Sunday, 8 March 2009


No, not a Stevie Wonder song, but a noun derived from 'counter-intuitive' which may or not be a real word. I am using it here to cover that range of comments and research pieces which come to conclusions which are counter-intuitive to the normal Green view.

Two oft-quoted examples are the claim that 'a dishwasher uses less energy than washing up by hand' and 'cloth nappies are less eco-friendly than using disposables'. More on these later.

The Independent has been having a field day on this recently, following on from its spurious claim that the green movement is now pro-nuclear,on the basis that 4 people have made a statement in its favour. I am deliberately not linking to the Indie here, nor am I going to say much about Chris Goodall, one of the gang of four just mentioned, except that when the Indie broke the nuclear story I researched the guy and found that he has "form" in this area; see here As you will see if you follow the link The Times has obligingly provided a number of other 'counter-intuitive' claims.

So how should a Green respond? The first thing to consider is that statistics can be used to prove pretty much anything. To take the walking versus car driving argument; this falls flat if the walker in question ate the same amount before using his car and just put on weight instead, a more likely scenario in our culture. To return to the 2 examples in the first paragraph: in the dishwasher exercise, most people did the hand-washing whilst running a separate hot tap continuously for rinsing, a very wasteful practice. The minority who took the trouble to hand-wash in a low wastage way outperformed the dishwashing machine. In the nappy comparison, it was assumed that cloth nappies would be boiled at 100 C and tumble dried; again the high-wastage option.

So clearly these 'Counter-intuitives' should be received with caution; there are manufacturers prepared to bend statistics as far as they need to promote particular products, and there are others out there who relish the chance to throw those earnest hairshirt greenies into confusion. But having said all that those of us who are concerned about our carbon (and general environmental) impact do need to check these things out and beware of simple assumptions. A shared car will use much less carbon than an empty bus, whilst the impact of eating habits is often underestimated, or even ignored completely.

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