Friday, January 20, 2017

How not to be green

A few days ago, I spotted an advert for a device that promised something little short of a green revolution. I say “advert”: it was actually one of those social media posts that people reflexively share, not realizing that they’re basically doing the job of advertising the product for free, which is what the company intend them to do.

This device is installed in the kitchen. You put left-over food in it, which it then apparently grinds up and magically transforms it into the perfect fertilizer for your garden. That way, your food waste doesn’t go to landfill, and it also means you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers: the perfect green solution!

I imagine that most of you have already spotted it. For those who haven’t, I should explain that gardeners have been “magically” transforming food waste into fertilizer since time immemorial: the process is known as “composting” and involves no technology more complex than a large wooden box.

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t actually smell.

The truly worrying thing about this amazing device is that it claims to do this within 24 hours, which means either that it’s a scam, or it uses vast amounts of power. The vast amounts of power must come from somewhere, and even “clean” wind energy comes at a cost: in this part of Germany, the cost of surprisingly large numbers of trees, since the only place you can build a wind farm in hilly country is on hilltops, which are very often forested. (I once got into conversation with a northerner — a flatlander, therefore — who actually told me I was lying about that last point, because what kind of idiot would build wind farms on hilltops? There are times when you’re left with no choice but to quietly drop the subject and tiptoe away.)

It strikes me as one of the odd paradoxes of our time that so many people are paying lip-service to supposedly “green” initiatives, while at the same time we as a society are becoming increasingly less green. A controversial statement, I know, but stay with me here: the idea of a “green” solution that is actually, objectively, less green than the age-old solution the manufacturers are pretending doesn’t exist is a perfect illustration.

So you have a five-year-old car which is not the most fuel-efficient. Do you (a) replace it with a new electric car, or (b) walk, cycle or take public transport as often as possible and the car only when completely unavoidable?

If you answered (a), you would almost certainly be responsible for more environmental damage than you would cause if you changed nothing at all: your old car has to be scrapped and a new car built, and an electric car’s batteries contain some quite rare materials that have to be mined at great cost to the environment.

“But,” you protest, “public transport is not an option for me: the bus only goes once an hour.” That never worried your great-grandparents, and in any case if you truly want to save the planet, you’re going to have to make some personal sacrifices.

I do, of course, understand that in many parts of the world — large areas of the US, for example — public transport is virtually non-existent, which is why you need to persuade your President that Trump-branded streetcars are just the thing to Make America Great Again, or at least to Make America Move Again.

Trump Trams, made in Detroit. Make it happen, America. Just don’t tell Donald Trump it’s to help save the environment.

(Disclaimer: Building trams may require lots of power and natural resources. Dammit, this isn’t as easy as I thought.)

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