Why We Can’t Grasp the Scale of Climate Change, Population Growth, or Societal Tipping Points

You don’t see it coming. You probably couldn’t if you tried. The effects of large changes in scale are frequently beyond our powers…

Both $1 million and $1 billion sound like “a lot,” so it’s not immediately clear how such changes in wealth might also change what a builder sees as a “big enough” house. Even those who understand the true scale of the chasm between those numbers intellectually don’t always “get it” viscerally. It feels like the difference between a million and a billion is closer to a factor of three than a factor of 1,000. That’s because our brain naturally works using something like a logarithmic scale, so that it can condense information like vast ranges in loudness and brightness efficiently.

Predicting the qualitative effects of quantitative changes takes more than mere genius. It takes a willingness to accept the unacceptable

Scientists often have to come up with stories to translate what they see with their instruments and equations into something they—and we—can understand.

The physicist Bartlett, concerned with resource exhaustion, came up with a story of bacteria living in a Coke bottle. Imagine putting two bacteria in a soda bottle at 11 a.m. Assume the population doubles once every minute, and that by noon, the bottle is full. What time would it be before the bacteria-land politicians noticed that the population was running out of space? The answer is 11:59. After all, at 11:59, the bottle is still half empty! And what if the enterprising bacteria decide to drill for bottles offshore, and bring back three whole new empty bottles! How much time does that give the bacteria? Two more minutes.

Stories like these have more than mere narrative power. Following the strategy of the bacteria, perhaps social media can be used as a kind of quorum sensing, crowd-sourcing perception.

Source: Why We Can’t Grasp the Scale of Climate Change, Population Growth, or Societal Tipping Points