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Preposterous Stories Make for Good BS Indicators

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 13, 2009

Recently the story has been making the rounds that Google searches are killing the planet–too much CO2 involved in one little search.  This due to a story in the London Times that a search uses as much energy as it takes to boil half a kettle of water for your tea.  There is just one problem:  that story was total BS.  Even the physicist they quoted says he never said that.

I doubted the story as soon as I read it.  Even if it were true, I was still certain that conventional paper media of any kind had to be far more destructive in terms of total energy costs to produce it.  So I dutifully gathered up all of the articles with an eye towards waiting for this particular BS bubble to burst (hey, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, be careful producing BS!) so I could see how the various blogs and articles looked in the cold light of that reason.  It’s a good way to see who added some sort of value, and who just tried to surf the meme for their own ends.  Remember that you can’t always tell where the BS ends, so its good to see this sort of thing when you have a clear idea what’s going on.

So here is the list in the order the articles appeared in my reader:

Nicholas Carr “Strip mine media“:  This was a classic meme for Nick to pick up.  He delights in writing about whatever rubs the conventional wisdom’s nose in the dirt.  It always makes for an entertaining read, if sometimes your own nose does get dirty when you disagree!  Nick called BS by saying he doubted the results were true.  He ultimately reports that Google calculates the numbers are 0.2 grams of CO2, not 7 grams.  But, Nick doesn’t miss a chance to wax eloquent about Google’s moral dilemma as they still must surely be damaging the environment.  Points of for failure to present objectivity on that even when Nick himself suspected the result was BS.  Nick, you’re a sensationalist!

Techcrunch “Are We Killing the Planet One Search at a Time?”:  Jason Kincaid writes an excellent post that asks all the right questions from my perspective.  Bully for Techcrunch.

GigaOm “Why Pick on Google?  How Green are We the People?“:  Om Malik also wonders what other activities generate just as much CO2, and winds up with a bit of a sermon on how people need to moderate all of their activities to produce less CO2.  Oh good.  Liberalism is alive and well.

Google’s Official Response Post:  Of course Google had to respond, since it was called to task for heinous environmental crimes.  I thought their response was nicely measured.  Good job, Google!

Larry Dinan on ZDNet,  “Signs of Armageddon:  We’re Worried About CO2 Emissions of a Google Search“:  This was by far my favorite post.  Larry does a wonderful job of calling “Chicken Little” on this whole Google Search CO2 meme.  Hand wringers beware:  Larry isn’t having any of it.

James Governor, “How Green is the Cloud?”:  James cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that a lot of entities want to use the Green Banner for their own business ends.  He pretty well calls out Nick Carr on that front (looks like James sees him much the same as I do), and warns that the Cloud vendors themselves will try it too.  This is a problem I have with a lot of (but by no means all!) do good activity in the world.  I think it is important to do good, but I see too many cases where the participants have their hand in the till.  They’re simply doing good so that they will do well themselves.  That isn’t doing good, is it?

Techcrunch, “Revealed: The Times Made Up that Stuff About Google and the Tea Kettle“:  Appropriately, Jason Kincaid closes this meme down by reporting that the physicist quoted now denies making any of the claims.

What have we learned? 

First, that a tremendous number of people are interested in all things Green.

Second, many will try to cash in on that interest in any way they can. 

Third, be careful about cashing in.  If you back the wrong horse, or lack real conviction, you can look silly in the aftermath.  By and large I’m very pleased that the blogs I followed saw this story up front as being pretty silly and said so.  I do wish they’d had more to add to the story, but they wanted to catch it as it unfolded, I’m sure.  But others obviously thought it was great or the story wouldn’t have taken on such a life of its own.

Companies face the same issue as they wonder what causes to back and which horses to ride.  There will be a tremendous temptation to want to appear Green.  But you have to ask whether you or your company can come off sounding really sincere doing that, or whether it just sounds like you want a free ride off of concerns the public has about the environment.  The best test I know of for that is to check your own convictions.  If you interest is in the money, traffic, or other ancillary issues, that conviction is lacking and you should steer clear.  If it is truly for the cause, maybe its worth sharing that conviction.  Maybe you’ll do some good in the process.

3 Responses to “Preposterous Stories Make for Good BS Indicators”

  1. mayadeniz said

    “They’re simply doing good so that they will do well themselves. That isn’t doing good, is it?”
    Why the hell not? Why should we set such a high standard that only if you don’t benefit an act can be considered good?
    There is nothing wrong with companies seeing a benefit to “becoming green”, as long as they are not cheating. Expecting companies to be altruistic is not realistic. If we want the companies to be “good”, we need to encourage act of being good by rewarding it, not the other way around.


  2. smoothspan said

    My problem, Berkay, is that if they just did good for some short term gain, and not because they really want to do good, how do you know they won’t cut corners in some other way, ultimately not doing good? How do you know the donation you’re making when you buy a bottle of their water really gets to the people intended? How do you know the bottling process doesn’t create a whole host of other problems because the organization doesn’t really care about doing good, they only care about the appearance of doing good?


  3. mayadeniz said

    I think I understand your concern. I’d certainly not make a donation just because a company is claiming to do something good.
    From my perspective, it does not pay to assign human characteristics to companies and expect them to be altruistic. They are created to make money.
    Consider this scenario: A manufacturer makes a product and can choose the cheapest material, and there is an alternative material that is cleaner, better for environment but also more expensive. If the product manager can argue that cost may increase somewhat but it would also allow the company have some green cred, he has a shot at convincing his management, otherwise it is a much harder. This is not altruistic behavior but better for everyone regardless.

    By creating a culture that values being “green”, we’re giving the companies the an incentive to make the right decision. So I say let them make a case to the public why/how they are becoming greener. If it is BS, let’s call them on it, but let’s not dismiss it if they are becoming green because it is good business for them.

    Just my 1.23 cents ..


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