Stop spam to save the planet?

April 24, 2009

While watching MSNBC in the office yesterday (right in the midst of NBC Universal’s “Green Week“), I caught a segment discussing the amount of carbon emissions and wasted energy caused by — wait for it — spam e-mail.

(Unfortunately, as of this writing, the clip isn’t up on, but the study received plenty of attention from other media outlets. The New York Times provides a quick overview of the findings here.)

OK, ad wizards: I’ll give you three guesses who came up with this study and subsequent, ¬†Earth Day-timed media push. Did you guess “an anti-virus software company”? Ding ding ding! Bonus points if you guessed McAfee specifically.

I’m a little disappointed by the coverage it’s received. Most of the mainstream media coverage I saw simply regurgitated the findings of McAfee’s study, which is actually fairly thorough in terms of examining and explaining the ways in which our e-mail habits use energy. But just a few minutes’ worth of critical thought drums up a few key questions I didn’t see addressed until I found a couple of posts from cleantech blogs.

For starters, doesn’t this study sort of assume that people turn on their computers, check their e-mail, spend extra time dealing with spam, and then immediately shut down their computers? I mean, if my computer’s on most of the day, can you really blame the extra energy expenditure on unwanted e-mail?

And I’m pretty sure there was no accounting for the tons of carbon emissions we’ve collectively saved by indirectly banishing the postal service to near-relic status. If we’ve spared the atmosphere of 385 quadrabatrillion tons of CO2 by mailing countless fewer pieces of paper because we prefer e-mail, isn’t spam just a minor operating cost?

Call me Crabby Pants, but this strikes me as just another shallow bit of Earth Day coverage we could have done without.