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Scale in the media

I lamented in an earlier post that questions of scale are all too often left out of discussions of environmental solutions. To recent pieces that bring the issue up:

Michael Pollan’s Why Bother?, from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, opens by recounting what for Pollan was the “most upsetting moment” of An Inconvenient Truth: the “immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it.” Pollan defends notions of virtue and the steps, particularly gardening, that individuals might take to reduce their individual carbon footprints, vis-à-vis other responses to the climate crisis such as hopingfor some future technology. He writes: “Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult…. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food.”

Second, the April 12th Sierra Club Radio podcast has a segment with Bob Schildgen—Mr. Green—promoting his new book, which compiles questions and answers from his column in Sierra magazine. On the question of paper vs plastic (his answer–neither; bring your own bag), he encourages listeners to put things into perspective by mentioning that you likely burn as much petroleum in one trip to the grocery store as it takes to make all the plastic bags you’d use in a whole year. I can’t find his numbers online, but using the figures I wrote about earlier: 330 bags per American per year, 200 bags per gallon, so just over one and a half gallons of oil per American devoted to plastic bags. At 20 miles per gallon, you could make a round trip to a supermarket 15 miles away. Right order of magnitude, but I think you could travel a bit farther on that amount of gas.

This exercise in scale is then thrown out the window later in the interview, when host Orli Cotel asks the heavily loaded question: “For our listners who do own cars or need cars for whatever reason, what tips can you give us, as Mr. Green, to help reduce the amount of gas that we’re using,  besides of course cutting back on car travel?” (As if there’s some secret, magic way to drive without using gas that only the hardcore enviros know about.) Mr. Green goes on to mention that Americans lose about 4 million gallons of gasoline per day because of underinflated tires. Of course, he doesn’t put this into perspective: that’s about 1% of our daily gasoline consumption; we burn through 4 million gallons of gasoline in about 15 minutes.


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