Friday, June 20, 2008

Dishwasher or No Dishwasher? That Is the Question.

Dishwasher Honestly, we like the folks in the environmental movement a lot, even if their more zealous activities can make some of them easy targets for fun and snark. Maybe it's that environmentalism has a high appeal to younger folk who get their first taste of activism and run wild with it. Maybe it's that the green sands are so shifty it can be hard to maintain ideological purity without tipping into a sandals-and-earnestness trap. Nothing like being hip and a bore at the same time - you can find yourself alienating all your friends at once.

But fair is fair, and we think The New York Times is being signally unfair when it weighs in on green overload:

Two years after “An Inconvenient Truth” helped unleash a new tide of environmental activism, green noise pulses through the collective consciousness from all directions. The news media issues dire reports about disappearing polar bears; Web sites feature Brad Pitt arriving at a movie premiere in his hydrogen-powered BMW; bookstore shelves are piled high with titles like “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth”; shops carry hemp-enriched shampoo and 100-percent organic cotton tampons.

Probably could have done without some of those details, but the idea is that while green may seem the new black, it has rapidly lost cache in a media- and marketing-driven orgy of opportunism.

“What we’ve been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash,” Ms. [Suzanne C.] Shelton said. Over the last six months, she added, when the agency screened environmentally themed advertisements, “we see over half the room roll their eyes: ‘Not another green message.’ ”

Shelton runs an ad agency, though the article seems loath to point out that it is the marketers and advertisers of the world that are most to blame for this state of affairs.

Now, we should note that the NYT, and especially writer Alex Williams, who put quill to paper for this one, delight in manufacturing trendless trend pieces. Take this, for example:

“I would be a much more productive member of society if I didn’t have to worry about, ‘Should I wash dishes by hand or run the dishwasher?’ ” said Erik Michaels-Ober, a 24-year-old software engineer in San Francisco. “There are all sorts of conflicting stories about that.”

When you get to something like that, you know you're in the thickets with a reporter straining hard enough to develop mental hemorrhoids. (No offense to Mr. Michaels-Ober, who got roped into this, but really - the photo indicates he's a single guy, so what's he doing dishes-wise, feeding the Norwegian army?)

It may sound as though we're rapping the folks here who are trying to wrap their minds around environment issues, but really, the rap is against the Times. This articles takes as its template the argument often used against environmental advocacy - that earnestness shades into silliness when it's taken beyond practical limits. (You could call it the PETA effect.) The net result is to downgrade environmental arguments as crackpot. The timing of this article, with much discussion over offshore drilling now occurring, feels highly suspect, a way to clear out rhetorical deadwood en route to a highly contentious public policy change.

That may well be oversensitivity, but we found our antennae twitching uncomfortably on this one. Not that we'll be taking our most devoted green friend out for a dinner of rocks and twigs, but fair is fair.

Drawing is of a dishwasher. If Mr. Michaels-Ober has a blog, maybe we can help him figure out his dish washing dilemma.

3 comments:

BillDoublewide said...

The dishwasher uses much less water than washing by hand. However, it will obviously use more electricity. I think if you were to run on a timer in the middle of the night when demand is low, or if you have a "green" source of electricty, the dishwasher is the 'green' way.

We have six kids so we run it whenever it is full, about twice a day. Of course, I don't believe in AGW, so I don't worry too much about it.

Erik Michaels-Ober said...

Thank you for the advice. It is indicative of my point: the answer is not so simple. I have to consider which is a more valuable resource: water or electricity. This level of complication makes it hard for well-meaning members of society to decide how best to use shared resources.

If my dilemma was narrowly limited to dishwashing, I'm confident I could always make the right decision, but modern life is filled with decisions of this sort. Should I commute by bus or by train? When I travel to Los Angeles, should I fly or drive? Perhaps it's most efficient to always use disposable dishes, which never need to be washed. If that's the case, should I choose paper or plastic?

Obviously, my individual decisions will not make or break the environment. But the fact that I spend time thinking about them is woefully inefficient. I should not have to become an expert on these matters and do my own research. I would prefer government (or a trusted, independent organization) to provide definitive recommendations, so that I, and well-meaning people like me, wouldn't have to answer these questions ourselves.

When you say you don't believe in anthropogenic global warming, is your belief that human carbon dioxide emissions have no effect on climate whatsoever? What do you think happens to carbon dioxide when it enters the atmosphere? Do you not accept the greenhouse effect?

BillDoublewide said...

Obviously manmade CO2 goes into the atmosphere, and it does have an impact. However, I have yet to be convinced that the impact is significant or measurable, or that it is not mitigated or entirely swamped by other effects, especially solar variations. Pre-industrial history influences me here.

And, even if it were, it is impossible for the developed western world to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions. And even if we could, any cost-benefit analysis will (and has) shown that adapting to climate change has an enormously smaller human cost that reducing CO2 output.