Monday, October 13, 2014

(Not so) Binary World

We seem to be continually surrounded by efforts to encase reality into a binary description that ill suits it.

For example, we read, "Was such and such person a hero or a villain?" And then arguments are presented to try to encase the person in either of the two categories (no grays, though).

Probably the most famous instance of trying to frame the world in a binary slot is by my friend Leo Tolstoy.

He starts Anna Karenina with this phrase:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  

Very few things in human interactions are black or white. With respect to the phrase above we would have to start by defining "happy" and "unhappy." Then obviously a family has several / many members and each one will experience all sorts of moods during a lifetime and those moods will affect the interaction with the other members of the family. Additionally a family is a dynamic entity, gradually some members die, others join it whether by birth or marriage, some go away, others return.

The internal life of a person is more like a kaleidoscope of feelings, drives and desires, consequently, when the kaleidoscopes of each family member are put together the result is something even more difficult to classify or even track. On the other hand the reality between a "happy family" in Madrid in 2014 is certainly very different from one in Japan in 1500, and even more separated from the equivalent in Mayan society in the year 500.

However, this binary fixation is applied to all sorts of things, not only to families. In the energy discourse we are continually bombarded with the "clean energy" or "zero emissions" monikers when in real life no energy is clean or zero emissions.

Yes, when considering their life-cycle, all energies emit GHG and produce dangerous waste. Thus, the most we can say about an energy source is that it is cleaner than something else.

Real life has more variables and, for example, low carbon technologies in the laboratory such as solar panels or wind turbines don't perform as well in the world at large. There we have to consider energy systems and not isolated components.

In energy we are really facing a sort of continuum that starts with (arguably) the dirtiest source, coal and gradually moving to the (arguably) cleanest sources: hydro and nuclear energy.

But yes, after so many years living in this society I have also been bitten by the binary bug, so I beg your pardon but I will finish this entry with a binary statement that I do believe is true:

There are two types of people on Earth: the ones that divide the world in two and the ones that do not.

Thank you.

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