or WHY EVERY NEWS MEDIUM NEEDS A SCIENTIST ON EDITORIAL STAFF
So the increasingly good Grist slipped up and ran a very silly piece about a very silly study. It gives us a golden opportunity to revisit McCarthy’s Maxim (which I will take the liberty of de-genderizing):
One who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense. The sad part is that the article also proves that arithmetic alone is not enough to protect you from nonsense.
The offending article, Your CD collection is greener than Spotify starts off claiming that
A new report crunched the numbers on your Spotify habit and concluded that it’s terrible for energy consumption.
Did you get that? “Terrible.” The very next sentence explains:
Streaming 12 uncompressed tracks 27 times uses the same amount of energy as making a plastic CD.
Terrible, isn’t it? You can only stream 324 tunes (27 times 12, that is) before the energy costs of the download exceed the energy costs of manufacturing and shipping the disk. (We ignore the costs of spinning the disk. Presumably you will only do that once, to load up your iPod iPhone, right?)
So what is this profligate energy cost? Well, bulk manufacture of CDs costs 42 cents per item which puts a ceiling on the energy cost. Let’s take a wild guess and grant that the energy in the CD ROM is worth a dime. So streaming a track is about 1/324th of that, or three one hundredths of a cent.
Suppose a CD is about an hour. If you listen to music nonstop it will take you a day without sleep to listen enough music to balance one CD. And ten cents will buy you roughly a KwH. So you are running about 4 % of a kilowatt, or about 40 watts when you stream. Sounds high to me but still really nothing to worry about.
Following Grist back to its source, we see this as well:
Separately, Bach says “unlicensed file sharing could consume the equivalent of up to four times the annual combined electricity consumption of all UK households”, while the 33 percent temporary reduction in web traffic seen by Sweden after it introduced anti-piracy laws in 2010 was equivalent to the electricity usage of 2,030 UK households.
Say what? OK, So Sweden’s power consumption for music was that of 6090 UK households, while unlicensed file sharing in general (or in the UK?) consumes that of all UK households, about 15 million of them? What makes the Swedes such lightweights?
Finally, consider the behavior that this sort of thing is supposed to evoke. “Oh, I’d best get the CD rather than downloading it. But I want it NOW. I know, I’ll drive to the store!
Suppose you are a typical American and happily make a twenty mile round trip out of it. How many times do you need to listen to a track before you break even on energy now? Well, you used a gallon of gas, right? So four dollars worth of energy? Well, now you have a factor of forty to contend with. OK, the gasoline is more expensive than the coal, so I’ll give you back a factor of four. So now you have to listen to 3240 tracks to make up for the trip. Maybe you should have bought more than one CD.
The real point, though, is that compared to our other activities, these numbers (though inflated I suspect) are ridiculously small.
We shouldn’t conserve water by squeezing every inch of the dishwasher full, or not getting a glass of water at a restaurant. We should stop watering lawns.
We shouldn’t let our kids unplug the microwave to stop “wasting” energy on the digital clock.
What we are wasting is our valuable attention, which ought to be directed to the big ticket items where it counts. We can solve our problems and we are not doomed, but only if we start thinking and stop acting symbolically.
The way we scare our kids is by acting like children. Let’s be adults and solve our problems. Don’t go carrying guilt about your music, whichever way you listen to it. It’s not a sustainability issue anyway.
We can sustain as much music as we want. Just enjoy it.