Don't Get Distracted by Eco-Bling: Let's Use a 1% Rule of Thumb to Judge New Products & Projects

bling bottled water photo

photo: EverJean via flickr.

Over at The Guardian, David MacKay has proposed something that I think we all ought to take seriously: A 1% rule for reporting on energy-saving gadgets or renewable energy systems. MacKay's 1% rule is this: "A gizmo may be discussed only if it could lead to energy savings of at least 1%." It's framed in the context of reporting, but its a rule of thumb we could all use:Why? It's all too easy to get distracted by the cool new dingus being touted and not realized that it's not going to do one doggone thing to make a dent into the gluttonous amount of energy we consume. I often call it the "shiny thing make monkey happy" syndrome. We've all been there, myself included.

Parking Lot Kinetic Energy Plates Just 'Eco-Bling'
To prove his point about pointless projects, MacKay cites a new kinetic energy system installed at a Sainsbury's supermarket parking lot, which captures some of the energy as cars drive in, and how the energy it produces is a fraction of a fraction of the energy used by the cars driving to the store:

...let's compare the energy that might be saved by the "kinetic road plates" with the total energy used by a typical trip to the supermarket. Let's guess that the kinetic road plates extract one fifth of the kinetic energy of the arriving car. For a car weighing one tonne travelling at 20mph when it hits the road plates, the extracted energy comes to 0.002 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Now, the energy used by the car, assuming it is driven three miles to and three miles from the supermarket with a fuel efficiency of 33 miles per gallon, is about 8 kWh. The savings from parking at the green car park thus amount to one four-thousandth of the energy used by the trip to the supermarket.

That's much less than 1%. So this "green energy system" is just eco-bling, creating a delusion of happy progress while distracting people from serious change.

The Delusion of Happy Progress is Indeed Dangerous
It's that last sentence wherein lies the trap: A delusion of happy progress while distracting people from serious change...that serious change that is required if we are to build a truly sustainable, ecologically and socially just world. It's all too easy to get caught up in the eco-bling aspect of things, or forget that moving through a checklist is simply green steps is not the goal of green.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...
Certainly TreeHugger's done it, showcasing some products which don't satisfy the 1% rule: LED umbrellas power by rain, bras which harness the power of bouncing breasts to power an iPod, and solar cloathing of all types.

To open up the discussion beyond energy specifically, we all have seen projects that frankly are so pointlessly far fetched (gigantic 'dragonfly' buildings in New York City), or far off from practical, wide-scale implementation (solar power from space or nuclear fusion), or contrary to base ecological sense (despite all its green aspects, the 'eco-city' in the desert Masdar seems contrary to all logic to me) all capture the human imagination, but solidly fall into the category of "delusion of happy progress."

So, let's get behind MacKay on this one, writers and readers alike.

A Greener Future is Much More Than Green Products
Creating a greener future, confronting the challenges of climate change, of dwindling fossil fuels, skyrocketing energy usage, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, overconsumption of natural resources of all types, not to mention population growth, requires genuine practical and philosophical changes at the personal, interpersonal and national scale. On the personal level it requires us all to examine how big an impact new products and projects touting themselves as green will actually have.

In doing this, using a 1% rule of thumb is a good place to start.

Here's all of MacKay's original piece: Talk of 'kinetic energy plates' is a waste of energy
Dubious Dubai: Eco-Bling on the Anara Tower
"Plastic Bags are a Distraction"-Monbiot
Scathing Article in the Independent on Dubious Dubai
Quote of the Day: Building Green Houses is Like "Polishing a Turd"

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