Living Symbolically | Turn Off Your Chargers

mobile_phone_chargerOne of the podcasts I subscribe to is the BBC’s More or Less – a weekly look at the numbers behind the news. Teaching Mathematics one is always in need of some relevant applications, and this has it in spades.

Their recent episode on sustainable energy was very interesting, but fell into the trap that numbers can often set. The key interview was with Professor David Mackay, who has spent a long time doing very detailed calculations on what energy we could realistically harvest from which sources, and what sort of things we are actually using our energy on.

Asked whether it was worth switching off our mobile phone chargers when not in use, as we are often reminded to do, he scoffed that it was almost entirely pointless and we really shouldn’t bother – the energy used was about the same as driving a car 60m, and measured nothing compared to so many other things.

I think this misses the point, and raises one very important principle that a simplistic rational look at the numbers fails to see: turning off your charger won’t save the planet, but it’s a discipline that reminds us, like a mantra, to think about the bigger decisions we are making with our energy use.

This is the principle of ‘living symbolically’ that I talk about in the forthcoming book: taking actions that are not necessarily effective in themselves, but act as symbols pointing us or others to greater actions that may have a much larger impact.

There’s been quite a lot of environmental pessimism around at the moment – we’re buggered anyway, so why bother changing my lifestyle? – so I feel that it’s more important than ever to take actions, even if they are symbolic, in the hope that collectively these will show those in power that there is real political will to make things happen.

Head over to to sign up for some actions yourself.


4 responses to “Living Symbolically | Turn Off Your Chargers”

  1. The challenge for me is to do my symbolic gestures in private so that I am not beating my breast about how “good I am” when compared to these ill informed modernists. Jesus pretty much labeled these moves no-no.

    Are you addressing the carbon footprint issue in your book? Andrew Jones has been invaluable for helping me rethink about this issue. My symbolic gesture there is to try and multitask by staying in a place a bit longer and seeing a number of people, doing more than one event, etc. I also try to avoid renting a car by using public transportation and ride shares whenever possible. I am also trying to support conferences and other gatherings that have a very strong web component where people can get the material and participate virtually (I’d argue that the vast majority of author/speaker type events could be done via webcasting – though you wouldn’t get the tingly feeling of meeting your spiritual superhero but that’s a dynamic perhaps we should discourage.)

    That reminds me – at some point, I’d love your take on the rebranding of emergent into “emergence” – in the book I just handed in, I pinpointed the death of US emergent church ™ to be AAR 2007 and chose to ignore the “emergence” biz on the grounds that no one outside of a small insular blog circle seemed to be using these terms.

  2. I think there is something very Christ-like about Professor MacKay’s clarity in opening up of the truths of this important issue. He has relentless passion for the subject and a real desire to cut through the crap and to focus everyone on the aspects of our carbon dependance that actually make a difference.

    While I half agree with your point about turning of mobile chargers as a symbolic act I think that there is a danger that we could do this easy, cheap, ineffective action religously and think that we have now ‘done our bit’ and not make any of the costly, sacrificial but effective changes open to us. Mobile phone chargers, green electricity tariffs and the like are red herrings.

    I also greatly respect Professor MacKay’s decision to make his book on this issue available as a free download at the same time as being on sale. The message is more important to him than personal financial gain. The book is available, free, here:

  3. I fully agree with the need to ‘cut the crap’. But what I felt the danger that his thesis presents – as presented on radio, I’ve not read the book – is that the little actions are useless. In the strict mechanics of our energy system, they are. But in the way that these small actions might lead us on to greater awareness, they are perhaps one of the most useful places for people to start.

    Thanks for the link…

  4. oldmankit

    I appreciated reading the post and comments. This reminds me of an interview I read with Sheryl Crow. She talked about trying to save the world by using less toilet papers, which kinda makes me laugh.

    I very much see the value of living symbolically, however I believe the numbers are really important too! What is the use of using less toilet paper but making long-haul flights every week? Or worse: short-haul flights?

    I live in Thailand and I think the people here live a wee bit too symbolically. For example, remembering to turn the lights off when you go out of your office for a meeting, but leaving the air-con running throughout, so that it’s nice and comfortable when you’re back. An awareness of the numbers would cut through this gesture which is unfortunately completely symbolic (turning the lights off is nothing compared to turning the air-con off).

    Sometimes I feel it’s better people don’t kid themselves that they ‘are doing something’, and would be better of facing the facts that they need to change radical actions (e.g. use a fan throughout the night instead of air-con). I feel it’s more honest not to do the little symbolic gestures and just live honestly that you are significantly adding to the global warming problem. There’s a chance we can ‘hide’ behind our symbolic gestures.