Real Costs

The latest project from NYC art/tech lab Eyebeam is Michael Mandiberg’s Real Costs, a Firefox plugin that aims to show web users the carbon emissions associated with whatever it is they’re looking up. If you were searching for driving directions from Long Island City to Tribeca, for example, Real Costs might tell you that the planned trip will cost you four pounds of CO2 in addition to parking, gas, and the $8 congestion charge. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work – so far, the plugin only calculates emissions from certain air travel sites like Orbitz and Expedia. The plan is to expand functionality for maps, car rentals, and shipping – and the potential for even more applications is limited only by the available info.

Like Personal Kyoto, another eco-conscious Eyebeam project, Real Costs is an exercise in changing behavior through awareness. As Mandiberg explains on the site, “the objective of Real Costs is to increase awareness of the environmental impact of certain day to day choices in the life of the Internet user. By presenting this environmental impact information in the place where decisions are being made, it will hopefully create an impact on the viewer, encourage a sense of individual agency, and provide a set of alternatives and immediate actions.”

As we work towards constructing a carbon economy, where greenhouse gases are “spent” with as much care as dollars, we need to become more adept at quantifying and understanding the CO2 emissions associated with our day-to-day activities. Ideally, we wouldn’t need to download a plugin to show us these impacts online – they would be integrated into every site, right next to the price. But until then, tools like Personal Kyoto and Real Costs can set an example, adeptly using technology to decrease rather than inflate our ecological footprint.

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3 thoughts on “Real Costs

  1. The Provider says:

    I think that these kinds of tools are very important to bring about awareness in a non-confrontational way…but I wonder what is the actual catalyst for change. Is it awareness? I suppose that we cannot change what we are not aware of, but in the research that you’ve been doing, what are the primary catalysts for changing the way we behave?

  2. Brock says:

    I don’t think there’s one single catalyst for change. Every situation is different, and demands different approaches. Awareness is an important first step towards getting there, but you’re right, it should only be one of many tools in our arsenal.
    Getting people to understand the stakes is the easy part; getting them to act based on that understanding is far more challenging. Indeed, changing people’s values and behavior is a much higher hurdle than overcoming the technical obstacles to sustainability and climate change. Nate Hagens at The Oil Drum published a lengthy but fascinating post a couple months back on the Psychology of Peak Oil, explaining how and why humans tend to invariably place short-term gratification over long-term prosperity. People are simply reluctant to change until outside circumstances force them to – that is, until their lives are disrupted in a way that forces them to change. Of course, by then it might be too late. As Hagens says, “All of our past environmental successes (DDT, Ozone depletion, unleaded gasoline, etc.) had some sort of smoking gun – an emotional trigger. The problem with climate change/peak oil, is when we do get the emotional trigger, it may be a gatling gun on full bore.”

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