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January 30, 2023

Average is Not Normal – But It Can Be Better

The Bible tells us so.

Remember the famous seven fat years and seven lean years in Genesis?  Crops may well have been “average” over the whole fourteen-year period. Trouble is that none of those years individually was average. Fortunately dream-reader Joseph knew what was coming. Granaries were built and stocked during the fat years. Egypt became the grain-seller to the whole region during the lean years. The granaries were a very good way of smoothing the food supply through the variations of climate.

Last week I posted that “Average Is Not Normal”, especially in weather. Variation is normal. It is unlikely that any particular day will have a high temperature which is exactly the same as the historical average for that day. It is unlikely that any year will have an average amount of precipitation, especially in California. It is normal to deviate from the average. Even if average is not a good way to predict the particular, “average” can be a very useful concept in long-term planning so long as we understand what we are talking about.

There are many types of average including arithmetic mean, median, and geometric mean, all of which  have their uses; in fact median is better for predicting particular events than mean. In this post when I say “average” I’m talking about just the arithmetic mean, the number you get if you add a bunch of quantities and divide by the number of quantities.

If, on average, there is sufficient food produced, then there won’t be a famine if you have the foresight to build the infrastructure to store the food from the fat years to feed the lean years (assuming you start in the fat years). If, on average over a period of years, there is enough rain in a region, there will be enough water every year if water can be saved during rainy years for use in dry years. There also doesn’t need to be flooding so long as there is somewhere to put water during a deluge. Nature helps some with water stored underground and in lakes and ponds which change size with the seasons and the years. Here in Vermont we have flood control dams and artificial lakes behind them for just this purpose.

California used to build dams and reservoirs, too. They especially needed them to support a growing population and more agriculture because almost every year there is either a drought or deluge year and they tend to come in clusters. Like most of the US, California stopped doing big projects in the 1980s when-well intentioned environmental laws and regulations made it all too easy to use process and litigation to tie up any project almost forever; but California didn’t stop growing and the climate didn’t stop being variable. There isn’t enough infrastructure in California to smooth the variability even though, on the average, there’s enough water to support the population, industry, and agriculture.

I saw California’s Lt. Governor on TV boasting about all the money California has spent to prevent climate change as if climate variability were stoppable as an act of will and as if the “normal” climate in California were not highly variable. What she didn’t mention was the money California hasn’t spent mitigating the effects of climate as the population in danger has grown enormously.

According to an article in the LA Times, the Sites Reservoir, which could retain enough water to supply 4.5 million California households for a year, was first conceived of in the 1950s. It was abandoned in the 1980s as America’s era of building big came to an end. Now it’s being resurrected with the support of Gov. Newsome, who says it’s something he’s long supported.

Nevertheless, the reservoir is meeting fierce “environmentalist” opposition. Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River complains that it ”…enables elected officials to say, ‘Look, we’re doing something about megadrought.’ It becomes their solution to climate change.” Cut through the BS and Stork doesn’t want the effects of climate to be mitigated. Floods and droughts are useful in motivating panic-driven schemes to “stop climate change”. He would have objected to Joseph building granaries on the same grounds; the granaries do nothing to prevent the climate change Joseph predicted and take funds from some really useful sacrifices to the climate god.

Unless lots of laws and regulations are changed, opponents will be able to delay this project almost indefinitely even though it has the support of the Governor and planning money has been appropriated. If Egypt had our current system of project regulation and endless litigation delay, they would’ve starved during the lean years because the granaries never would’ve gotten built. To be fair, climate change denial would also have led to starvation in Egypt.

Deviations from average are normal. Sometimes they are precursors to long term climate change; sometimes not. Where we can predict oscillations of weather patterns, especially where the population affected by these oscillations has grown enormously, we must act to mitigate these effects. We know how to do that. Humans have known how to carry surplus from fat (or wet) years to lean (or dry) years since biblical times. We can make an average amount of water available every year regardless of average rainfall hardly every happening in any one year.  It does no good at all to mourn for the mythical “average” year. It is essential to build the infrastructure we need when we need it. In California’s case that was at least 70 non-average years ago.

See also:

Average is Not Normal

Regulatory Reform Urgently Needed for Renewable Energy

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