Analog vs. Digital
Water, people, and sorting out other existential crises
Jeff Goodell, in his well-researched book, “The Water Will Come,” unceremoniously drops in a statistic that deserves some ceremony: There are 145 million people in the world living within 3 feet of sea level.
My first cartoonish image of this was of 145 million people crammed along the seashores of the world’s oceans. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. Having lived in the mountains most of my life, it’s easy to forget that a good chunk of the world is, in fact, flat and low. Not flat like the ancient Greeks believed in the 5th century BC, nor like the modern flat-earthers believe. And yes, believe it or not, there is a contingent of people today who believe the spherical nature of the Earth is a fallacy perpetuated by the deep state. No one really knows how many flat-earthers there are, but at the 2019 Flat Earth International Conference in Dallas, more than 600 people attended.
But to the point, the world is flat in that there are great swaths of “habitable” land—inland and coastland—within a few feet of ocean levels.
This statistic struck me because it encapsulates and connects what are perhaps the two biggest issues we non-flat-earthers should be concerned about. While this is not an essay about global warming nor immigration per se, there are a few cold hard facts to remember when discussing an otherwise hot topic.
One is that the average temperature of the oceans worldwide has increased and continues to increase. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study published in 2021, “Sea surface temperature increased during the 20th century and continues to rise. From 1901 through 2020, temperature rose at an average rate of 0.14°F per decade.”
That’s not easy to dispute; you stick a thermometer in a bathtub, and you get a number.
So what’s the worry about a warmer bathtub?
Other than marine species being affected, particularly coral reefs, which happen to be foundational to life in the oceans, what does it matter if the oceans get warmer?
Like most materials on Earth, water increase in volume as its temperature increases. For those who say, “why?” again, this is because the kinetic energy of the molecules increases. Like kids hopped up on fudge, the atoms and molecules with more kinetic energy zip around farther and faster. As such, and to put it crudely, they take up more space, and volume increases.
There is a second issue when it comes to oceans inching up on us. And that is that glaciers—which exist over land—are melting faster than they can accumulate new snow. That melted water makes its way into the oceans, raising levels further. (Melting/calving icebergs do not contribute to sea level rise, as their ice, which is already in the water, displaces the same volume as the volume of water added when they melt.)
A third factor is the transfer of water on land—aquifers, lakes, rivers, soil moisture—to the oceans. For the most part, the depletion of ground water is responsible for this transfer of water.
How great a rise are we talking about? The United Nation’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a rise between 0.95 feet and 3.61 feet by 2100. A 2017 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association report predicted a rise between 1 and 8 feet by 2100. Several other respected scientists have projected values up to 9 feet.
There are some who see variations in predictions and conclude that none of it can be true; throw out the bathwater. I would have to disagree.
Once upon a time, I was a chemical engineer. And though I was an average scientist, I did come to recognize and appreciate the value of true, high-level scientists. What scientists do well is consider all possibilities with equanimity—without bias—in seeking out what is real.
In that previous life, I learned that scientists are honest brokers, more so—by a country mile—than most others in other walks of life. And for those not living in the country, a country mile is an Old English Mile, which is 10 furlongs, as opposed to a London mile, which is 8 furlongs. A scientist would know in an instant that a furlong is 1/8 of a mile. A politician would tell you that it depends on the latest polls.
That scientists can come up with varying predictions is not surprising. These are multi-variable, complex problems; variations in results do not invalidate the obvious reality of the trend: Millions of people are headed for a soggy future. And it’s not hard to see that as sea levels rise all those people living in low lying areas are going to be on the move.
Where are they going to go? Who knows, but they are going to go somewhere. The question of the century is how are we going to deal with these two interrelated problems?
I remember taking my first electrical engineering class in college and experiencing awe and disbelief when I learned how computers worked: how every number and letter, and then word, then sentence, then paragraph—ad nauseum—was converted to a base 2 number.
So, something as simple as the sentence: “The world is flat, don’t fall off” would look like:
01010100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101111 01110010 01101100 01100100 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100110 01101100 01100001 01110100 00101100 00100000 01100100 01101111 01101110 11100010 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100110 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01101111 01100110 01100110 00101110
Inside a logic board of a computer, each 0 would be represented by 0 voltage, each 1 by a small voltage. It is how computers see the inputs of the world—as on or off, voltage or no voltage—and then they process the problems sequentially. With a digital mindset, it’s one way or the other.
A second way of looking at the world is in an analog fashion. In the analog realm, the input signal is continuous, and the output is proportional to the input. It’s like turning up the volume on an old stereo. There are infinite levels of volume up to the maximum, as opposed to maximum volume and no volume. Operating in analog fashion is to understand the world in gradations.
And here is the rub: our approach to deciding the pivotal questions before us—our political minds—have become increasingly binary. To put it simply: we are attacking analog problems with a binary mindset.
Curiously, our brains—on a physiological level—function for the most part in an analog fashion. Not only do they process in parallel—as opposed to sequentially like most computers—the building blocks of brains, neurons, fire in proportion to the size of the stimulus.
However, at the macro level, when it comes to making policy decisions—decisions that affect millions of people and the future of the habitable earth—there seems to be a growing tendency to demand answers in black and white. When that happens, there is no compromise, no meeting in the middle, no democratic solution—just antipathy.
Conservative columnist David Brooks recently wrote a piece in the New York Times in which he explained how the concept of “division of labor” emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. In essence, the idea is that when individuals do what they do best, generate products and services for which they are uniquely suited and then exchange products in a market, there is a synergistic effect. All parties are better off through the efficiencies of specialization. Such a market approach, Brooks holds, encourages a moral order and interdependence.
Conversely, across the globe, popularism seems to be all the rage these days. As Brooks points out, popularism operates on a “zero-sum” calculus, which assumes the “supply of wealth” is finite. “If I’m going to get more of it, it will be the result of conquering you and stealing what you have. In a zero-sum mindset, the basic logic of life is dog-eat-dog, conquer or be conquered. Property is theft. Predators win.”
A zero-sum mindset is another way of describing the world in 0s and 1s. Personally, I don’t think the world can be digitally parsed like that.
I also don’t know what the answer will be when the water rises and people get on the move. But the sooner we see the world as it truly is—in its analog complexity—the sooner will we find solutions to our mounting problems. The answers are always found somewhere between 0 and 1, not at the maximum, not at the minimum.
I do recognize that this country—forged by and defined by immigrants—can’t absorb 145 million climate refugees. But I also know that no wall will hold back 145 million people fleeing for their lives. Iron and concrete are no match for desperation and the will to live.