Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

At one of my first jobs ever, there was a guy who would print out every single email he received. Then, to make matters worse, he would forget about his printed emails and leave them on the printer. Occasionally, just to give him a hard time, we would hand deliver his emails to him and announce their contents. "Your wife says pork chops for dinner and she loves you!"

I haven't encountered anyone with that irksome habit since, probably because most people now understand that printing something doesn't make it more real. But according to Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, emails—especially those with attachments—still use energy and create greenhouse gas emissions, even if you don't print them. Last month, Yeager told the BBC that sending an email attachment of 4.7 megabytes—the equivalent of about 4 photos taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera—creates as much greenhouse gas as boiling your tea kettle 17.5 times. I called Yeager to find out the whole story.

What I ended up getting was a very brief introduction to the strange world of data storage. According to Yeager, at some point in the coming year, the world will have a grand total of 1.2 zettabytes of stored data, requiring equipment with a mass equivalent to that of 20 percent of the island of Manhattan. Wonder how much data 1.2 zettabytes actually is? "If you took all the content in all the US's academic libraries and multiplied it by half a million, that would be 1.2 zettabytes," says Yeager.*

Part of the reason we have so much data has to do with redundancy: Let's say you take a picture and send it to 20 people. Each of those people then have to download it, which requires equipment—personal computers, servers, and storage centers. Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst at the Massachusetts-based data storage company Enterprise Strategy Group, explained it this way. "Ten years ago, a movie studio would physically make a certain amount of copies and then ship them off to the movie theater. Today every kid you know can create the equivalent amount of data in two minutes with an iPhone. We keep making data easier to create, so people do it. And data is not sedentary. It is shipped everywhere, usually over email. All of a sudden there are 7,000 copies, and because of that there are 7,000 devices that are being run to support that data."

Yeager didn't go into the details of how he arrived at the 17.5 kettle-boils figure, and Duplessie told me he wonders how anyone could come up with a data-storage figure that precise. Still, Duplessie says, the important lesson is, "Data is physical. When you have a million copies of the same thing, that's a big problem."

The good news is that we are getting better at sharing data more efficiently. Many email programs are beginning to make use of a concept called virtualization, or spreading the workload of transmitting data across many different servers, thereby making the whole process more efficient. "Virtualization is like the carpool lane," says Yeager. "Your email is carpooling. The more people you stick in that car the better." Equipment is getting more efficient, too. According to Yeager, the newest servers are about 1/20th the size of old servers, and as many as 50 times more powerful. Yeager notes that a few email servers—for example, Google—have already made these improvements (meaning that if you're a Gmail user, you're probably doing significantly better than the 17.5 boils figure).

The bottom line: Avoid sending giant attachments if you can. "In the last five or ten years a lot of people have added these 'think before you print' signatures to their emails," says Yeager. "Well we should all have 'think before you attach.'" Luckily, there are easy ways to share your data without attachments: Instead of sending photos directly to all your friends and family members, upload them to central locations like Flickr or Facebook. "It's much more efficient to send a link to a place where everything is stored," says Yeager. For audio and video files, I often use hosting sites like Sendspace or MediaFire.  

*- This sentence originally misquoted Matthew Yeager that 1.2 zettabytes was equal to the data in all the world's academic libraries multiplied by half a million. 1.2 zettabytes is actually only equal to the data in all the US's academic libraries multiplied by half a million.

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Is Coconut Water Really Better Than Sports Drinks?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

As a runner, I always considered sports drinks a necessary evil: While I never loved the taste, I held my nose and downed my Gatorade for the sake of proper hydration. But last year, a friend handed me a little box of coconut water, which, she told me, had just as many electrolytes as Gatorade. I took a sip, loved the mild taste, and found myself regularly shelling out as much as $3 for 11 oz. of the stuff. That is, until it disappeared from my local supermarket earlier this summer.

Turns out I'm not the only one with a new coconut water addiction. Although the beverage has been popular for centuries in countries where coconuts grow, it has only recently been marketed in the US. Vita Coco, currently the country's biggest coconut water company, was founded in 2004, and according to spokesperson Arthur Gallego, sales skyrocketed from $4 million in 2007 to $20 million in 2009. The past 6 months have been Vita Coco's busiest yet. "Typically Vita Coco would keep 45 days of inventory, but that has all been blown through," says Gallego. "People used to buy by the unit, now they are buying in bulk by the box." 

Kate Sheppard on Rachel Maddow Tonight

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 8:00 PM EDT

Ever wondered what your faithful Blue Marble blogger Kate Sheppard looks like? Tune in to The Rachel Maddow Show tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT. Kate will be talking about Big Coal, Citizens United, and elections. Not to be missed!

5 Tips for Saving on Your A/C Bill

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Despite the relentless series of heat waves that has scorched much of the US this month, for many people, sultry summers are a thing of the past: If you can't stand the heat, just trot over to the thermostat and crank the central air. But as journalist Stan Cox reports in Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways To Get Through the Summer), our heat intolerance comes at a price: Air conditioning currently accounts for almost a fifth of total electricity use in the US, and it creates considerable greenhouse gas emissions—ironically, in making our homes and offices cooler, we're also making the weather warmer. Cox, who recently imagined what Washington, DC., might be like sans air conditioning in an article he wrote for the Washington Post, believes A/C takes a toll on our social lives, too, and he blames it for the decline of the grand southern tradition of evening porch-sitting. "There's an estrangement from neighbors and nature as people move their lives indoors," he says. So what's a sweltering A/C addict to do? Here are some of Cox's top tips for going easy on the air:

Tip #1: Switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Not only will you save on your electricity bill, you'll keep your house cooler. Cox writes that CFLs produce "30 percent as much heat for a given amount of illumination" as their incandescent counterparts.

Tip #2: Make sure your appliances vent outdoors. If your dryer, dishwasher, stove, and other heat-producing appliances expel hot air inside your home instead of funneling it outdoors, your A/C will have to work harder to get rid of that extra heat. If you really want to save, Cox recommends ditching your dryer completely. "Most clothes dryers expel much of their heat to the outdoors," he writes, "but no indoor heat at all is generated when solar clothes line 'technology' is employed."

Tip #3: Downsize your central air. Some people buy giant central A/C systems, thinking they'll do the job quicker and more efficiently than smaller versions. That's not necessarily true, says Cox, so you should make sure your system is the right size for the space you want to cool. Your best bet, though, is to buy a system "that can behave as if it's large or small, depending on cooling demand." Smart systems like these have been shown to use 25 percent less energy than traditional central air.

Tip #4: Plant a rooftop garden. As I reported in a previous Econundrum, research has shown that in cities, white roofs can deflect the sun's rays and lessen the "urban heat-island effect." But "if you have just an individual house with a white roof in an area with a lot of heat absorbing stuff around it, a white roof is not going to be that effective," Cox told me. If you live in an area where drought isn't a problem, Cox believes green roofs are a better bet, since they "have greater cooling potential in the summer, and unlike white roofs, in the winter they don’t reflect heat back."

Tip #5: Practice being hot. "There is plenty of evidence that exposure to heat increases your physical heat tolerance," says Cox. "When people spend time under warmer conditions, they become more tolerant. If they are in an A/C bubble all summer they are not as tolerant, mentally or physically." A recent study of officeworkers in Thailand compared one group of workers in air-conditioned offices to another group who worked without A/C. The ones who were used to A/C were comfortable only in offices between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. "The ones who worked without A/C, it got up to 89 degrees and they said it was fine," says Cox.

Forum: Is Vegetarianism Always Better for the Planet Than Eating Meat?

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 2:17 PM EDT

We've got a good debate going over at our "vegetarianism vs. meat-eating" forum today. For starters, our panelists—Eating Animals author and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, farmer and writer Joel Salatin, Diet for a Hot Planet author Anna Lappé, Bard College geophysicist Gidon Eshel, and food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom—have posted some provocative responses. Salatin, for example, makes an interesting point about ecological benefits of raising livestock:

Grasses are the lungs of the earth. They sequester more carbon than trees. In order to keep grass converting solar energy into decomposable biomass as efficiently as possible, it must be grazed routinely to restart the juvenile growth period. This pulsing is literally the heartbeat of the earth.

A reader named Felicia disagrees:

That's nice, but it sounds like an argument for restoring native prairies and native predators, not eating hamburgers—there's no implication here that we need to put non-native cows on non-native forage and then butcher them in brutal factories so we can have our steaks and feel good about our earth-lungs too.

Join the conversation! Our experts will be responding to reader comments regularly through this Wednesday, July 21. Check out the forum here

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