Greenwashing, Wired style

WiredThe June issue of Wired has an article titled Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green. In it, a variety of authors give 10 counterintuitive “green” messages:

  1. A/C is okay
  2. Organics are not the answer
  3. Farm the forests
  4. China is the solution
  5. Accept genetic engineering
  6. Carbon trading doesn’t work
  7. Embrace nuclear power
  8. Used cars–not hybrids
  9. Prepare for the worst
  10. Curious (and maybe a little annoyed) yet? Immediately following is a one-page counterpoint that blasts them for focusing too much on just carbon. There’s something to Wired’s view that global warming is going to happen so quickly that we have to focus on it exclusively if that’s what it takes. On the other hand, if we just focus on reducing carbon emissions at all costs, my guess is that we’ll end up with another mess once we fix global warming. I’d rather focus on a holistic approach now rather than jump from crisis to crisis.

    That said, some of these little articles have real problems even assuming that all you care about is carbon emissions. Some of them even contradict each other! First, they suggest we live in cities (since they have great energy density). Then, they say that organic is less important than local. I agree, but how local can your food get if you’re living in a dense city?

    Another issue, which is probably related to their length, is that they gloss over a lot of alternatives. Sure, pure carbon trading may have some issues, but a cap-and-trade system is supported by just as many economists as the carbon tax plan they support (not to mention its success with acid rain). There’s also a lot of leeway between leaving old-growth forest entirely alone (which may produce carbon) and cutting it all down (where that carbon is sequestered in, say, newly-built wooden couches).

    There’s also a lot of ragging on “environmentalists,” although their picture of an environmentalist is pretty extreme. I know a lot of environmentalists who support nuclear power (at least in the medium term), are okay with genetically modified foods, and don’t think China is unequivocably bad (imagine that!). The worst case of that is the piece on keeping your SUV (rather than buying a new hybrid). I agree that it’d be wasteful to get rid of your current car and get a new one, no matter what its gas milage, but most people getting a hybrid are doing it in lieu of a different new car, in which case that’s entirely appropriate.

    The one shining ray of light in this piece is the description of A/C, despite the strawman characterization that environmentalists don’t want people to live in hot areas. The basic point is that it costs a lot more (in terms of carbon emissions) to heat rather than to cool, at least in part because you have to modify the temperature more. Even in sunny Arizona, you’ll never have to cool more than 40 degrees (less with a nice ceiling fan); in the cold north, you might have to heat up to a difference of 60 degrees or more! The numbers they come up with a pretty incredible, although I’m not sure how much the difference in emissions is based on the assumptions they made about what fuels people are using.

    Overall, I’m sure it’s achieved what Wired wants: lots of pageviews and lots of discussion. I just hope that it’s not at the expense of encouraging people to knee-jerk against saner environmental solutions. this!

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andy said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    There is a major problem with assuming that cities are the way to go. If we are keeping our current population, than cities have the economies of scale which make energy and resource use less than for someone living outside the city. However, the we will never be sustainable at 6.5 billion people on Earth. It is just not possible.
    While it sounds great to have tall buildings with smaller apartments than country houses spread out, the fact is that there is drastically more infrastructure in a city, which has all relied on oil to be created, and requires much more maintenance to keep everything running. Cities also rely on much more land area than the defined city. When I think of NYC, I know that it would not be possible without of all the Catskill region (probably millions of acres) where a lot of farms grow food for the city, but it is also the watershed from which NYC has bought up huge amounts of land in order to get drinking water. So cities are not as good as they initially sound in terms of sustainability when all of the things they rely on are accounted.

  2. 2

    My laziness gets me in trouble | said,

    June 19, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    […] post, I pointed to Wired’s article on heating vs cooling as a singular good article in the lackluster series. I did admit that they didn’t give much in the way of detail, but figured that was just a […]

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