Monday, 3 February 2014

Time for a new word

I wish to lodge a new word into the political discourse concerning environmentalism and the necessity to ‘save’ the planet. The word I wish to introduce is ‘hair-shirting’ and describes policies that are allegedly aimed at saving the environment but are in fact completely pointless beyond make life a bit more difficult/uncomfortable/painful for the average person. The original hair shirt was usually made from goats’ hair (presumably not Angora) and was worn close to the skin and used by religious types to cause discomfort and pain as a sign of repentance and atonement or ‘mortification and penance’ if you want to go old school Catholic. The modern hair shirt phenomenon I’m talking about is just as annoying and pointless. I assume that the people introducing these policies believe they are  helping by ‘raising people’s consciousness’ about the issues involved but personally I think the small amount of suffering involved is actually about giving some people a self-righteous little glow of satisfaction that they are ‘doing something’ about the planet. If things are just that little bit more difficult to do and it feels like you’re giving up something in the process, you must be doing something good for the environment, right? Wrong. You’ve merely been given a hair shirt, nothing more.

Some hair-shirting is minor and merely annoying, like swapping over from incandescent light bulbs to long life fluorescent bulbs. Apart from the fact that who the hell wants more fluoro lighting in their lives, there’s the inconvenience of getting rid of the bloody things. You can’t just wrap them up and put them in the bin, there are too many toxic components in the bulbs to put into landfill so you have to save them and then find an authorised collection point to drop them off at. And if those toxic components aren’t fully recycled and used again, I would question whether they’re a net benefit in the long term.

Then there’s the low-flow shower heads that I loathe with a fiery passion. I hate all the versions. The small heads with tiny holes that turn out a stream of water that feels like you’re being hit by dozens of sharp little needles. The larger head that looks like it will put out decent coverage but it turns out there’s only a large outer ring of water falling and the centre is empty. Nasty, fraudulent little shower head; I hate you. I’m a big person and with some of these new showerheads it feels like I have to weave like a cobra in the shower to get proper coverage. This seems to be a policy based on a belief by the policy makers that we are too stupid to adjust the flow of our own showers, too moronic to manage having a short shower and therefore can’t be trusted with a traditional shower head. Thanks for the contempt guys.

Probably the stupidest and most insulting hair-shirting green policy was brought in by the Victorian State Government about five years ago. The state was still in drought and some mouth breathing moron decided that in attempt to save water, pool owners would have to top up their pools by using buckets instead of a hose. How this would save water I have no idea. Presumably they thought pool owners were again, so stupid that they’d forget they’d put the hose in and accidentally overflow the pool. Something I don’t think any pool owner has ever done. Personally I think it was a passive/aggressive plan designed to force pool owners into thinking about giving up the pool. It was a purely punitive measure as far as I can see. I filled the pool once by bucket, with the help of five friends and swore ‘never again’. Our nearest tap was 30 m away and up a flight of stairs but we couldn’t use that tap because it was so close to the hot water system we couldn’t fit a bucket under it. So we had to go up another flight of stairs and use the tap in the laundry. Stupid, stupid, moronically stupid is all I can say. I ended up doing the same thing I suspect many people did; I surreptitiously topped up the pool by tying the hose to the bottom step of the ladder into the pool. No noise, no fuss, no aching backs and not once did the pool overflow.

The final word on the stupidity of this policy I leave to a story my pool guy told me. One of his other customers was so outraged by this policy that he got a plumber to install a tap directly over the pool and then hung a bucket with a hole in the bottom on it. The story will have more impact when I tell you that the other customer just happened to be a judge. When a senior member of the legal profession is happy to break a law, someone should note that the law makers have truly stuffed up.

But now I want to look at one of the latest green fads that turns out to be a complete nonsense: the energy saving power boards that allegedly deal with the terrible dragon of Stand By Power. Oh yes, all those little glowing lights on your appliances that cause such a terrible drain on our power supplies had to be defeated. If you’re not prepared to downsize and do away with unnecessary equipment (some people have more than one telly, can you imagine? How greedy!) then at least use the power boards so they don’t drain energy all night. Plug that board in right now so you can walk through the house at night and not be stared at by the glowing red eyes of environmental vandals. I think that’s the general gist of the policy and claims were made by some people that you could save up to $200 a year on your power bills. Turns out, that was an outrageous exaggeration.

I disliked the things from the start, almost as soon as the nice lady from the council dropped them off at our place and showed us how to plug them in. I didn’t like the little box that now sat in front of my telly and flashed at me if I didn’t used the remote for a while. I can’t multi-task to save my life and get terrible tunnel vision when I watch telly, so I never noticed the flashing light in time and was forever cursing and scrambling for the remote when the telly suddenly turned itself off. At least ours flashed on the hour instead of the half hour like some of the early models. Another minor annoyance was having to reset the clock on my X-Box every day when I booted it up. But at least we were doing something good for the environment, right? Sadly, not so much.

Last year I was lucky enough to come across an article written in The Skeptic magazine by the mathematician Steve Roberts. It was called ‘Standby for action’ (Vol 33, No 1. March 2013, p 32.) and it pretty much demolishes the rationale for these power saving boards. It turns out that energy use in standby mode can be measured in simple Watts, not Kilowatts. Most electrical devices only use between 1 and 3 watts in standby mode and some things like iPhone chargers and electrical drill chargers don’t use any energy at all while in standby. Mr Roberts then went on to calculate how much energy is actually saved by these boards (after factoring in the information that the power boards themselves are perpetually on and use 1W each, per day) and came to a very interesting conclusion,

‘Thus the overall savings is really only about 4W; say for 20 hours a day. That is 28kW per year, or about $3.60 – less than 0.5 per cent of my electricity bill and way short of the claims for the device.’

 He then went on to calculate that taking into consideration the energy costs involved in making the power boards in the first place and the fuel used by the nice lady from the council to drive to my house and show me how to plug it in, it would take almost three years before the devices delivered any actual savings. I would only add, good luck with the power boards even lasting that long. The useless, piece of crap boards we were given started playing up within three months. The printer next to computer stopped working until we put it in a normal board and the one for the telly suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and started flashing at random and turning itself off with no warning. So, like many people I know, I’ve ditched the bloody things and am enjoying guilt free days watching the cricket, uninterrupted by a stupid flashing light. Beware of the hair shirt and all the mindless policy generated by the zealots who love them, because if they can get away with hair-shirting it won’t be long before it’s followed by sackcloth, ashes and self-flagellation.




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