Little Things

Out recently, I was in one of those tuned-out trances that you get into sometimes. I wasn’t really paying attention to much but my mind was idly noticing things. And then I sort of woke up, and realized that I had been counting car exhausts.

I’m not sure why, but I think it was because I couldn’t help noticing that seemingly every other car I spotted had a little chrome, shiny extension on its exhaust pipe. Many cars had two such pipes, and some even had four of them. I knew that, in terms of function, this was pure bling – there was nothing about this bit of ornamentation that had anything to do with making a car safer or faster or more reliable or cheaper. It was just a little look-at-me detail that in truth, most people probably don’t even notice.

Still, it was something to noodle on as I walked. This tiny bling detail on a car must account for some tiny fraction of its purchase price, and for some tiny fraction of the car’s weight. Since the cost of operating a car is a function of the purchase price and its operating costs, and the weight of the car influences the amount of gas needed to get from A to B, it follows that this tiny bit of bling has a tiny but measurable cost to it.

As I walked I kept revolving the numbers in my head. Say that bit of shiny chrome adds at least 100 grams to the total weight of a car – 0.1 kg in other words – and say the car weighs around 1000 kg. That means that tiny bit of bling adds 0.01% to the weight of the car, and quite likely more if there are 2 or even 4 of these things. That doesn’t sound like much at all. But what if a million cars have these? That would add up to more than 100 tonnes of bling on that many cars, and we know that in fact there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road at any given time in North America, so the total weight of this tiny bit of bling being hauled around each year has to be at least ten thousand tonnes over the trillions of km driven each year.

And then when you think about the amount of energy (i.e. carbon) that is involved in mining the materials used for those millions of kg worth of bling, and refining that metal, and manufacturing the parts, and shipping them to the car assembly plants, and then hauling it around for 5 years over the life of the car, that adds up. To a lot.

I got lost in the mental math as I was walking, trying to remember how many Newtons of force are needed to move 1 kg at 1 m/s, and how many Joules of energy are required to generate a Newton of force, and what that many Joules represents in litres of gasoline. There were many zeroes involved, but because I knew that all those tiny bits of energy add up, I reckoned that it had to represent hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of litres of petrol burned each year.

And all that petrol, when burned in a car engine, results in carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, which is driving climate change, and leading to long term costs and economic disruption and habitat and species loss, and on an on. All because cars have this tiny bit of bling that no one really pays attention to.

As I was coming to that conclusion, I recalled an old proverb that I had heard in my childhood:

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost

For want of a shoe, a horse was lost

For want of a horse, a rider was lost

For want of a rider, a troop was lost

For want of a troop, a battle was lost

For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost

All for the want of a nail.

What does that all mean? There is a theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rain forest can lead to a tornado in Texas . A number of years ago, I read a book by James Gleick, about chaos theory, which describes complex systems and how small changes can have large outcomes, and that might have been underlying my train of thought. At any rate, maybe that tiny bit of bling is like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, or the nail that loses the shoe. Maybe we just haven’t yet seen the tornado or lost the battle, and that’s why we think that bit of bling is important, until perhaps we add up all those tiny incremental costs.

And that’s the key point that I settled on as I finished my walk – that little things add up. Go for a walk, get a 100 steps. Keep walking, get a 100 more. Over time, you’ll cover a km, then 10 km, then 100 km. The saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step may be trite, and yet it’s true.

So while it feels like we’re stuck on a hamster wheel with COVID, there are little things we do that add up. We all want to get back to normal. And each little decision to skip the mask, to get together with just a few friends, to just live like we used to, adds up. So does each little decision to wear the mask, to wash the hands, to stay home, also adds up.

We all have our tiny part to play in making COVID go away. Little things add up.

Be caring, be courageous, be calm.