Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Sustainability: A Slice of Pi

It's 3.14pm on the 14th day of the third month. Time to raise a nerdy cocktail and celebrate a slice of pi!

You remember pi: that long, painful number your math teacher scrawled across the blackboard? The one you bragged to your friends you could memorise up to the 100th digit? (Don't tell me that was just me....I've seen you guys on You Tube!)

Even if you didn't have all of it in your head, you knew 3.14 was that number you had to memorise to plug into certain formula on tests. You may not have really understood what it was, or how it all fit together, but hey: got you a pass on your math final, so all good!

On Pi Day I've been thinking: there's a lot in common between one of the most well-known math constants and sustainability. And at risk of being terribly nerdy, a fun tribute is in order!

Ever get the feeling you're going in circles? Pi shifts our attention from the linear to the circular. You can use it to calculate the distance around a circle or the area of it. Sustainability too tries to shift our thinking from considering things as a straight path forward to a closed-loop system. Recycling circle: I'm looking at you.

The other parallel? It has been 4000 years. We've still not figured out either yet. The first evidence of pi dates back to 1900 BC. Today we're still trying to get more accurate in our calculation of it. 10 trillionth digit calculated - 10 trillion to go! Something tells me sustainability will be a similar journey: no end destination, only increasing levels of complexity, improvement and accuracy in how we practise it.

There's no numbers to express how much I 'value' you. Pi also has a value that can't be expressed. The numbers in it never repeat in the same way. Similarly sustainability seems 'invaluable'. Every time you think you've got the formula calculated along comes a new situation, or more complex sustainability issue (climate change, food security and global economic dynamics, anyone?). The only constant? Needing to go deeper and continuing to change!

It's not about me. It's about me, and you, and you, and you.... Maybe the most interesting similarity between pi and sustainability is that both are about relationships. Alone, they have very little benefit. As a string of numbers, mathematicians strive to get to a more accurate expression of the ratio of pi: the relationship between a circle's circumference and it's diameter. As a concept sustainability is a mix of interconnected ideas that practitioners strive to describe and refine. In the end, you can try to make these relationships more and more precise all you want. They still remain an expression about the relationship between things: their relevance and benefit comes from applying them.

So, raise a glass to pi. Raise a glass to sustainability. But most of all raise a glass to all those who use them for everything from engineering to science and event planning!

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