Fixing Global Warming is an Information Design Problem


As I was listening to Al Gore on Fresh Air yesterday (5/30) talk about his new book and movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, it occurred to me that solving global warming, if that’s possible still, is an information design problem.

Maybe this is pretty self evident to others, so bear with me while I noodle on what appear to me to be the three major roadblocks, and how information design can help.

We don’t understand systems well

Global warming is a systemic problem, no surprise there. Unfortunately our tools for understanding systems, as opposed to components of systems, are still pretty poor. Despite the best efforts of people such as Douglas Englebart, the overall capacity of humanity to comprehend and tackle complex systems has remained rather low. There are esoteric examples to the contrary, such as game theory and other economic models, but for the lay person we are still woefully under-equipped. Examples? News media give little context for events, instead treating a local shooting or Darfur as isolated “who could have known” events. Our educational systems don’t help that much, they tend to focus on discrete events but don’t tie them together very well (wars and inventions are largely taught in a vacuum). Things get even worse the further along educationally you go, as specialization increases and separation between disciplines grows ever larger, particularly in the sciences.

Everything that we do contributes to global warming. Sitting at home watching TV causes it. This leads to a state of paralysis. I pretty much throw up my arms in despair. It seems beyond my control.

Who’s looking at the big picture? Who is able to connect what’s going on with their species of algae with what’s going on in the ionosphere and connect that back to oil derivatives?

Not everything in the system matters (as much)

Has anyone done a sensitivity analysis on the causes of global warming? In other words, what things should we focus on for the biggest impact on preventing ourselves from passing the point of no return, if we haven’t already? Are the usual suspects (cars, power plants, etc.) really the biggest problems? What if unplugging all my electronic devices at night has a bigger impact than driving a Prius? (Especially since it takes more energy to make a Prius than it will consume in its lifetime.)

Everything that we do contributes to global warming. Sitting at home watching TV causes it (TV and lighting requires electricity, and burning coal is a primary means of generating electricity in the US). This leads to a state of paralysis. If my mere existence on the planet (at least in the developed nations) is causing harm, I pretty much throw up my arms in despair. It seems beyond my control.

However, tell me what the top 3 things are that will have a big impact, now that I can handle.

Another tendancy is to link global warming and environmentalism with a broader political agenda: human rights, worker rights, economic inequality, organic agriculture. There is overlap in some of these to be sure, but let’s not kid ourselves: these are problems that have been around for centuries and will probably still be around for centuries. We can’t wait that long to solve global warming. These are baggage that are slowing us down. Deal with them separately. Bill McKibben puts it succinctly:

There are, obviously, all kinds of ecological perils out there. We’ve overfished our seas, we’ve overcut our forests. Fresh water is beginning to run short, and species are disappearing at a rapid rate. You can come up with a long and troubling list, including the disturbing fact that most of the world’s people are so poor they can barely summon the energy to care about the larger world. But it’s becoming very clear that the overriding, overpowering summation of them all is climate change—lose this battle and it won’t matter if we win all the others, because it’s simply so much bigger, and connected to everything else.

Understanding systems requires feedback loops

A big part of successfully understanding systems is understanding the influences the components have on one-another, which means having understandable feedback loops. Simple systems can easily be understood with clear feedback loops: flick this switch and this light goes on. My dogs understand that the clanging of a metal bowl means food is coming soon (though the light switch is probably beyond them). But how long do you think it took humans to figure out that sex caused children? It’s self-evident now, but not perhaps not so obvious to old Homo Erectus, given that sex was probably fairly frequent and there’s a nine month time lag until the end-result.

In The Design of Everyday Things Don Norman talks about the old-style controls in refrigerators for adjusting relative coolness of fridge and freezer. In the old days these were inter-dependent so it was somewhat complicated to get them right. It was easy to tell the symptoms (my ice cream has melted or my milk has frozen), but not what to do about it. The fridge made understanding the feedback loop challenging, first by a lack of intuition in the controls, and second by having a 24 hour period go by before you could tell what effect your adjustments had had. Humans just don’t do very well with that kind of time frame. Light switch, yes. Fridge, no.

Now extrapolate that feedback loop out to periods of decades or centuries, which is what the time lag is for most climate change.

Information Design to the Rescue?

So to sum up: Improve our understanding of the system, find out what will have the biggest impact to change it, and then give people a tight feedback loop so they know their actions are having the desired effect.

This has information design written (or drawn) all over it.

seed_cyclone.jpgThere are some great examples of information design in regards to the environment, such as Seed Magazine’s annual report on the planet (graphic at left is from it). However, most just tell us the symptoms. That’s like the evening news telling me someone got shot in my neighborhood: it makes me worried, it makes me feel helpless, it makes it seem random. None of these are true, and we need to dig deeper. Providing a real understanding of the global climate and what causes what should be Job One for information designers today.

I haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, or had the opportunity to hear Gore give his presentation, which is apparently very good, so maybe he goes beyond this level, but the website falls into the same trap. For example, there’s an eCard you can send that compares a glacier from 1978 and 2004. News I should be worried about? Yes. News I can use? Not so much. There are several pages of tips of things one can do to decrease your environmental footprint, however these lack the crucial feedback loop to tell you whether you are doing enough or give you the pat on the back from making a successful contribution. Without the feedback it’s like setting aside money for your 401k each paycheck (causing you near term pain) but never giving you a statement or prediction of your future income (to let you track progress toward a tangible future).

Information design is also largely about “compared to what?” as Edward Tufte would say. Help us understand which parts of the system really matter by showing us this compared to that. This helps our decision making and will get us to a solution quicker.

Lastly, use visual design (static, dynamic, whatever) to convert the feedback loop of cause/effect from abstract and distant to concrete and visceral. This lets us know we are doing the right thing and gives feedback as to progress.