Monday, 13 February 2012

Buses vs. walking, the environment, and the sorites paradox

Holy mother of all beetroot-and-watercress-eating-iguanas was that a complicated Tuesday to organise. Just trying to figure out who's getting transport with whom, what time Minya and I were getting the bus, when we were all going to meet up, was Gerry coming, the realisation that we weren't just going shopping, we were going to see a film ("Oh, shit, wow, I didn't realise... what are we watching?" "That's still to be decided") and then money issues. Transport was an issue unto itself, but eventually we resolved most of this. All goes to show that teens seldom put in a lot of forethought <3.

I mention that transport in particular was an issue because it brought something different to the conversation. Dave and I were talking about getting there and he was telling me ardently not to get the bus. He told me "Fareham's not that far away, you can walk."

It made me think.

Yes, I can walk, just as kurtjmac can walk to the Far Lands in Minecraft and Ellen MacArthur can circumnavigate the globe. But is this a fair comparison? Certainly not. Fareham is 4.3 miles away, Google Maps tells me. They think it'd take about an hour and a half, and sure, for a 16yo who does little to no exercise and hates walking, that's a relatively long walk, but it's not actually that far, certainly wouldn't kill me, would do a lot of good for my health, and, Dave's biggest point, I would avoid public transport.

But it invokes an interesting line of arguments. For one, the big argument is: should we be using public transport? It's the kind of typical textbook Critical Thinking question, and so usually the type I don't address, but there's no reason not to as it's a very valid question, an important one too.

Buses produce a lot of pollution, there's no denying that. There may be alternatives, hydrogen fuel is being pioneered, for example, but they'll be expensive, and they're not going to be viable until plans are put into place to put hydrogen refueling stations all over the country. Hydrogen cars can only go where there's hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen buses can also only go where there is hydrogen fuel.... Renewable energy is limited, and that requires that you're putting electricity, not fuel, into the car, and electric cars mean that again, you need specialised fueling stations, not to mention that, as far as I'm aware, electric cars have relatively low battery lives and may well come to a complete stop if they fail. In other words, buses produce a fuckload of poison and stopping that is going to be tough.

But. If everyone is using buses, that means there are less cars on the road, which means less vehicles in total. It may be more pollution, but it may just work out so that there is a lower total of emissions in the end. It's not perfect, but ten buses chuntering down the highway is probably better than forty cars blocking it. I don't know, though, there are a lot of logistics to take into account here. How much gas in volume buses emit, how much cars emit, how much of it consists of greenhouse gases (GHGs,) how much of it is from non-renewable fossil fuels, how many cars/buses on the road, how much it would change if everyone used buses... there are so many variables here that it would be naive of me to make any watertight argument that lots of people using buses is better than cars. And at the end of the day, it's still bad, because buses are still producing greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere and doing nothing to help the onslaught of the greenhouse effect (the current climate theory: essentially, the ozone layer is trapping excess heat; the idea that greenhouse gases are tearing holes in the ozone layer is a myth.)

So would I be better to walk? Yes, undoubtedly. Or cycle. Does it matter whether I do or not? Ah. Now we come to a big problem. This is the problem of the sorites paradox.

Sorites comes from the Ancient Greek for "heaped up". It's a pretty simple idea, and goes like this. You have a heap of sand in front of you. This is a heap of sand, right? Right. You take away one, single, teensy tiny grain of sand. Still a heap? Duh. You take away another grain. Still a heap. And another, and another, and another. But the thing is... if you keep taking away grains, eventually it won't be a heap. At what point do you say "This is no longer a heap"? How many grains of sand do you have to remove before it loses its "heapness"? 100? 1,000? 1,000,000,000?

The problem with the sorites paradox is that there is no point at which it stops becoming a heap. It's a gradual transition, and the point where it's no longer a heap is subjective, but generally agreed upon, in the same way that you can't easily mark the transition between fat and thin, young and old, fresh and aged, but you can clearly mark either points. It may be unheard of, but this philosophical idea has its roots in all facets of modern day life, it's a very important concept, in my opinion at least. Let me give an example. If you smoke a cigarette, just one cigarette, you probably won't come to any serious harm unless you have an allergy, asthma, or something similar. It'll be rough, but you won't die. If you have another, the same, you're not likely to die on your second cigarette, you might even be getting used to it by your third. But the problem is, then you may well get addicted, as one cigarette turns to six, and then to ten, and then to twenty. Eventually, the health problems start to show. And you become susceptible to all kinds of lovely diseases - lung cancer is just the most commonly known about. Take a look at some of the other risks. So while one won't kill you, two won't kill you and three probably won't kill you, once it builds up, eventually, it reaches a heap. That heap could soon be dirt next to an engraved stone in a churchyard.

See why the sorites paradox is an issue?

We come back to buses. I assure you I hadn't forgotten about them. The thing that makes the whole argument interesting is the fact that, if tomorrow I, or anyone else for that matter, get on a bus or in a car, that isn't going to have a large effect on the environment. Relatively tiny, in fact. But the combined effect of all the buses and cars in the world going round on that same day, and the day after, and in fact, every day for countless decades, is that we have a lot of shit in the atmosphere, soritically building up from all those "relatively tiny" bus-emissions. And then all the other emissions. So the question we're left with: is it right to contribute to that? Is it right to add to it? Let's forget for a moment the fact that, no matter what I do, the buses will run and will emit these gases. When it comes down to it, no, it's not right, given the worsening state of the atmosphere, and the effect that we're having on the planet.

Perhaps one day I'll write a lot more about the environment. It's not a subject I've touched on properly in years. But nonetheless, it's an important consideration, and we should never leave behind the environment when we are thinking of how to live our lives.

Of course, I say that, and I'm writing this on a laptop, with a charger plugged in, attached to a socket, drawing electricity from the national grid, which was produced in a factory that used non-renewable fossil fuels, and likely released a lot of Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, various combinations of Nitrogen and Oxygen (Nitric Oxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, etc.,) and little bits of shit that get everywhere and make our air a little bit suckier (particulates.) And I was researching all of this on the same laptop, still chomping away at electricity. So any argument I make with regards to environmental advocacy is bound to be hypocritical.

...Yeah. I'm gonna take the bus.

~Love Leonidas

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