Last Friday I had an idea for a magazine column. I had had a long conversation with Andrew Taggart, a large part of which focussed on some angst I’ve been having over the question of right livelihood. Andrew encouraged me to think a little more clearly about the things that I like doing, feel have value, and I have some skill at. Later in the day, that thought process led me to the idea of pitching a “sustainability fact check” column to some publishers and seeing if I can’t make a little money out of being a pedant and curmudgeon who values reliable data, understands systems science well and statistics reasonably, and cares deeply about sustainability & greenwashing.
In this, I’m most directly inspired by two very valuable columns, from which I’ll have to take care to differentiate my work:
- The St. Petersburg Times’ Truth-O-Meter adjudicates when readers write in questioning claims made by public figures – most often politicians on the campaign trail, of course.
- Grist’s Ask Umbra column is a sustainability advice column, and probably the closest thing in spirit to what I have in mind.
My plan is to cover a much narrower range of topics than the Truth-O-Meter, focussing solely on sustainability issues because that’s what I know enough about to have something worthwhile to say. But I like their focus on simply determining whether a statement is true, reasonable or neither, without straying into advice and with a heavy focus on factual claims that can be shown to be true or false with publicly available data.
I tweeted about the idea, and got a positive enough response that it seems worth a try. Now I plan to write one sample column, for which I’ve set aside a day this week, and if I can come up with something good without having to spend too many hours on it I’ll try pitching the idea.
The kind of topics I want to write about
As an example, I could imagine taking on the “driving is greener than cycling” trope that surfaces from time to time. It seems like quite a good example topic, because it’s a claim that can be made to look plausible by only considering some of the variables, but the intellectual sleight of hand involved can be made obvious by just thinking aloud in a clear way. The only drawback is that it’s a rather well-worn subject, because it seems to pop up and get refuted every year or so.
What I don’t want to wade into
There are topics I don’t want to touch; particularly those where both sides have demonstrably true claims and the adjudication needs a value judgement between them. An example would be the Seattle Steam controversy, which frankly ought to be getting more attention in the local media, but seems to be ignored because the issue is complicated. This involves two true claims:
- Seattle Steam Company claims to be a green energy and heating source. In their own terms, they’re unquestionably right: they burn waste wood that would otherwise decompose in a landfill emitting methane, and district heat and combined heat & power are both much more efficient than isolated thermal power stations. But in the whole system, they’re ignoring some important details.
- The campaign against Seattle Steam attacks their plant for emitting particulate pollution within a densely populated urban area. They are also right, and there are potentially serious public health implications to this. But they ignore the significant global warming reduction from substituting the burning of waste, in a highly efficient way, for coal burned somewhere in California.
The difficulty here is that these competing claims can not be adjudicated by data alone. Somewhere, someone has to make a judgement call about which costs and which benefits are worth more, and there’s nothing that makes me qualified to be that someone.
My request from you
I would love to get some reader suggestions for what the sample column should be about. If I hear nothing, I’ll go ahead and do the driving vs cycling or walking one, but it has already been well covered, so I’d much rather do something a bit more original. I need your help figuring out exactly what, so please share your ideas.