Monday, April 26, 2010

"Efficiency" and problem definition

Catherine Mohr's TED talk on "Building Green" started a wonderful discussion between Arnab and I regarding this project of mine. In the talk, she gives an example of wiping away yogurt with a paper towel (that you later throw away) versus a sponge (that you wash), and says that the amount of energy it takes to wash the sponge (water, heating, etc.) is more than the "embodied" energy in the paper towel. This gives the impression that using the paper towel, and throwing it away, may not be as bad as you think it is. Maybe. But maybe not. Here are some of my thoughts and concerns.

1) It seems where this leads to is saying that if we reduced the amount of energy it took to produce the paper towel, we can continue to use paper towels. Optimising production of paper towels (and other products), or "efficiency" makes us feel better about what we do, and allows us excuses to continue using the products longer.
3) These issues become very technocratic, data/number driven, and confusing because at times, it can be unclear as to how energy accounting can be done - in the end, whose numbers are more convincing? Also, how do you account for things that cannot be quantified? Social impact? Environmental impact? What may be more easy to agree upon is the philosophy of the issue.
4) This leads to what I think is the most salient issue at hand - problem definition. Depending on where in the flow of problems/responses/thoughts/outcomes we define where the underlying problem is will influence how well we address the problem. I think defining the problem as "using X is alright, let's just find a more efficient way of making them" is defining the problem downstream of defining it as "the fact that we use X may be the problem." Defining the problem upstream allows us potential solutions that would not have been possible had we defined the problem downstream.

Does this make sense to you? What do you think?


  1. I just read in AA news an article about you, I am extremely intrigued, limiting the waste we produce is essential to survive, as well as managing the natural resources, we have plenty of water in AA but water is very scarce in other part of the world.. I just started reading your blog, and I wish I can find answers as I go on..

  2. Hi there!

    Thanks so much for your interest. Well, I hope this is a conversation we can continue to have. If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to contact me. I am muddling through my thoughts as well, and hopefully you find something helpful in my posts. If you want to see me write about something in particular, let me know...

  3. I am reading through your posts from the beginning and I am really impressed/inspired by the whole thing. I think it is really fantastic! You have raised some terrific questions and ideas that I have a deep appreciation for. Thank you so much for doing this! In addition, I have a habit of playing devils advocate so please understand that I agree whole-heartedly with the principle of what you are doing and that I challenge the ideas only to try to help make them better.

    For this post I agree with your reasoning in the ideal world but I think the world we live in is not so simple. I believe everything we use eventually loses its value to us and that value needs to be re-estabilshed somehow. In many cases materials that have lost value to use may have value to other organisms, which regenerate their value to us. It is interesting to me that you think of a sponge as something that does not become garbage. For example, I wouldn't use a sponge for a year. Also the soap that we use to clean the sponge is not re-usable and I would consider it garbage. So in my mind every comparison always becomes "what is the lesser of two evils." In many cases I believe we agree, if the material cannot be easily utilized by other organisms for something useful then we have thrown a wrench in the works. From a garbage perspective I would be more frightened of a sponge and soap than paper. A sponge is non-biodegradable in most cases (many are made from plastic: The soap has a number of negative effects in aquatic systems. Paper is easily broken down in the environment and can easily be composted. So it again is an issue of what question you ask.

  4. Matthew,

    It was really great talking to you at the wedding, and I'm glad you are challenging me to think more about what I'm doing, and have better justifications for my arguments. I think this is really important; I continue to learn more and more each day...

    I agree with your point about the sponge; I do consider it garbage. To be honest, I haven't really thought of "value" in the way you talk about soap; you are right, it does "wash away" and its value has been lost. You are right - in that case, soap is garbage. This is something I think I will write about in my next post today.

    I do have a question for you, though. How do you know what is the lesser of the two evils? I guess as a scientist/engineer, we can use our "engineering judgement," but what if our judgements are wrong?

  5. I am really good at doubting and very bad at coming up with right answers =) I believe that most of these issues are far too complicated to answer as an individual. Many of these questions should be answered/approximated by groups and translated into legislation that leads to the largest environmental benefit. Unfortunately, I am of the belief that almost all important questions are nearly impossible to answer. Questions of morality are very complex, especially if you don't decide who's interest you are serving. You did a great job in your response turning my doubt back at me. I honestly am not sure what is the lesser of two evils. That is why I asked. The question overwhelms me in its complexity. I would love to spend my life answering these sorts of questions, especially if the analysis could be used to help people live in a way that makes more sense. Because we do live in a crazy world.