air pollution is clearly the priority. The rapid growth in demand for syngas will see the government accelerate the approval of new projects, according to the forum, aiming for 2015 production of between 15 billion and 18 billion cubic meters a year (530-636 billion cubic feet). “With the present rapidly developing coal-to-gas projects, there is a high enthusiasm for coal natural gas projects everywhere,” said Zhang Fang, associate dean of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Planning Institute, at the coal forum. “By 2020, China coal natural gas production will reach 60 billion cubic meters.”

It cannot be said that this is the only occurrence of this nature - the history of humanity is riddled with "just good enough" and "as long as it fixes my current problem" solutions. The very nature of our problem solving process follows the probability of settling for "good enough", even when it's not actually good enough, as is the case in the scenario above along with countless others.

Developing the best solution to a problem often requires more work than the average person is willing to put in - the evidence of this is all around us. We are far more likely to take a shortcut if there is some kind of reward in it for us - even if that shortcut is potentially dangerous. We tend to live by the motto of "it's not my problem" when it comes to these kinds of things. We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we are protecting our own interests and some poor schmuck potentially paying the price of that is a small enough price. This sounds rather pessimistic I know, but it is unfortunately an accurate reflection of the way many people in the world think.

A very popular example of this would be the Titanic: Shortcuts were taken when the ship was being built, which led to it being less able to avoid and/or weather things like icebergs, as well as get help and get to safety in the case of emergency. Obviously there are some things in life that you just don't know could happen until they do, but there are many more things that can be avoided altogether with careful planning and work. Another popular example of a tragedy that could have been averted is the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry earlier this year in which 300 people died.

We seem to only learn from our mistakes after tragedy strikes, even when we are fully aware beforehand that a tragedy is entirely possible due to whatever shortcuts we take. When you take this into consideration you will see how so many things in history and in your own life could have been avoided entirely by taking the time and making the effort to thoroughly plan and consider the path ahead. It seems like we are still learning this lesson, somehow still believing that everything will be ok (this is called the Optimism Bias and is being studied in psychology) even though we know that the plan we have set in motion is not the best plan available to us, it is just good enough.

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