Tyrannical numbers

I was in conversation with Douglas, Imagination’s European MD at lunchtime yesterday about life. These sort of conversations happen when you’ve announced you are leaving a company.
One of the things that we talked about was the way in which the automotive industry has become obsessed with carbon output as a metric to describe the sustainability of a particular motor vehicle. It’s the dumbest of measures, because all it tells you is the method by which energy is expended at the time of use – it really doesn’t have any bearing on overall environmental impact whatsoever.
By way of example, I had seen a big poster at Waterloo tube station for the Peugeot iOn electric car. The small print running along the bottom of the advert proudly stated a 0g/km carbon output from the car – but Peugeot are so unaligned on all of this that the “Peugeot recommend Total fuel” line was there as well. Recommend for what? Powering the French nuclear power station that most of the iOn’s will inevitably be powered by?

The trouble is, if you look at something like a car, where do you stop measuring environmental impact? Is it at the use of fuel? The costs of the manufacturing process? The costs to reuse and recycle at the end?

All of this stems from our culture of the cult of measurement. That somehow some sort of objectivity is always possible if only you can measure it. Now don’t get me wrong – if you want something to change, and you don’t know if it has changed or not because you have no metrics, then what is the point? However, when measurements go bad, they can go really bad.

With something like environmental impact of transport, the collective denial that we are all in is that travelling long distances (ie, further than you can go under your own foot or pedal power) is fairly unsustainable, and when you then do it on your own (in a car) it becomes remarkably bad news for the planet. Probably.

It just depends on where you stop measuring. Another example – according to the Wikipedia page I’ve just looked at, the coastline of Great Britain’s mainland is 11,073 miles. Which kind of sounds roughly about right.

The problem is, when do you stop measuring? You could go down to measuring around every single bit of pebble and sand that lies around the coast. Or down to the constituent molecules. Or event atoms. And soon enough, the coastline would be effectively infinite. Which wouldn’t be of any use, but would be technically accurate.

Working out the sustainability impact of a particular consumer good is, on the face of it, down to a few judicious metrics. Choosing those metrics, though, is a very, very subjective operation.

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