There are many ways to compare the coronavirus pandemic and the impending climate change disaster: the partisan politics, the exponential growth against a limited ability to cope. With regard to the coronavirus pandemic, the exponential growth refers to increasing numbers of infected people who cannot be handled by the healthcare system. Similarly, the disasters that extreme climate change enables will grow in number and extremity until established infrastructure cannot handle their consequences. Constant new coverage about the coronavirus pandemic means that many have been exposed to the exponential graph, a representation of the virus’ spread across the nation. But what, exactly, does it mean?
The technical definition of an exponential graph is a curve that represents a quantity growing at an increasing rate over time. However, understanding the math is not enough to understand the curve. Try to conceptualize this idea. Even with the visual of the graph and mathematical insight, it is incredibly difficult to grasp how the curve relates to real-life issues like the coronavirus infection rate and increasing carbon emissions.
In November 1975, psychologist William A. Wagenaar ran an experiment to test people’s understanding of exponential growth in the Netherlands. He gave subjects a few statistics that followed an exponential curve and asked them to extrapolate the next number. He found that subjects underestimated the nonlinear growth and compensated for it with linear assumptions. The error in the subjects’ extrapolation was significant, with the majority’s estimation of the value to be 10% below the actual value. This effect increases as the rate increases in the given statistics. Wagenaar’s experiment reveals precisely how difficult it is for people to truly understand the nature of exponential growth. It is too extreme for us to comprehend.
This lack of understanding presents an overlooked but very real danger. As we face real crises like the coronavirus pandemic and carbon emissions that follow an exponential growth, we must consider how our inability to conceptualize this pattern affects our reaction. The nation-wide reaction to the coronavirus and climate change is a good place to start.
In terms of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government’s reaction has been all over the place: Hesitant to begin, decisive as the situation worsened, and, now, reluctant to continue with the extreme measures in place. The call to return to normal as soon as possible overlooks the serious expected explosion of cases across the nation based on the basic principles of exponential growth.
To curb exponential growth, two techniques are useful.
First, extreme early action to lower the rate of growth. This would be incredibly effective and lower numbers of people infected by the thousands or millions. For example, lowering the rate of increase to one would turn an exponential growth into linear growth. This did not happen for the prevention of the coronavirus for a multitude of reasons: Political aspirations that would be quashed by the existence of a pandemic, misinformation about the deadly nature of the virus and a lack of test kits that skewed the number of positive cases. Often early action is blocked by political or social disagreements. The same has happened with efforts to prevent the climate change crisis. Ever since carbon emissions shot up in the late 1900s, politicians and corporations have been unwilling to sacrifice some aspects of the free market for the necessary changes. Change is always scary, and when it does not seem necessary because the exponential worsening of small crises is unimaginable, it will not happen.
The second step, then, becomes even more important. That is: Extreme action to lower the rate of growth right now to turn the exponential curve into an ‘S’ curve. This step occurs when the effects of the exponential growth start to become visible, and when the prospect of change is still scary but more understandably necessary. For the coronavirus, this means continued social distancing and the economy staying at a standstill. For climate change, this means extreme cuts to carbon emissions. In both cases, the damage that has already happened is tragic and irreversible, but it does not have to worsen exponentially.
We may not be able to understand exponential growth, but we can understand this: Extreme actions are scary but inevitable if we want to stop the ongoing coronavirus crisis as well as climate change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.
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Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.