Here's a little game I like to play with the school boys and girls — you can play too. Alright, first thing: don't try to "figure out" the answer, okay? I'm going to ask you something, I want you to guess the answer; consider the question and just spit out whatever you think the answer could be without calculating anything. Ready?
How much time elapses in one million seconds (you know, in a more manageable unit like minutes or days)?
How much time elapses in one billion seconds?
What I'm thinking about is the way we use numbers-facts-stats to bolster our arguments. Yesterday, some people from a group operating under the name Environment Washington came by to enlist me in a battle to expand the borders of Rainier National Park. Their please-give-us-money salespitch was full of facts — I couldn't get a handle on any of it.
"We're hoping to expand the park from an ungraspable amount of protected acres to even more acres," they seemed to say. "The Obama administration has committed a difficult to fathom amount of money for National Parks and we'd like to get that money and use it to, let me check my notes here, ah yes, save trees and animals and stop logging, drilling and other things. However, we would like to increase leisure activities that don't include extracting resources. Hold this clipboard sir, I'll start your paperwork."
Why the numbers? I am surely not expected to think, "Rainier National park is only X number of acres, well that's a fucking travesty! Expand it now! Here's a hundo. How many acres will that buy? Oh, it doesn't work like that? Huh." I assume the numbers are there to make the pitchmen and women appear well-versed in "the facts" but these facts are utter and complete bullshit, which poses a problem. (When I say bullshit, I don't mean to say they're fictitious (how would I know and it doesn't matter), I'm saying the facts are hollow and unintelligible) Large quanities of small units are inherently confusing and lead to disconnects between the people trying to communicate ideas. A million seconds clocks in at about 12 days. A billion seconds lasts about 32 years. In an abstract sense, it's quite easy to see that a billion of anything is 1,000 times larger than one million of that thing. The problem, obviously, is the scale is overwhelming. Soon enough, I'm left wishing: give me something my simple mind can make use of, because I don't understand what these environmentalists at my door are fucking talking about. Maybe that isn't their objective. Maybe hitting people with information overkill makes them feel stupid and flooded and they're now ready to cut a check to get the source of anxiety (the solicitor) off the front porch (How did they get past the gate, anyway? Was the latch that easy to figure out?)
I suppose the great and obvious problem for the environmental movement in America is that we are the problem (it's so much easier when they are the problem), and our normal response to problems — throw money and resources at it in various ways — is not a terribly useful response measure (see: our other means of measuring the success of our solutions*). The earth's brutal indifference to our wants includes an aversion to bribery — we need to learn a new trick. Remember, we're not destroying the earth, the earth will be fine. We're destroying our ability to get what we want out of it (which is many different things that are regularly in disagreement). This should be the new environmental slogan, truly American in style: We're losing what we want!
If you find yourself needing to use large numbers, at least have the common decency to put them into some context we can begin to think about. For instance, I can't make sense of 6.8 billion people — the whole idea is nonsense. However, I can imagine spending one single second looking at someone (you know, a quick glance as you pass each other in line). If you told me I could spend one second with every single person on the planet, and it would take me more than 200 years to see everyone — without any sleeping or eating or tee vee or anything — at least I'm beginning to make some connection to the scale. Not much, but it's something.
*Quick note: If the kids believed reading was either a) important or b) enjoyable they'd be good at it.