We live in an age of irony.
Even as we shop in the market-driven spirit of eco-trendiness, we maintain technology-based habits that subvert the very spirit of going green.
Things like browsing the web and buying coffee can be such environmentally-damaging activities that, when recognized as such, it’s difficult to see how we can feel good about ourselves just because we pretend to shop in a more eco-friendly manner with a new kind of bag.
This morning I watched a man cruise alone into the drive-through line of a local Starbucks.
His trendy Volkswagen Jetta idled first as he placed his order, then again as the single cup was prepared.
Meanwhile, both the parking lot and restaurant itself were empty.
The Sierra Club estimates that each year, Americans emit about 58 million tons of carbon dioxide as their vehicles do nothing more than sit there doing nothing but idling.
They figure that McDonald’s customers alone are responsible for over 7.25 million gallons of gas being wasted each year while they sit in their cars, in line, waiting for their greasy vittles to be packed up.
That’s a whole lot of environmental damage being done just for the convenience of laziness.
All of this doesn’t even take into account that workers staffing the drive-through windows are developing health problems as a result of their work. Vehicle emissions are not unlike second-hand smoke.
Then there’s the internet, that pristine, emission-free utopia of social and information utopia. Right?
Lately I’ve let my guard down and re-engaged with that most frivolous of all frivolous pursuits: Facebook.
What’s worse, I’ve somehow been drawn into a game called Farmville. It’s a virtual environment in which I can pretend to plant crops, milk cows, and generally sit around chewing the fat with my neighbours.
Yeah, I admit, it’s a total and utter waste of time.
And, man, when I launch Farmville, even my most powerful Mac groans under the heavy demands of that artificial agricultural environment. I can smell the heat coming off of it.
And that can only mean one thing: increased power consumption.
Which can only mean one more thing: a requirement for increased power generation.
One researcher estimates that to maintain a character in an artificial world like Farmville requires 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.
That figure is almost on par with what a real-live flesh-and-blood Brazilian human being requires.
But it gets worse. Even if you don’t partake in these vapid activities, just by being a member of the internet community you’re causing damage.
Computer security firm McAffee estimates that in 2008, spam alone burned the equivalent of 2 billion gallons of gas.
About 80% of that is us just deleting the damned messages from our inboxes.
And earlier this year it was reported that two Google searches generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle.
This is because maintaining data facilities such as Google’s (and Facebook’s, and Twitter’s) is one of the most energy-demanding operations imaginable.
As a result, some experts figure that within a decade, the internet will generate about 20% of the world’s carbon emissions.
It already generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as the airline industry.
Sorta makes me want to burn my crops, slaughter the herd, and mosey on out of Farmville.
Just because the grease got left behind in the gears and cogs of the Industrial Revolution doesn’t mean technology isn’t as dirty as it ever was.
It would do the world a heck of a lot of good if we could recognize this and stop feeling so smug over the supposed eco-friendliness of half measures like shirts made of plastic bottles and organic blueberries that get shipped halfway round the world.
There are much bigger issues that impose far greater stresses on the environment.
They’re just cleverly hidden behind the artificially clean veil of contemporary technology.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 14, 2009