Yukon’s Million-Dollar Shopping Habit Hurts Environment

It’s been a busy, exciting week in the World of Geek.

In an echo of the Internet’s young and drunken dot-bomb days Google blew $1.6 billion on a popular home movie web site. Then in a classic hangover stupor, the company vomited its word processor all over the web.

Which begs the question: does the world really need yet another place to write letters? I’ll rant on that one some other time.

Here I’ll instead get all righteously indignant and ponder this: with all of that money, and all of the engineering and marketing talent that Google so clearly oozes, couldn’t this corporate web behemoth do something more meaningful? Heck, couldn’t anybody in the world of web? (Other than Spider-Man, that is.)

Web geeks, by definition, are navel gazers. Yeah, we are. We focus on the internet as an end unto itself and crank out an endless barrage of products designed for a sort of self-perpetuating industry machine.

We build webmail interfaces so we can get our email so we can get information about new technologies that will help us build new webmail interfaces. Then we feel like we actually accomplished something. Oh, make it stop!

What if we actually looked out the window and considered the world around ourselves for a change?

Take Google’s $1.6 billion. What if they used it to research ways to leverage the internet to improve, say, day care services? Or fight child poverty? Or find and prosecute bear kidney poachers?

The sad fact of the matter is that information technology, and the web in particular, is rarely used to induce social change.

Admittedly, it is important that everyone have a place to post their home-grown Loverboy lip-sync videos. But $1.6 billion could be better spent investigating and correcting the mental malady that makes people like Loverboy in the first place.

In all seriousness, outside my window there is tremendous potential for IT to make a change.

I’ll use one of Whitehorse’s most deleterious seasonal occurrences as a starting point: the -40 shopping trip. I’ll never forget the sick feeling in my gut I had the first time I laid eyes on the Extra Foods parking lot full of vehicles idling. The rising plume of exhaust reminded me of the smelter towers my family used to drive past in Hamilton when I was a kid.

If I assume that an average of 5000 Whitehorse households perform this sick ritual a total of 22 times every year, that represents over $150,000 in gasoline that we waste. More importantly, it’s over 357 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions that we send into the atmosphere just so we’ll have a warm trunk to put our groceries in.

But this is only a small percentage of total trips to the grocery store. (Heck, I’ve seen SUVs idling in July just so Fifi the Chihuahua could enjoy air conditioning.)

The big picture is much worse.

My numbers are based on efficiency statistics for relatively new cars. Look around Whitehorse and it’s clear that not everyone is driving a late model Toyota.

The older a car is, the less efficient and more harmful to the environment it is. Cars built before 1988 are over 50% less efficient than today’s models. And we’ve all seen a fair share of those charming Yukon clunkers quaking curbside just to stay running as their owner cuts into the store for a pack of smokes.

I could safely estimate that just to go grocery shopping over the course of a year, the Yukon dumps several million tonnes of chemicals, heavy metals, and carcinogenic materials into the atmosphere and wastes millions of dollars on gasoline.

If you consider why we do this, however, the situation starts to make even less sense.

Retail environments are meticulously engineered to take advantage of us. Colour is used to make us spend easily. Cheaper products are promoted to entice us in and towards more expensive items. Constant advertising targets our personal sense of self-worth and inures us to derive our identities from our consumer habits.

Shopping is not an easy thing to do for everyone. The larger stores get, the more difficult they are for our elderly to endure. A construction worker told me that the interior of the new Canadian Tire takes a full three minutes to walk across unencumbered.

Regarding the other end of the age spectrum, I personally can attest to the fact that retail environments are not child-friendly. I’d rather be tied to a tree and have beavers gnaw my toes off than take my three-year-old to Superstore.

In short, grocery shopping is dumb. It requires we travel significant distances, expend significant energy, suffer significant expense, and endure environments that don’t help our mental and emotional well-being. And we buy pretty much the same products every time we go (unless you’re like me and have the natural ability to forget the essentials, coming home with crab cakes and aioli instead of eggs and carrots). It’s all so, well, inefficient.

In this age of $1.6 billion home movie web sites and perpetual word processing software, why is it that we all still regularly perform an activity as daft as grocery shopping?

Tune in next week when I’ll answer that question and provide a web-based solution that benefits society, the environment and the economy (just don’t invite Sam Walton to the party, I might tick him off a bit).

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