How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Worried that your carbon footprint may be oversized? This book shows you how to put it on a diet.

How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything By Mike Berners-Lee Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group 256 pp

Climate change is a topic so big that it’s hard for us to understand the role we each play in it. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything helps to put things in perspective.

Author Mike Berners-Lee writes about 100 or so items, ordering them by the size of their carbon footprints. Flipping through his book reveals that a store-bought rose has a bigger footprint than driving a mile, and that a banana makes a more carbon-friendly breakfast than a bowl of porridge.

At its core, this is a book for sharpening carbon instincts and recognizing which battles are most worth fighting.

We might agonize over paper versus plastic in the checkout line, even though grocery bags account for just 1/1000th of the carbon footprint of the average shopping trip. Rather than worrying so much about how many bags we’re using, the carbon-conscious consumer would do better to skip the asparagus airlifted from Peru in favor of produce shipped by boat or truck.

Conversely, we might not think twice about picking up a bottle of water, even though bottled water is 1,000 times more carbon-intensive than its tap equivalent.
“How Bad Are Bananas?” also reveals the trade-offs of greener energy. A Prius might get great gas mileage, but even fuel-efficient cars come with embodied emissions (the carbon expended during its manufacture). Before “going green” and getting a hybrid, Berners-Lee suggests sticking with the car you’ve already got “as long as it is reliable, unless you are doing high mileage or the fuel consumption is ridiculously poor.”

A book like this risks being preachy or overly serious, but Berners-Lee approaches his topics with humor and curiosity. He rarely advocates radical change. Rather, he gives readers information.

“How you decide to live is a choice that only you can make,” he writes. “I just want to help you understand carbon so that you can do whatever you decide to do with more knowledge.”

Berners-Lee, a Briton who advises businesses on how they can lower their carbon footprints, acknowledges the book’s biggest shortcoming: The numbers are often guesstimates, and sometimes wide-ranging ones at that.

In a few entries, the numbers are also insufficiently explained. Berners-Lee estimates that an e-mail is 60 times less carbon-intensive than a letter mailed through the post office. However, unlike other entries, many of which come with charts and endnotes, this one is rather fuzzy as to where that data comes from.

He does cite a study done by McAfee, an antivirus software company, even though McAfee might not be expected to be objective on the subject.

Despite the book’s limitations, Berners-Lee’s transparency about his estimates is admirable, and his ability to synthesize such inscrutable data into an entertaining read is an achievement in itself.

So, how bad are bananas?

As it turns out, not bad at all. A single banana has a carbon footprint of about 80 grams, one of the lowest in the book.

Aaron Couch is a Monitor contributor.

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