The word average has an interesting etymology. It originally seems to have been derived from an Arabic word, ‘awariya, ” meaning damaged merchandise.
Since the Middle Ages, the shipping and insurance industries adopted the term, I guess due to the high risks of damage from voyages on the high seas. If a ship were in trouble, and cargo, or ships masts, or other material goods, perhaps even crew or living cargo (human or not), were thrown overboard in order to save the vessel, then losses were calculated by producing a mean ‘cost’ for each claimant for Insurance purposes.
Italian avaria and French avarie meant “damage to ship.”
Later, during the 18th Century Georgian or Enlightenment era, the word evolved into the general mathematical term we recognize today.
Climate policy is dominated by the science and maths of global averages. We are all attuned to hearing mentions of the 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial averages.
As Dr Peter Scott, Head Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the Met Office writes,
“To understand changes and variations in our climate, it is essential to know how the surface temperature changes – from month to month, up to decade to decade. Global-average temperature records provide this vital information. From these records we can see how warm specific months, years, or decades are, and we can discern trends in our climate over longer periods of time. Global records go back about 160 years, giving a long period from which to draw conclusions about how our climate is changing.” (Met Office website)
We live in one biosphere, yes. Global averages are extremely critical, of course, for a global overview. But I contend this is now an ethical problem because regional variation in outcomes is real. Global average obsession must be reigned in. Averaging is damaging.
It does not relay the real story of what is happening in terms of human equity or volatility, and at the higher ranges or peaks of temperature. Nor does any other kind of global average; precipitation, ocean warming, drought, for example.
The differences in regional water availability, (living) biomass and ecosystem function, migratory capacity, and human access to energy for cooling technology vary, sometimes drastically, from place to place. To sideline all these variations will be affecting lives directly, both Homo sapien and Tere sapien. We are reaching the point of moral injury, quite frankly, if these lives are devalued by the process of concentrating on global averages in the public sphere.
I suggest the scientists and communicators, particularly those living in the relative safety of the northern hemisphere (though that is also changing), recognize the shortcomings of constantly emphasizing global averages to persuade populations and policymakers ~ it has become an averimania!
Instead, we should be discussing localized impacts, especially given economic disparity. It might even lead to those disparities being properly addressed and a new kind of fair politics going forwards into increasingly uncertain times.
Along with preventing emissions, there is an absolute duty to plan for extremes, mass movements, and potential conflicts. Because these are where life is most at risk, and since all things are interconnected, the risks are compounded by multiple and cumulative breakdowns in life-flow.
I was fortunate to be sent the following from my Twitter friend Verónica Ansaldo, who is from Chile, in response to this blog. I attach it here, with her kind consent; a brilliant quote, and I’m grateful.
Averages hide inequalities. Nicanor Parra, a famous Chilean poet and physicist wrote: “There are two loaves of bread. You eat the two. I dont eat any. Average consumption: one loaf per person.”
— verónica ansaldo (@AnsaldoVernica) December 4, 2020