Mathematics, Sustainability, and Global Learning

I honestly think certain issues are best understood through specific, smaller-scale examples.

For instance, there’s the broad issue of global warming and climate change and human use of fossil fuels and all the corresponding problems that arise as a result. Yet instead of trying to tackle the issue broadly, I think it best to start small and work your way up. Which is why my paper focused on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, a relationship centered almost entirely around 2 fundamental, core values: cheap oil and defensive guarantees.

For too long, in fact since the end of World War II, the United States of America has guaranteed Saudi national security and defense in exchange for a reliable supply of cheap oil supplies. We have overlooked Saudi offenses and atrocities time and time again, to the detriment of our own values and the sacrifice of American lives.

The issue, of course, is U.S. reliance on Saudi oil supplies. On a daily basis, Saudi oil supplies represent roughly 5% of U.S. oil consumption (U.S.E.I.A.).  Obviously, this dependence results in an unwillingness to abandon Saudi Arabia’s record of abuse in favor of what we believe.

As a result, we sacrifice our own values as well as the present and future of our environment in order to maintain the status quo. Clearly, this trade-off is unsustainable to say the least. It requires necessary and immediate change, in both U.S. energy and foreign policy.

Presidential Green Grant Proposal

To make Union more sustainable, I propose that Union College should expand dining options on campus.

I, for one, frequently visit local eateries for meals when instead I could choose to stay on campus. No, its not sustainable for me to do so, nor is it eco-friendly. But occasionally my stomach overrules the voice in my head. I get tired of the same, bland dining hall food, or of the same 12 options shared between Reamer and Rathskeller.

I think its also obvious that, compared to other schools, Union lacks a variety of dining options.

RPI, in addition to its dining hall, has a Moe’s and an on-campus pizzeria.

Cornell, according to a recent study, has nearly 30 different on-campus eateries, and ranks 5th-in the nation in terms of colleges with the best food.

Take a poll of Union students. I think the vast majority would agree that Union could stand to add some dining variety to on-campus life.

Having to seek a change of pace for a meal off-campus shouldn’t be necessary. And it sure isn’t sustainable.

Going Nuclear

Theoretically speaking, nuclear energy seems like the perfect alternative.

Let’s not get into the confusing physics behind it too much. You take “stuff”, and you either smash it together to make larger stuff (fusion) or you split it up to make smaller stuff (fission). That’s about as simple as I can make it.

But there’s a catch: nuclear energy production produces waste. And it has the potential to go really, really wrong.

Nuclear energy doesn’t just produce waste, it produces radioactive waste. And right now, our solution to what to do with that radioactive waste is to store it underneath a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Seems sustainable…

Additionally, we’ve all seen some of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear energy generation gone wrong. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima.

In terms of energy produced compared to resources devoted, nuclear energy does seem perfect. After all, it seems like there’s an endless supply of “stuff”. A study conducted by the World Nuclear Association finds that energy devoted to production represents a mere 1-3% of the total energy produced post-production.

The issue, of course is long-term feasibility and sustainability. It seems like the perfect alternative until it goes wrong and leaves a no-man land of 1000 square miles in its wake (Chernobyl).

Despite all the benefits, the return on resources, the endless power generation, the effects are simply too severe for nuclear energy to be a long-term, sustainable alternative energy source.

Ultimately, ask yourself: Would you want a nuclear power plant near your town?

With Great Inflation, Comes Great Recession

The 2007-2008 Financial Crisis was a formative event in many of the lives of our generation. Many lost jobs, even homes. The entirety of the American economic structure felt unstable, as though it was on the imminent verge of collapse. Yet, when you look back at the data, it almost seems impossible to miss the inevitability of it all. Let’s take the housing sector, for instance:

The above graph shows the rough correlation between housing prices and inflation. As the graph clearly shows, for much of the late 20th century the value of median family homes closely mirrored the consumer price index. And that is as you would expect: as Americans make more, they can afford more, and when they can afford more, prices go up accordingly.

Yet somehow beginning around the turn of the millennium, perhaps even slightly before that, the value of a median family home began to increase at a rapidly faster pace than did the consumer price index. We see a huge differential form between the two values. Economically speaking, its a bubble. And like the bubbles you used to blow when you were a kid playing in your driveway, bubbles eventually burst.

We see an exponentially increasing value of the median family home, while the consumer price index continues to follow its linearly increasing trend. When the growth becomes unsustainable, when the difference between the two values becomes simply too much for the market to believe any longer, the bubble bursts. There’s a rapid and sudden devaluation of one value to match the other. All of a sudden, a house is worth 1/2 what you thought it was, or 1/2 what you bought it for. It’s an enormous financial windfall, and one prone to produce and fuel a serious economic crisis that affects the nation at large. As we saw in 2007-2008 and the years that followed, that’s just exactly what happened.

$15 Minimum Wage? Think Again.

There has been, for years now, clamoring in political and economic circles to raise the government-mandated minimum wage to $15/hour.

Now, this sounds fantastic on paper. After all, who wouldn’t want to make $15 an hour?

Yet, there’s a simple problem with the $15 minimum wage: raising the minimum wage only raises the cost of living.

Think about it in basic terms. I’ve used my family’s pizzeria business before as an example, and I’ll do so again here.

Currently, I make $10.40/hour. That is, after all, the current New York State Minimum Wage. My family’s pizza business employs, let’s say, 10 workers. All 10 of these workers make minimum wage. Let’s say each person works 25 hours a week. That is to say that, per week, the business pays $2,600/week in wages.

($10.40/hour) x (25 hours/week)= $260/worker ———- ($260) x (10 workers) = $2600/week

Now let’s say, all of a sudden, the minimum wage jumps to $12.50/hour, as it is scheduled to do by the end of 2020. Now, the business must pay $3,125/week in wages.

($12.50/hour) x (25 hours/week) = $312.50/worker ———- (312.50) x (10 workers) = $3125/week

Now, this is fantastic for the individual worker. Working the same number of hours, and doing the same work, they see their weekly income rise by over $50.

Yet, for the small business owner, this is unfortunate. The small business owner now must come up with an additional $500+ to pay their employees. That money doesn’t simply fall out of the sky, or off of a tree. How do they reckon with this? They take the only reasonable avenue available to them. The business owner passes the cost onto the consumer. They raise their prices.

Now, our employee has to pay $8.00 for a cheese pizza when it used to cost $6.00. They have to pay $12.00 to see a movie at a local theatre, when it used to cost $9.00.

Soon enough, the $50 raise they got as a result of a rising minimum wage is gone. It evaporates into thin air.

I attached some pretty rudimentary graphs below to try to help illustrate.

The Social Safety Net is Not Sustainable

The Social Security Administration was created in 1935, as part of the New Deal legislation enacted by the Roosevelt Administration. The idea was this: create a social safety net wherein older workers could retire from the workforce without the risk of going broke, and in the process create additional job openings for the unemployed masses of the Great Depression.

If it seems to you like a brilliant idea, in more ways than one, that’s because it was. It was absolute political genius.

But there was a catch.

Finding a way to pay for it.

So the government, in its infinite wisdom, kicked the proverbial can down the road. They used the present workforce to bankroll the retirement of the one about to retire. Here’s how it worked:

I receive a weekly or monthly paycheck. A portion of that paycheck, though small and almost unnoticeable, is already deducted. This is the FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act), or Social Security, tax. In a perfect world, the money that gets deducted from my paycheck is kept for me in government coffers until the day I retire. From that point on, I start to receive my Social Security benefits, paid for by, you guessed it, all the money I paid into the system over the years I worked.

Yet, when the system began, there were too many retirement-eligible workers who had paid nothing into the system. In order for them to receive benefits, someone had to foot the bill. Which is where the present workforce came in. The present workforce paid for the benefits of the workforce that retired before them, and the workforce which follows them pays for them. It should be, in theory, a self-sustaining system. You pay for the people who came before you, and the people who come after pay for you. That is so long as each successive generation isn’t exponentially larger than the one which follows it.

Here’s where the problem arises. The United States had, after winning World War II and in the period from 1946-1964, the Baby Boom. America produced the most populous generation of Americans in history. And now, some 54-72 years later, the present generation has to foot the bill as the Baby Boom generation leaves the workforce and enters into retirement. The problem is that the present generation is not populous enough to pay for the generation which preceded it.

There simply aren’t enough of us, and enough of our parents, to pay for the Baby Boomer retirement. It’s an unsustainable system. As the graph above demonstrates, the Social Security Administration has begun running a yearly deficit. It is paying out more in retirement benefits than it collects through tax from the present workforce. If the system goes without reform, which given the current state of American politics is entirely plausible for the foreseeable future, it will add tremendous debt to a federal budget and government already prone to deficits and debt. One unsustainable system is fueling the unsustainable nature of another.

For decades, Social Security has been called the “third rail” of American politics. That’s because it’s where all the power is, if you know how to harness it. If not, if it goes wrong, it can turn deadly. Fast.

Bottled Water at Union

I used to be a bottled water guy. It was always cold, and guaranteed to be clean.

It was simple. When I was thirsty, I got a bottle of water. Drink, dehydrate over the course of a few hours, repeat. Though it varied from day to day, I would estimate I used to drink about 5-6, 16.9 fl oz. bottles of water every day. For those of us who like to try to show our mathematical prowess by completing simple equations, that’s 84.5-101.4 fl oz. of water a day.

Which, in the grander scheme of things, is roughly the suggested intake of water on a daily basis (currently 91 fl oz.). Yet, I was wasting all the plastic that had to contain that water, one plastic bottle at a time. I stopped drinking bottled water when I started actively trying to reduce my carbon footprint. I bought a reusable bottle, and I fill it up periodically from a fountain.

But in the case of the broader Union community, I see people with bottled water all the time. As I sit here writing, I count 4 people around me with plastic bottled water in some form or another. And I didn’t even count a fifth, who has a cardboard box of water, which proclaims itself to be “better” because “Boxed Water is Better”.

Let’s assume the average Union student drinks the suggested daily value of water, and Union has roughly 2,200 undergrad students. Let’s say half (being generous) consume bottled water while the other half consumes water more responsibly.

(1/2) x (2,200)=(1,110)…(1,110) x (5.5)=(6,105)

Following this logic, Union’s student body on a daily basis consumes over 6,000 bottles of water. That’s a staggering number. Even more staggering: the sheer cost of producing so many bottles of water.

According to a February 2007 Pacific Institute Report: “Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide…It took 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.”

This is, of course, not to mention what happens to these 6,000+ bottles of water afterwards. Are any re-used? What percentage are even recycled?

Drinking water should begin follow the same tagline as their counterparts in the alcohol industry.

Drink Responsibly.


Driving and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Part-time, I work for Vintage Pizza in Latham, NY. My aunt and uncle own and operate the business, and when I can I help out and work. Occasionally, I’ll take deliveries to customers if need be. I like to deliver, because I like to drive my car and it gets me out of the kitchen where I normally work. But I’ve noticed, more so recently as I’ve begun to pay more attention to my carbon footprint, just how much I drive and emit when I deliver.

When I got my car, it had 25,000 miles on it. Today, it has about 80,000 miles. I average about 30 miles per gallon, and my car’s tank can hold 12 gallons. If I’ve driven 55,000 miles in my car, at 30 miles per gallon, I’ve used about 1,834 gallons of gas over that time.

When I plugged this number into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, needless to say I was pretty surprised. My emissions equaled that of the average yearly energy consumption of 1.8 homes. It was the equivalent of using 37.7 barrels of oil.

Now, not every mile I drove my car was a result of delivering pizzas for my family’s business. I drove countless miles around town and to and from various places. But using the calculator really put things in perspective. For as much as I like to drive, I need to be more conscious about just how much I emit when I do.

Blog Post #1

I hardly knew anything about sustainability before I came to Union. I knew as a political junkie that the issues related to climate change were sensitive, and sharply divided along political lines. But I didn’t really understand the issues themselves, nor their importance. Since then, I’ve learned so much more about sustainability than I could have imagined. I’ve learned about Climate Change and Global Warming, and the potentially devastating effects they could wreak on the planet. I’ve also learned about German society, as a German minor, and how Germans try to live in sustainable and eco-friendly ways. In my own life, I’ve tried to live more sustainably, and reduce my carbon footprint. I try to be conscious about what I can do to help save the planet.

I’d like to learn even more about sustainability, so I’m looking forward to this class. And, as a political science major, I want to understand more broadly how societies can adapt and change to this issue. To me, sustainability is passing on to the next generation the resources and beauty of the planet, keeping them in the same condition in which we found them. That takes work, especially given our current trends. I want to be a part of it.