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March 22, 2009

Look at the big numbers, not at the small numbers

I'm waiting eagerly for my copy of a new book to arrive, recommended to me by Patrick Beeker: Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. Its author, David McKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University, has responded to an urgent global challenge: how to make sense of the conflicting claims and information bandied about on all matters eco.

I ordered the book having read this one short piece on the book's website: "Leaving mobile phone chargers plugged in is often held up as an example of a behavioural eco-crime. The truth is that the amount of energy saved by switching off a phone charger is exactly the same as the energy used by driving an average car for *one second*".

Sometimes, it's true, people use numbers to cloud issues intentionally. This week's manufactured outrage about AIG bonuses seems to be a case in point. Leo Kolivakis wants us to follow the big money, not the small money. "Here’s the problem with all the hoopla over the $135 million in AIG bonuses: This sum is only less than 0.1 per cent – one thousandth – of the $183 BILLION that the U.S. Treasury gave to AIG as a “pass-through” to its counterparties. This sum is over a thousand times the magnitude of the bonuses on which public attention is conveniently being focused by Wall Street promoters".

Now, next time you read about the necessity to bail out the car industry, think about that phone charger...

Posted by John Thackara at March 22, 2009 09:13 AM


Good post. It's sometimes funny when people rush to switch off the light and "save energy", and then gladly "order" the elevator up, to get downstairs, rather than take the stairs.

Posted by: Ajay at March 22, 2009 05:41 PM

Nice to see the recommendation was useful.

Posted by: Patrick B. at March 22, 2009 08:39 PM

The challenge of comprehending "conflicting claims and information" does not only apply to environment and energy issues. Indeed, the decreasing costs of production provided by the Internet is exponentially increasing the amount of all types of information available, as well as widening the spectrum of people that can produce it. Our ability to navigate and "make sense" of these piles of data and opposing viewpoints will determine much of our economic and social futures.
As a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, I can see these information challenges consistently represented in the work of my peers. Some are using networked Internet resources to broaden the scope of their projects. Others are becoming increasingly mired in their personal interests, magnified by the virtual realm, and producing "design for design's sake" with little relevance. Operating in a rapidly changing, globalized economic environment, designers must embed their work in this worldly context, or risk irrelevance or worse.

Posted by: Natalya at March 23, 2009 08:04 PM

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