Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1001 Ways To Tune Up The World, Number Forty-Six

46. Quit Cell Phone Charger Thinking.

There have been, recently, commercials running in which a little kid goes around the house chiding people like his sister for leaving a cell phone charger plugged into the wall.

Recently, I read an article on Slate magazine that brought up that exact issue, too, and so I asked it to Middle: Should I worry that I leave my cell phone charger plugged in all the time? "Yeah!" said Middle, heartily, and chided me for wasting electricity.

But, ...the total energy used by a cell phone charger, if it were plugged in continuously for an entire year, is 2.3 kWh, while the total energy used by a person existing during that year is, on average of 4,000 kWh. (Source: Slate.) While it's not a bad thing to unplug your cell phone, the expert quoted in the article noted, you could achieve the same effect by skipping a single hot bath a year.

Here's what's wrong with the focus on unplugging the cell phones. It leads people to focus on fake, easy, feel-good fixes that don't, in the long run, make a real difference. It's like those people who argue about whether it costs more money, over time, to switch a light off and on when you leave the room and come back, or leave it on: It's a pointless argument, because either way the effect is the same -- but in arguing about pointless matters, we miss the real issue and the real fixes. "Of course!" Middle told me about unplugging my cell phone, seeing that as a problem but not seeing as a problem the fact that she'd driven home for the weekend, from Oshkosh, in an SUV that carried only her.

Obsessing about tiny little fixes is seen as helping people keep in touch with the problem and help fix the problems, but it doesn't do that; it makes things worse, because people can pat themselves on the back about how they're doing something for the environment/world/political system/children, and in fact they're not only doing very little, but are often harming it.

How many people who make sure they unplug their cell phone charger also replace their (perfectly good) cell phone every year or two for an updated model? I can only speculate how many kilowatt hours of electricity went into producing and shipping and advertising the new, updated phone... but the people with that new phone will feel okay because they unplug their charger.

It's that kind of muddy thinking that leads people to buy into the idea that planting a tree offsets carbon emissions from doing other stuff -- like Coldplay wanted you to believe when they announced they'd plant 10,000 mango trees to offset the carbon emissions from their album A Rush of Blood To The Head. Not only did at least 40% of the trees die, but the trees had get to their destination, as did the (limited and insufficient) water and fertilizer and the rest of the supplies to support the trees.

How did those trees get to the fields? Walking? Coldplay created more carbon emissions and burned more fossil fuels in "solving" the problem of carbon emissions -- but because they had cell-phone-charger mindsets, they no doubt felt good about the "solution."

That focus on the small, easy-to-implement, but pointless solution, kept people from looking for a better way to actually make an effect... like, say, not offering CDs of the album at all, but instead simply requiring that people download them.

Doing that would have completely eliminated the carbon costs and fossil fuel usage of producing the 7.2 million CDs sold so far. Picture the plastic used in a stack of 7.2 million CDs. I estimate that a CD is 1/4 an inch tall, so a stack of 7.2 million of them would be 150,000 feet -- or 28.4 miles tall. The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet, so Coldplay's CD stack is 120 times the height of the Empire State Building.

In other words, Coldplay produced, and then shipped around the world, 120 (very thin) Empire State Buildings... while planting 10,000 trees and thinking they were doing something good. Would even a fraction of that energy have been used in just making the album available for download only? No plastic covers, no album inserts (both could have been made available online for people to print if they chose, and most would not have done so, I bet), no trucks and boats and planes hauling around all those Empire State Buildings.

That's the downside to Cell Phone Charger Thinking, though: By focusing on the easy, visible, feel-good fix, Coldplay, and the kids in the commercials, and Middle, avoided focusing on the harder, more complicated... but actually effective fix. Don't get new cell phones until your old one isn't working anymore. Don't drive home all by yourself in an SUV and then lecture about unplugging cell phones. Don't ship 120 Empire State Buildings around the world.

Those are all big thoughts that were avoided by people thinking small, and we do it everyday. President Obama took over GM for a while there, and in doing so, implemented Presidential Cell Phone Charger Thinking: He used the government's control over a major automaker to require... that the automaker produce slightly more fuel-efficient cars. (Obama also Unplugged His Cell Phone Charger when his administration increased fuel fleet efficiency standards and again when he used government funds to help spur another hybrid car plant.)

Again, there's nothing wrong with trying to be more fuel efficient -- but there's nothing too right about it, either, because it's all (to use the Slate expert's phrase) bailing the Titanic with a thimble. Why aren't we producing hydrogen fuel cell cars? If plug-in electric cars are going to cost double what cars do now and still use fossil fuels, why are we bothering to make them?

Because we focus on Unplugging Our Cell Phone Charger: We'd rather do something small, and maybe-helpful, than something large and actually helpful.

I'll just say this: I don't care if you unplug your cell phone charger or not. I don't care if you plug in thirty of them simply because you like the way they look. Plugging, or unplugging, your cell phone charger isn't going to matter, at all, in the long run. It's all a bunch of Coldplay mangoes.

Instead of asking what tiny, easy thing can I do to maybe improve the world a marginal amount at no real cost to myself? ask yourself: how can I really make a difference. Then do that, instead: Take public transportation whenever you can. Use your old cell phone until it disintegrates. Only download music instead of driving to the mall to buy CDs. Drive your old car until you can buy a hydrogen fuel cell car instead -- and send emails to politicians and automakers telling them that's what you're going to do.

Prior entries:

13. Ban driving any kind of automobile, motorcycle or other personal vehicle within 1-2 miles of downtown in any city with a population of more than 100,000.

12. Abolish gym class; instead, teach kids to play musical instruments.

11. Change copyright laws to allow anyone to use anyone else's creative work provided that the copier pay 60% of the profit to the originator and that the copier not cast the original work in a negative light.

10. Have more sidewalk cafes and outdoor seating.

9. When you have to give someone a gift, ask them what they want, and then get that thing for them.

8. Never interrupt or finish someone's jokes.

7. Periodically, give up something you like for at least a month.

6. Switch to "E-money."

5. Have each person assigned one phone number, and then add an extension for the various phones and faxes that person might be reached at.

4. Abolish Mondays and Tuesdays.

3. Don't listen to interviews with athletes or comedians.

2. Have "personal cashiers" at the grocery store.

1. Don't earn more than $200,000 per year.

1 comment:

carol said...

excellent ideas