In this bonus episode of Climate Conversations, the team discusses the environmental impact of using Amazon versus physical stores.
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[00:00:00:00] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: From MIT's Office of Digital Learning, this is Climate Conversations by ClimateX. I'm your host, Rajesh Kasturirangan.
[00:00:07:03] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:12:05] So great to be in the room with you, Curt and Dave.
[00:00:14:20] CURT NEWTON: Hi Rajesh.
[00:00:15:09] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Hi Dave.
[00:00:15:27] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Hey, good morning, everybody.
[00:00:17:08] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I have a question. I have Amazon Prime. How many here have Amazon Prime?
[00:00:21:07] CURT NEWTON: I have Amazon Prime.
[00:00:22:17] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I don't swore off Amazon.
[00:00:24:01] CURT NEWTON: Oh man, this is going to be good. In fact, I used Amazon Prime this morning.
[00:00:28:21] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I did not use Amazon Prime this morning, but I used Amazon Prime yesterday.
[00:00:33:16] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So what's the deal?
[00:00:34:27] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: It prompted a question. And in fact, this is something that I actually chose Amazon Prime for, which is I have two guinea pigs, and they need fresh bedding every week. And I have to decide, should I drive to PetSmart and get those bedding, or should I order it from Amazon Prime. Yesterday, I chose Amazon Prime. But it's a larger question.
[00:01:01:28] CURT NEWTON: I feel you, I totally feel you. Yeah, this morning, I clicked on my coffeemaker and it broke.
[00:01:11:12] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So what did you do?
[00:01:12:21] CURT NEWTON: It stopped working. The thing is at least 15 years old and it's at the end of its lifecycle. I ordered a new one on Amazon Prime because I hate going to the mall. I hate going out shopping, taking an hour and a half, whatever, out of my day to drive around and find the thing and go to the store and they don't have what I want and go to the next store. I hate doing that.
[00:01:34:17] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: You've got company from me there. And shopping is not one on my favorite activities.
[00:01:37:25] CURT NEWTON: So I had just read-- stop!
[00:01:39:26] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I'm going to put my Climate hat and I'm going to ask you this question again.
[00:01:45:05] CURT NEWTON: Is it about coffee?
[00:01:46:21] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Is it about coffee, is it about guinea pigs? Is it about staying awake or the distaste for shopping? So my question is, should you drive 10 miles or whatever it is that you need to to buy that thing in the store. Or, is it better for climate, for carbon emissions, if you ordered it online?
[00:02:12:14] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Well, my answer is, it depends.
[00:02:15:22] CURT NEWTON: Of course it does.
[00:02:17:12] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Well, Dave, how does it depend?
[00:02:20:10] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Well, it depends on can you walk or bike to the place where you could buy something, versus clicking in your living room or that sort of thing.
[00:02:29:15] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Walking or biking-- OK, that's one way in which it depends. But of course, you could be ingesting, let's say, a McDonald's burger before you walked or biked, in which case you are probably contributing, right?
[00:02:48:16] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, yeah.
[00:02:49:18] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: There are so many variables.
[00:02:51:08] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, there are so many variables. And in my mind, the conversation that goes on is climate is just one of the pieces of the implications of that choice, right? I think about the impact on my local community and whether it would be better to buy this thing from a store that employs one of my neighbors, versus tossing my money into the great mall of Amazon.
[00:03:11:27] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Absolutely. [00:03:12:20] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Even if you saved 5% by going online?
[00:03:15:09] CURT NEWTON: Right, right, yeah. And I have a feeling, my gut tells me that-- sorry, I'm diverting from your question, but the more fundamental issues are not about climate and carbon footprint, but some of these broader societal factors.
[00:03:28:11] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Absolutely, so Curt, you're right that there is something to be said for the local community being enriched by mom and pop stores being sustainable.
[00:03:42:09] CURT NEWTON: And I'll be the first to admit, it's not the most efficient use of resources necessarily. But this calls into question whether what we should be all about is always about efficiency.
[00:03:52:25] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Especially when it comes to things that are increasingly not done locally. And they should be, like food.
[00:04:01:03] CURT NEWTON: Yeah.
[00:04:02:26] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I would actually rather drive down to a local farm and buy my weekly share of vegetables there than to go to Whole Foods. I really would.
[00:04:14:24] CURT NEWTON: Right, and that may well have a higher footprint than putting your head of lettuce on a very efficient train shipping from California.
[00:04:22:19] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Yeah, hey guys. We've got to take into account one fact-- it's not your individual decisions. This is a whole system of trucks and distribution, warehouses, and a whole bunch of different things. So it's really an aggregate.
[00:04:36:17] And the efficiency, at least theoretically, should come from aggregating all those clicks that people who need coffeemakers, for example, or bedding for their guinea pigs, make in the course of a particular day, because those trucks try to knit together all of those destinations in an efficient way. So maybe that's a better way to go.
[00:04:59:05] CURT NEWTON: And full disclosure-- we've done a little background reading before we hit this podcast. And it turns out-- surprise-- that people who study things like business supply chains have looked at this question in some degree of detail.
[00:05:11:20] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So you're saying that we are not the first people.
[00:05:14:01] CURT NEWTON: We are not the first people-- hardly. And the suggestion, you're absolutely right, Dave, is that from just a raw, aggregated, carbon footprint perspective, there's reason to think that shopping online does bring these economies of scale.
[00:05:29:11] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So I want to contrast a utopian view versus the matrix of Amazon's view, if I may. So the utopian view is I think many of us would like to live in communities where food is grown locally, where most of the things that you would like to consume more, use for your everyday subsistence, are also local. I mean, it's that you might say craftsperson economy of a mythical past that doesn't exist. But if it did exist, would be better in every sense, not just from a carbon perspective, but from the kind of flourishing life that we may all want to live.
[00:06:16:01] But in contrast to that, you could also imagine a super efficient economy which has been handed over at Amazon or Walmart or some combination in which electric trucks with very little carbon footprint, maybe Amazon will own its own solar farms-- maybe it does-- where the amount of energy being used to source things from halfway across the world is much more efficiently done by these large corporations.
[00:06:44:07] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, everything is self-driving, automated pods flying around.
[00:06:48:24] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And there's something creepy about the latter. But nevertheless, it might be better than lots of inefficient midway points
[00:06:59:03] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Yeah, let me riff off of your idea. And that is that, I mean, hey, this is MIT, we need to take a systems view of this. There's a whole series of choices and steps in the process of starting to search what is it I need. [00:07:12:14] Hey, my coffeemaker broke this morning. So I want to see what's available. You actually make a decision to buy. You have to get it or pick it up. Or, then maybe you even return it. You say, this isn't what I wanted, so you've got to return that.
[00:07:24:07] So we have to look at it as a whole system in terms of not just where you are and whether you click or walk down to your local mom and pop store, but the whole system. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to make smart choices.
[00:07:39:11] CURT NEWTON: I can't keep the whole system in my head. This morning, I had to make a decision-- where am I going to get my coffee for the next few days. I mean, I hear what you're saying, Dave. But help me out, how do I make a decision? I don't know. Let the record show that there's a big shrug, and that's where we're at.
[00:08:02:27] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And I feel that there is a technology kind of systems thinking, which is always about shifting technology choices, like going from gaspowered vehicles to electric vehicles, or going from coal plants to solar power plants. And there is a, you could say, human or flourishing driven systems thinking where you could say, what we're looking for are ways of living, like the local farming and the local craftsperson, which is a very different kind of system.
[00:08:44:08] And what I want to put on record here is that the MIT style system thinking tends to be very technical and technology-oriented and is not necessarily conducive to the other more political or utopian kind of systems thinking.
[00:09:02:03] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I don't know if that's true exactly. I mean, the stuff in the Sloan School, the climate interactive spin-off that came out of that. They've been looking at systems for quite a long time. Also, in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, they look at all the different variables, not just the technology.
[00:09:15:29] And I'd like to correct the record here. For me, Curt, it's not just about individual decisions. But we need to buck this up to higher levels. So cities or regions or entire states need to start grappling with this because storefronts in my town where I live are empty.
[00:09:35:08] CURT NEWTON: Right, ditto, ditto.
[00:09:37:01] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: And the unemployment rate is low, the economy seems to be doing pretty well now. But storefronts are not filling.
[00:09:42:25] CURT NEWTON: The only place I could find a coffeemaker at a storefront would be, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as Amazon, a big box store.
[00:09:49:27] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Right, right.
[00:09:50:20] CURT NEWTON: So it's not that different.
[00:09:51:17] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So we need to be rethinking about this at higher levels than just individual households.
[00:09:57:02] CURT NEWTON: I was looking around for things that this question brought to mind this morning, and I came back across this story. I don't know if it's true or not, the apocryphal that Kurt Vonnegut talks about. He needs to buy an envelope so he walks down to the post office, and he has all these experiences on his way to buying this one envelope. And it's a horribly and delightfully inefficient process. And we don't quantify those kinds of things.
[00:10:23:15] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So you're saying efficiency is not what it's all cracked up to be.
[00:10:26:06] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, that's kind of my bottom line in this discussion.
[00:10:29:14] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Efficiency is bunk.
[00:10:30:21] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Well, it's not bunk, but it's not the only thing.
[00:10:33:17] CURT NEWTON: It's analogous to social cost of carbon and other things we talk about in the climate change sense that there are all of these things that we think are important and valuable. But it's hard to put a number on it. And we need to be careful of answering these things purely from a numbers-driven thing.
[00:10:47:27] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So can we end with a call to action?
[00:10:51:00] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, so we'd like to hear from our listeners. Was there a time over the last month when you confronted this question of, do I buy local or do I buy online? What things came up for you? How did you make your choice?
[00:11:03:17] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I'd also like to hear from folks if they're seeing some consequences of the enormous amount of online buying. So I'm seeing in my local community empty storefronts where I didn't expect them because the economy is doing well. And this is a pretty privileged town.
[00:11:19:03] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Whether you're sharing your online buying experiences or your offline storefront experiences, we would love to hear from you on climatex.mit.edu. Or reach us on Twitter at ClimateX_MIT, or on Facebook.
[00:11:36:20] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: And/or leave a comment under this podcast.
[00:11:41:04] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Climate Conversations can be found anywhere you listen to a podcast, including iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, SoundCloud. And if there's something that we haven't covered, you should tell us.
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