Voices of Digital Communities

Send an Email, Save the Planet

America is full of people with quaint ideas.  The current effort to reform the health care market is turning up stories like one from ...

by / August 10, 2009
America is full of people with quaint ideas.  The current effort to reform the health care market is turning up stories like one from New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, who wrote on August 7 about "a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green," a Democratic Congressman from the state of Texas.  An activist at the meeting, according to Krugman, "turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they 'oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.'  Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands."  Apparently they were unaware that Medicare - the social service scheme for the elderly - is a program whose rules, management and financing come from that enemy of liberty known as the government of the United States. 

Another quaint idea held by Americans is that the United States Postal Service should pay for itself.  (We think the same thing about passenger railroads, which is why we don't really have any, but that's a topic for another day.)  The pay-your-own-way fantasy about mail dates to the Nixon Administration and has resulted in yearly hand-wringing in Congress as the Postal Service comes hat-in-hand for continued subsidies.  But here in 2009, things are getting really serious.  The Postal Service is asking Congress for permission to end Saturday deliveries.  By shifting to five-day-a-week service, the USPS expects to save billions.  Opposition is strong, however, among members of Congress who know they will hear from angry constituents about this attack on their Constitutional right to receive mail on Saturday. 

The Postal Service is in financial trouble for the most basic of reasons.  We are sending less mail.  A lot less.   The USPS saw a drop of 9 billion pieces of mail in 2008 and expects to deliver 27 billion fewer pieces in 2009.   From its 2006 peak of 213 billion pieces of mail, the USPS projects that it will deliver 170 billion in 2010, a net decline of 43 billion pieces in five years. 

Why the decline?  In a word, "online."  The use of email, instant messaging, social networks, online collaboration tools and tweets has become so widespread that the mails are carrying little but catalogs, direct mail advertising, bills and greeting cards.  And therein lies a silver lining.  A 2009 report from Pitney Bowes, manufacturer of mail processing systems, estimates that delivering one piece of first-class mail - a letter - generates 20 grams of carbon dioxide.  Let's make a generous assumption: that every piece of mail the Postal Service delivers weighs no more than a letter.  On that basis, the 43-billion-piece decline will reduce the national carbon footprint by a yearly amount rising to 860,000 tons in 2010.   

That online communication has a carbon footprint of its own.  I'm working on finding a meaningful estimate for a future white paper.  But it seems likely to be less than moving a letter across town or across a continent.  So keep on sending those emails and tweets, friends.  A 2008 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that is now takes less than half the energy it took in 1970 to generate a dollar of economic output.  And as the broadband economy takes hold, we're getting better at it.  While the "energy intensity" of the US economy declined 1.8% per year on average from 1970 to 1995, it dropped an average of 2.4% per year from 1996 through 2006.  Apparently, the broadband economy can do more than generate prosperity.  It can help in fight against climate change as well.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.