Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Shifting the Costs
distributed 10/31/03 - ©2003

Don't those people have a conscience?

You've probably run into the ones I'm talking about. Those folk who send you swarms of e-mails with the classic message lines: "smoother skin looks gorgeous" -- "Stimulates Collagen in your L|ps" -- "Weight Loss Prescriptions & More - Online!"

Let's not forget all those multitudes of wealthy people in Nigeria, too, who are so eager to share their riches with me. And the astounding number of folk who are convinced that I'm profoundly insecure about my masculinity.

I must say, they're all persistent. And creative, too. As the various e-mail filters try to target words and phrases that can be indicators of junk, they've found ways of sneaking their message through: adding accents and umlauts to the letters of ordinary words, S P A C I N G out the message, or simple misspellings (viugra?).

Persistent and creative. But where's the conscience? Sorry, in the cut-throat world of marketing, the nice guys finish last.

We've seen aggressive marketing for years with paper catalogues. Put in a mail order for a $5 jar of hand cream, and you get 6 catalogues a year for the next decade. Heaven help you if the Vermont Country Store or the Oriental Trading Company ever find your address. They'll send you 2 or 3 catalogues in a week!

The catalogues and fliers brought to your door by the letter carrier are annoying. But at least those companies have to pay for printing and postage. They have some incentive to think about who they're sending to, and to hold back on multiple mailings.

But all the economics changed when junk mail came to the Internet. In this electronic new world, the marketers have no paper to buy, no printing presses to run, no postage costs to pay. Get some cheap software and a fast Internet connection, buy a few million addresses, and spew them out all over the planet.

I hear that the cottage industry of "spam" can be quite profitable if just a few people out of a thousand respond. With only a few lonely or gullible folk, the marketers get rich. And 99.5% of us get our mailboxes filled with tons of junk mail.

But those heartless marketers getting rich is not just a matter of their finding a way to cut their costs. Such efficiency is a reasonable goal. But they've done more than that. They've also shifted some of the costs -- to us. And that's where it gets unfair.

When it costs almost a buck to print and mail a catalogue, it is good financial management to hire people to prune your mailing list. But when each address costs less than a penny, it isn't worth it to them to sort out who gets what. And if they don't pay to clean their mailing list, then I have to pay -- with my time and with software upgrades -- to get rid of their junk.

It is unconscionable. They get all of the benefit, and I have to pay all of the costs. No wonder millions of us are angry about the proliferation of spam.

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I wonder how many people around the world feel the same way about the United States this week?

Yesterday, the US Senate held a historic vote on the Climate Stewardship Act, a remarkably moderate and market-based attempt to limit the US production of greenhouse gasses. The bill lost (as expected), with a vote of 55-43 (which was closer than most expected). For the first time, the Senate voted on a strategy to address global warming, and they decided to continue with business as usual.

Business as usual, in this case, means that people in the US today get a whole lot of benefits from extravagant energy use, and the rest of the world has to pay the cost -- for thousands of years to come.

The movers and shakers of the US government looked at the economics, and decided that it didn't pay for them to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of our investing in efficiency and cleaner energy, we'll let the impoverished folk in Bangladesh pick up the tab as they try to deal with a mix of drought and flooding. There are stiff costs for the polar bears who soon won't have any ice in the Arctic during critical parts of the year. And the list goes on, with so many others, all around the globe. They pay the costs that we have avoided, and much, much more.

You see, all of that carbon dioxide coming out of our tailpipes and power plants is remarkably similar to junk e-mail. It is so easy to produce that it is cheaper to put out more of it than it is to trim the production. That being the case -- economically -- why bother to cut the volume?

Economically, greenhouse gasses and junk e-mail make sense, at least in the short term, for those who produce them. But don't they have a conscience? Don't we?

My analogy isn't perfect though. There is a difference between junk e-mail and greenhouse gasses.

The Internet marketers had to find my address some way, and there are things that I can do to get out of their reach. Global warming, though, is just addressed to "current resident." And someday soon, that bill is going to get delivered to all of us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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