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Rethinking environmental folklore

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You’ve likely faced the question: “paper or plastic?” Clearly the paper bag is the better option, right? Or is it? In a TED Talk, Leyla Acaroglu has a challenge for us. She wants us to rethink our environmental folklore, or how we decide what is good or bad for the environment.

We want to do the right thing, but how do we know we’re having a net positive impact? When you account for how materials are extracted, to how they’re used, and to how they’re eventually discarded. As for the paper bag, have you considered where and how the cellulose for the paper comes from, and what happens when it’s discarded?

Over time, decisions like paper vs plastic turn into folklore and many of us go along with it. Leyla’s larger point, I think, is that the “right” answer is probably not all of one thing or another. One solution might be optimal in one scenario, but not in a different scenario with different needs. Basically, avoid gross and rigid generalizations. That goes for designers and consumers.

Watch Leyla’s TED Talk here.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Chryses 7:31 pm 04/15/2014

    Rethink our environmental folklore? You’re skating on very thin politically correct ice here!

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  2. 2. Lacota 10:18 pm 04/15/2014

    The problem is, these things are complicated and consumers don’t have the time to become experts on the subject. This is why we have science and political leadership. Unfortunately we are in a time where our leaders are not concerned with the needs of their constituents, just the needs of those that fund their campaigns. True solutions, environmental or otherwise, will not be possible as long as the US continues with a government that is systemically corrupt and a population that is scientifically illiterate.

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  3. 3. Penniless 6:12 am 04/16/2014

    “Leyla’s larger point, I think, is that the “right” answer is probably not all of one thing or another.”

    Additionally, when the data is improved and or reinterpreted, the “right” answer can change.

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  4. 4. FOOD4THOUGHT 10:27 pm 04/17/2014

    I’M NOT A SCIENTIST BUT HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AN AVID READER. IN 1998 INDIA AND PAKISTAN BOTH SET OFF NUCLEAR DEVICES, ALMOST SIMULTANEOUSLY. OUR SCIENTIFIC MEDIA REPORTED A WOBBLE IN THE EARTHS AXIS.SINCE 1998 WE HAVE HAD 9 OF THE HOTTEST SUMMERS IN THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE IN RECORDED HISTORY. WHILE I AGREE THE HUMAN FACTOR IS PARTIALLY TO BLAME. COULD THE EVENTS OF 1998 (WOBBLE); HAVE SHIFTED EARTHS POSITION TO MAGNIFY OUR WEATHER CHANGE.

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  5. 5. SAULT18 10:41 am 04/18/2014

    Hey foodcaps, the USA, USSR and China all tested way more nuclear weapons with hundreds of times the combined yield of India and Pakistan’s little spat and we didn’t have any “wobble”. If anything, the fallout injected into the stratosphere had a hand in the 30-year lull in global warming that happened during the post-war years.

    In reality, the angular momentum of the Earth-moon system is so great that not even the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs could change it all that much. Humans are even more woefully insignificant in mustering up enough energy to alter Earth’s orbit. Sorry, but your concern is entirely misplaced.

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