Thursday, January 11, 2007

By any measure

Americans have long taken justifiable pride in Yellowstone, which became a national park in 1872 and is often described as the "world's first and oldest national park."

The Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, in the Graian Alps of northwestern Italy, can make a stronger claim to being the world's first "national park" as we understand that concept today. The park's name comes from its highest point, a heavily glaciated peak that rises to 13,323 feet/4,061 meters not far from the Mont Blanc, the highest summit in western Europe.

[Pop Quiz: What is the altitude of Gran Paradiso in miles? Feet? Kilometers and centimeters? More below.]

Gran Paradiso park was created in 1821 as a refuge for the ibex, the largest animal in the Alps, which was on the brink of extinction in most of the range due to overhunting. Its founder was Savoy aristocrat Thaon de Revel, a visionary on the scale of John Muir and Aldo Leopold. He signed a decree that prohibited hunting and all trade in the flesh, fur or horns of the ibex. But the park, by law, remained open to the royal family of Savoy and other Italian royals, including King Victor Emmanuel II. In this respect, it was similar to designated wilderness areas in the U.S. today.*

The ibex herd in Gran Paradiso numbered only 60 animals in 1821. By 1850, it was the last surviving ibex population in the Alps. Despite the royal hunting prerogative, the herd increased to 3,000 by the end of the 19th century. Due to Thaon de Revel's foresight, the endangered ibex thrived and recovered. Despite intensified poaching during World War I, the park now supports a large ibex population that has provided herds for dissemination throughout the Alps. The landscape remains pristine, and the wild population of ibex in the Alps currently numbers about 30,000.

The Gran Paradiso protected area provided a model for national parks everywhere. It officially became an Italian national park in 1922, 101 years after the park's creation and 51 years after the final unification of Italy.

No post is complete without some kind of rant, so let me return to the Pop Quiz. With a little help from my calculator, I determined that the 13,323-foot altitude of Gran Paradiso equals 2.56 miles or 4,441 yards or 159,876 inches. The peak's 4,061 meters equals, let's see... hmmm... 4.061 kilometers or 406,100 centimeters or 4,061,000 millimeters—and I, a math meathead, had no need for the calculator.

Since Ireland's conversion to the metric system in 2005, the U.S. remains one of only three countries on the planet where non-metric systems of measurement are predominant. The others: Liberia and Myanmar (Burma). As in Britain, the long history of opposition to metrification in the U.S. was founded on "localism, tradition, cultural aesthetics, economic impact, or distaste for measures viewed as 'foreign.'"

The transition to metric has been slow and costly in many countries, notably Japan and parts of the old British Commonwealth like Canada and Australia.** Even France, which was the first to adopt the metric system during its Revolution, resisted. But nowhere has resistance been greater than in the U.S.

The refusal to metrify is much more costly than conversion, which led the U.S. to take tentative steps toward metrification during the Carter years. For example, I recall seeing distances in both miles and kilometers appearing on the interstate highways back then. This was a healthy and necessary trend, which had potential economic benefits for everything from tourism to manufacturing and technology. The Reagan administration, in another fit of extreme Americentrism, quickly abandoned the effort. Despite the clear superiority of its decimal system and easy conversions, metrification in the U.S. has languished ever since***.

Even if the systems of measurement were equal in every respect, it would still make long-term economic sense for the U.S. to convert. Over six billion people use metric, after all.

But American exceptionalism lives on, and the $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter crashes because NASA software confounded metric and Imperial systems of measurement, causing a fatal navigation error.****


*Except as otherwise referenced, my source on the history of Gran Paradiso park is Walking the Alpine Parks of France and Northwest Italy, by Marcia R. Lieberman (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1994).

**My primary source on metrification is the Wikipedia article on the subject, except as noted.

***Although the U.S Metric Association perseveres.

****Sure, it might not have crashed if only the Imperial system had been used. But metric is inherently superior, especially for scientific purposes. The Orbiter error has been described as "a failure to convert the English units of measurement used in construction into the metric units used for operation."

PHOTO: The Alps of France and northwestern Italy in October, viewed from the Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc massif, France. (Photo by the author, 2005.)

UPDATE (January 13th): Robert Farley offers an entertaining history of the House of Savoy at Lawyers, Guns and Money (January 7th).

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