Friday, June 21, 2013

Cold brewed tea and your carbon footprint

Yesterday one of my friends recommended cold brewing green tea. There was a study that it's better for you. Today I emptied my pitcher of iced tea and thought I might try cold brewing, so I Googled it. I found this article entitled "Cold Brewing Tea: Why You Should And How To Do It!" (sic) (That's not how you do headline casing. My first complaint about this blog and the last pedantic one I will mention, as the philosophical ones are what prompted me to write this.)

Here's the basic premise of the unspecified Arbor Tea blogger who I will call Aubrey (based on comment responses):
Tea is a relatively energy-efficient beverage. A cup of tea, made by boiling only the amount of water you need, produces only about a tenth of the carbon footprint generated by a large cup of cappuccino (Source: “The World’s Water, 2008-2009″ by Peter Gleick, et al, To put this into perspective, if you drink four cups of black tea every day for a year, you would have only used up as much energy as a single 40-mile car ride. On the other hand, the energy involved in a three-a-day latte habit is equivalent to flying halfway to Europe!
This took me a while to understand. The coffee I drink only requires boiling the amount of water I need, too. I think they are talking about the water to make the steam used to foam milk for cappuccino? That seems excessive to me, certainly. Do people really drink that much high-maintenance coffee? Anyway, I don't really dispute their comparison. It's not cogent to the philosophical question ahead.
By cold-brewing your tea, you not only get easy, delicious iced tea, you also get peace of mind knowing that you took a small step in the right direction toward lowering your carbon emissions!
That's the Why You Should part of this article on the Arbor Tea SustainabilitTEA blog. Instead of boiling three cups of water in 5 minutes in the microwave, dunking two family size tea bags for 3 to 5 minutes, pouring it into a pitcher and filling it up the rest of the way with water and sticking it in the ice box, you should put the tea leaves in tap water and put it in the refrigerator for 6 hours. And you should do that because it lowers your carbon emissions.

This makes me uncomfortable. This reasoning is... something isn't right about it. Lowers it from the annual equivalent of one 40 mile car ride to what? The annual equivalent of a 20 mile car ride? Who cares?! If you're worried about it, skip one car ride in a year and make your tea however you damn well like it!

It reminds me of when I asked my oceanography professor if anybody had run the numbers on the contribution to global temperature due to the heat generated by the actual hot engines of cars, not just from their exhaust contributing to the greenhouse effect. I don't think he actually said the words "witheringly small" but the withering look he gave me said it for him. He implied it wasn't worth wasting the back of an envelope to do that math.

Individual people expending a minuscule quantity less energy today than they did yesterday is a witheringly small effect. So witheringly small it's like the idea that chewing celery expends more calories than you get from the celery. The energy consumed by having a prolonged discussion about cold brewed tea eliminates the advantage from not boiling the water to make iced tea. But my point is that it's a tiny number. It doesn't matter. I'm going to keep thinking about it, keep typing on this oversized monitor in this air conditioned building. Because that contribution to my carbon footprint doesn't matter.

In 2006 I knew I didn't really grasp the big picture of global climate change. So I went to graduate school and studied it. Most people don't have the inclination or means to do that, even if they really are well intentioned and worried. Does worrying about their own relatively insignificant carbon footprint make them feel better? I'm worried about them worrying. It seems their support system is just more people telling them, "Good for you! Keep up the good work! Deny yourself the simplest comforts!"

Here are some comments on that blog about the tea. Somebody asked if it used a lot of energy to cool down the water to make the cold brewed tea.
As far as the energy consumed by the refrigerator, well obviously, it’s running anyway and as long as the water you use isn’t actually hot when you put it in, the energy it takes to get it very cold is going to be negligible. Plus, once it’s cold, the cold water stores the cold. An extra gallon of cold liquid in your refrigerator should actually use less energy because you’re replacing empty space with something that can store the cold.
That's rational. Good for you. Then there's this.
Love it! But, I wonder about the energy used draw the water from my well. Is there a way reduce my footprint there as well? Thankfully, I was able to find the answer on my Internet connected computer.
I'm not sure if this is sarcastic or not. If I read it as sarcasm I am not worried. But if they are serious, goddam. That poor person. I worry about the electricity used to run my well pump for stuff like watering trees because it costs money that I don't have. THAT is a perfectly rational reason to worry about the energy used to draw the water from my well. But if you start worrying about the carbon footprint to pump the water to make a cup of tea how can you in good conscience pee into toilet after that tea goes through your system? One flush is about a week's worth of cups of tea! It escalates quickly. If you worry about this stuff next thing you know you've dug an outhouse and only bathe when you collect enough rainwater in a tarp to splash on your privates.

But the SustainabiliTEA blog has a response.
Hmmm, Fredric. I’m sure you will find many answers during your online search. But, the ways we can think of to reduce the energy used to draw water from your well (this article was written assuming municipally supplied water) is to create a manual, solar or wind-powered well head….! Aubrey Arbor Teas
What the hell?! I'm a fan of all those ways of pumping water, but not just because you want a glass of cold tea. Good reasons for not using grid power to pump water is because you aren't close to the grid. Or you happen to have a spare windmill already. Setting aside the hand pump as impractical, because my well is 350 feet deep, to actually go out and buy one of those systems instead of using grid power and a submerged electric pump and a pressure tank is crazy talk. Divide that expense by the number of cups of tea you drink in some reasonable number of years and you realize that the return on investment is not indicative of a smaller carbon footprint. Money is carbon. Economic growth is necessarily bad for the environment. If you have to go to work more to earn enough money to buy a solar array to power your well pump your cold brewed cup of tea is really not going to reduce your carbon footprint. No scientist needs to waste the back of an envelope to tell you that.
Wouldn't it be better if your rural power company implemented efficiencies in power generation and distribution instead? Aren't there improvements to the infrastructure that could slow the rise of global temperatures more effectively than some tea drinkers switching to cold brewing?

That same oceanography professor that told me the heat from cars is not worth scientific scrutiny also asked me if I was going to use solar power at my little house (a 12'x18' structure I built myself with my biweekly paycheck). I was surprised he would ask me that. "It would cost more than the whole HOUSE! I could buy power from my electric membership company for over 40 years before it would equal the amount I'd have to spend to get an equivalent production of solar power." I hope in 40 years those efficiencies at the infrastructure level will have happened. I'm not sure what I can do to encourage it but keep paying my little bitty bill every month.

My own mother wants to help the planet enough to switch all her lightbulbs to fluorescent. She would deny herself a flattering light bulb over the bathroom mirror, yet run a space heater full time in that same bathroom. I asked her, "If you want heat anyway, why not use a regular lightbulb and save the CFL for when you finish chemotherapy next summer?" I put a pink 60W bulb in that fixture for her and it cheered her up all winter. Now that it's summer I should go change it back.

But I digress. I think it's the suffering that bothers me. The people who care are causing themselves discomfort and worry while the people that are orders of magnitude worse for the planet could give a shit. That's just not right.

Maybe I'm worried that this self-sacrificing behavior is a sign of weakness. We're never going to convince the people that could actually do something significant about the anthropogenic carbon footprint if they see the people who are worried about it as a bunch of cold-bath-in-a-bucket people who would have everybody using outhouses and washing their cloth ass wipes with water pumped by hand. (I read a long thing about using cloth instead of toilet paper last week. Do not google "family cloth" if you don't want to know.)

Anyway, I'm going to make some cold brewed tea. But only because I want to. Not because it's better for me, or because its better for my carbon footprint. It will use only one container and eliminate the teapot I heat the water in, so less for me to wash up. If I need a reason. But I don't need a reason. And neither should you.

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