Compared to What?


Louis Rossetto, the founding editor of Wired magazine, famously said that “In the age of information overload, the ultimate luxury is meaning and context.” We’d take it a step farther and say that context is what creates meaning in the first place. Which is why we can’t for the life of us understand why so many cleantech / greentech / sustainability pros cite statistics utterly devoid of it.

None other than “ecomagination” giant GE has committed to “reduce the average energy consumption of new ultrasound products by 25 percent by 2012.” Sounds good. But is this percentage bigger or smaller than similar reductions achieved by competitors? And is that 25% of a ridiculously large amount of energy or an already modest one? What percentage of GE’s overall energy consumption can be attributed to its ultrasound products? And, most important of all, what impact is this effort likely to have on the overall carbon footprint of the industry? Stats like these evoke more questions than they answer. When you see information like this, you have to ask yourself: Compared to what?

And it’s not just the corporate PR folks. Our most data-driven scientists do it too. People like Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Berkeley Lab physicist Art Rosenfeld do us all a great public service when they explain how painting roofs white helps counteract global warming. They point out that if all urban flat roofs were painted white, it would “offset the emissions of roughly 300 million cars for 20 years.” This sounds like a huge impact. In fact, it is, because there are roughly 250 million registered cars in the U.S., total. So why not say that painting all roofs white would be the equivalent of eliminating every car in the United States, Canada and Mexico combined? It’s true. It’s also true that this is about half of all the passenger cars in the world.

Context is critical. People don’t know how to feel if they don’t know what to think. So before you issue that press release or post that Web copy, take another look at the numbers and ask yourself the key question: Compared to what? Your audience will.

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