Friday, July 8, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on July 7, 2011
Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian

How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee

How neurotic an eco-geek are you? How neurotic would you like to be? These are important questions to ask yourself as you embark on the data-rich eco-journey that is How Bad Are Bananas? As Berners-Lee himself notes, the calculation of a given item's carbon footprint is a shifting target. It's never ending, the best we can do is use what we know to get it in the ballpark.

And that is precisely what Mike Berners-Lee does. As a member of Small World Consulting, a firm that calculates carbon footprints for the corporate sector, Berners-Lee has been crunching these numbers long enough to see the forest and the trees, and to have a sense of humour about how easy it is to confuse the two. He does a fine job of bringing the math and science around to a level that's easy to understand for people without a science degree. The best example of this simplification is his decision to represent greenhouse gas impact in units he calls “co2e”, or, carbon dioxide equivalents. Using this standard measurement makes comparing very different activities on the basis of climate change impact a much simpler proposition.

If you've ever been caught at the grocery store in the dead of winter, trying to decide between tomatoes from California and tomatoes from Leamington's greenhouses, this book is for you. Berners-Lee breaks the book down by carbon impact, beginning with society's least carbon-intensive outputs. This graduated format allows readers to get a sense of carbon use and impact at the daily level, and has roughly the same effect as asking physics students to comprehend the distance, say, from here to Shakespeare, before asking them to comprehend the distance from here to Neptune. One pleasant surprise? Bananas are actually a pretty low-carbon snack, even here in Canada. Also, flying from Niagara Falls to New York City isn't a whole lot worse than driving. Flying is better, actually, if you were considering taking your Land Rover to look rugged and established. Whether this is good news to flyers, bad news to drivers, or a very good reason to look into staycations is left to the reader.

Berners-Lee is open about the fact that good carbon sense doesn't necessarily make good moral sense, and in cases where the two diverge he frankly admits the contradiction. At the end of the day, though, How Bad are Bananas? was never meant as a moral treatise. Berners-Lee's goal is to help readers gain a more solid concept of the carbon consequences of our choices, so that we can make our own moral decisions about the footprint we leave. If your footprint has given you pause, but doing the calculations leaves you feeling neurotic, confused or apathetic, How Bad Are Bananas? can help, and it's a good little read to boot.

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