>Conventional Wisdom’s Role in our National Debate


I have been reading The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore. Overall, I find this book extremely relevant and timely, as well as disturbing in its examination of the current state of affairs in our nation. Gore perceives and expresses with great clarity the danger posed to our democracy by the decline in reading, public participation, and the manufacture of consent.

In addition, I appreciate Gore’s continued and insistent call to action with regards to our environment and the looming threat of global warming. His continued struggle to build support and public awareness for this issue continues in The Assault on Reason, where he describes the great lengths to which Big Business (especially Big Oil) and special interest politics go to sow seeds of misinformation with regards to global warming. The behavior of these businesses (and the executive powers which are beholden to them) is reprehensible, and must be dealt with swiftly and in the strongest possible manner. I laud Gore for his attempts to bring these issues to the forefront.

However, in the 7th chapter of his book, entitled “The Carbon Crisis,” I came across the following quote:

“Our ‘footprint’ can now be measured not only by the impact of all the CO2 we are pumping daily into the earth’s atmosphere, but also by our careless destruction of one football field’s worth of forest on the surface of the planet every second of every day.” (p. 202-3)

Gore continues by discussing the depletion of our fisheries and human-caused extinctions in the oceans. Both this point, and of course the Carbon point that makes up the first half of the above quote, are explored in more detail. However, the issue of deforestation is let rest with that single statement regarding its overall rate.

The “football field a second” statistic is one that I have heard before, which made me curious as to its origins. It is a stat that seems to me to ring more like conventional wisdom than established fact, much like the “every two minutes a teenager dies in a drunk driving accident” statistic that is given over and over in middle school Health classrooms. High impact, but perhaps at a substantial cost in reliability.

The book contains a notes section which delineates sources for a majority of the claims it makes. However, any reference to a source for this information is notably absent.

I did a little thought experiment with this statistic in mind. Using a number from Wikipedia for the total surface area of the earth, I attempted to see, at Gore’s stated rate, how long it would take before a theoretical earth covered entirely with forests would be laid bare by man’s destructive impulses. My math, which I attach below, left me a startlingly low number: 209 days.

I checked my math a couple of times in a couple of different ways. I encourage readers also to do so, and to suggest any flaws in my thought experiment that may account for this startlingly low number.

209 days. And considering that the earth’s surface is nearly 71% water (this statistic also drawn from Wikipedia), the actual number could not be more than around 61 days. Considering Gore’s book was published in May of this year, if the entire land mass had been covered with trees the first of which were cut down and processed to make the paper on which The Assault on Reason was published, we would currently be living on a planet devoid of forests.

This number obviously does not account for reforestation efforts (as well as any reforestation that may occur by accident), but in 209 days, let alone 61, little reforestation could occur.

Perhaps I’m missing something.

This is not to suggest that Gore’s book is any less important in its analysis of the state of American Democracy with regards to participation “by the people.” And his condemnation of the Bush administration’s policy on, well, on just about everything, goes over very well with my own reactions and personal analyses. However, I think that the appearance of such conventional wisdom, obviously intended to generally overstate the issue, in this book, which founds its argument on the importance of reason, logic, and a public supplied with reliable information, is dangerous, if not downright irresponsible.

By tossing around conventional wisdom amidst well-founded scientific fact, Gore runs the risk of depleting his own authority on an issue to which he has dedicated his career, as well as a significant portion of his conscience.

Conventional wisdom in this sense is little more or less than the “gut reaction” of the masses. It is the stuff of conversations over tea, of email forwards. And we know all to well what happens when one acts on an uninformed “gut feeling” in affairs of global importance. Malcolm Gladwell examines the “gut” in his book Blink, and also discussed Bush’s insistence on using his “gut” in an interview on The Colbert Report. By relying on anecdotal statistics, the stuff of email forwards and urban legends, Gore runs the risk of landing himself in the same camp.

This is one incident in a book that I otherwise find well-grounded in empirical knowledge, I will not right Gore off for a slip that may or may not have been intentional. I hope, however, that he heeds his own warnings with regards to bent facts and misleading statistics. These tactics are not his strength, which is a good thing, unless he decides to pursue them further, which will undoubtedly result in a loss of his audience to those factions which specialize in manufacturing consent.

My Thought Experiment

Earth’s surface area = 510,065,600 km2 (196,937,429 mi2)

196,937,429 mi2 x 5280 ft/mi = 1,039,829,625,120 ft2

Football field dimensions = 160 ft x 360 ft (including end zones) = 57,600 ft2

Number of football fields that would fit on Earth’s surface:

1,039,829,625,120 ft2 / 57,600 ft2 = ~18,052,598 football fields

Number of football fields destroyed in a day:

1 per second (according to Gore and conventional wisdom)

1 field/sec x 60 sec/min x 60 min/hr x 24 hr/day = 86,400 fields/day

Area destroyed per day:

86,400 fields/day x 57,600 ft2/field = 4,976,640,000 ft2/day

Total days until total destruction:

1,039,829,625,120 ft2 / 4,976,640,000 ft2/day = ~209 days

To check the answer:

~18,052,598 fields / 86,400 fields/day = ~209 days


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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One Response to >Conventional Wisdom’s Role in our National Debate

  1. Anonymous says:

    >I believe this erroneous statistic has its flaw in how one describes the “destruction of a forest”. This statistic counts forests that are harvested as “destroyed”. These forests grow back and are harvested again so that one acre can be “destroyed” multiple times. So if we harvest a corn crop is that land destroyed and the amount of available arable land diminished? Regardless, we need forest products, forests are one of the best sequesters of carbon, and since 1900 there has been a net gain in forest land due to advances in sustainable management. In my opinion Gore should stick to inventing a new and more efficient way of delivering pornography, building on the advances of his invention, the internet.

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