Sustainability by the Numb3rs

This is the main page for the Sustainability by the Numb3rs course, which is an educational collaboration between Clean Energy Action and the Boulder Free School.

The goal of the course is to help participants develop an intuitive and quantitative understanding of the scale of a variety of climate, energy, and general sustainability issues.  We will work through many simple (and maybe a few not-so-simple) order of magnitude calculations.  Through them, we will explore the scale of our civilization’s unsustainability, and a variety of potential solutions — both plausible and implausible.

What is an order of magnitude?  If you’re going on a week long backpacking trip, and a friend tells you their backpack weighs either 5 lbs or 500 lbs, you know intuitively that something is very wrong — you have a grasp of the scale of a backpack — 50lbs is about right. Maybe 35lbs if you’re going ultra-light, maybe 70lbs if you’re a mule, but definitely not 5 or 500.

With a little thought and a spreadsheet, or paper and pencil, and access to the Wikipedia and other online resources for approximate numbers, you can develop the same kind of intuition about all kinds of other systems and answer for yourself the important question: “Is this trivial, impossible, or somewhere in between?” We need 90% or 99% solutions, not 50% solutions, and certainly not 10% solutions. Differentiating between them is often not too difficult, but usually, people don’t even try.

A few of the questions we’ll explore in the course:

  • Can carbon capture and storage play a major role in fighting climate change?
  • Does it make sense to put a solar panel on the roof of your electric car?
  • If cheap, efficient electrical storage becomes a reality, will we still need the power grid?
  • How much food can urban agriculture produce?
  • Does “vertical farming” make sense?  If so, when?
  • What does it mean for a city to be “walkable”?
  • Which is better for the climate: driving to the grocery store to buy locally grown food, or biking to the grocery store to buy food from thousands of miles away?
  • How much energy does it take to live the good life?
  • Which is greater: the heat generated when you burn a lump of coal, or the extra heat trapped on Earth by the CO2 that was released by the burning?
  • Can India power itself using renewable energy?
  • How much should carbon cost?

If you are interested in participating in the course, you’ll need to: Join the Google Group that we’re using to coordinate homework and course logistics.

The plan right now is for the class to meet monthly, on the 4th Thursday of every month.  We may need to adjust, depending on how many people want to participate, and what venues we have available.  Participants will be expected to do some reading, or watch some videos, or look up some relevant numbers before each class.

Course Syllabus (a work in progress):

  1. March 27th, 2014: Understanding Order of Magnitude Calculation.
  2. April 24th, 2014: The Scale of Global Energy Systems

General Resources:

Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy