Holiday Shoppers, the Planet Needs You to Take It Easy With the Next-Day Shipping
By Jeff Turrentine
Back in 1966, the editors of Time indulged in a long-honored magazine tradition and published an essay in which experts made predictions about the future—in this case, the year 2000. By then, these experts prognosticated, a typical shopper "should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room." But even so, they predicted, "remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop." Why? Because shoppers "like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."
What these futurists failed to anticipate was that technology and capitalism, working in tandem, would end up not only catering to but actually intensifying the basic human desire to get whatever one wants while exerting as little physical energy as possible. These days, pretty much everybody with access to a computer and a credit card shops online, for everything from large household appliances to clothes to (yes) grapefruit. And the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is, unsurprisingly, the busiest time of year for internet retailers, who expect to rake in more than $123 billion this year—up from $106 billion in 2017.
Most of these purchases will arrive at consumers' doors in boxes, making much of their trip from warehouses and distribution centers via truck or van. UPS says that its famously brown-uniformed drivers delivered 700 million packages during the 2017 holiday season—more than two packages for every man, woman, and child in the country. For its part, the U.S. Postal Service expects to make about 900 million deliveries between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day—50 million more than it made last year during the same period.
The somewhat magical ability to press a button, wait a day, and then have somebody at your door handing you the thing you wanted makes it easy to ignore the fact that all of those trucks and vans bringing those packages emit a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many companies, including IKEA and UPS, are already taking steps to reduce the pollution of their delivery services by moving to electric vehicle fleets, and that's certainly a positive development. But according to Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Davis, we need to address another factor in the equation: the mind-set and habits of consumers.
"While online shopping is definitely convenient, and there are many positive things that come with it, there's a price to the environment," said Jaller, who writes frequently about sustainable transportation systems. The convenience factor is causing us to consume more, but that's not the whole picture: We've now come to expect things like two-day shipping and no-questions-asked returns policies as consumer rights to be bestowed at minimal cost. Such thinking, Jaller said, keeps us from making a proper accounting of the externalized environmental costs incurred when retailers must prioritize speed and absolute customer satisfaction over efficiency—which, alas, is pretty much always.
The environmental cost of free two-day shipping www.youtube.com
This 2017 Climate Lab video, in which Jaller has a brief cameo, breaks down the problem. Online shopping actually has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional shopping at a brick-and-mortar store—until expedited shipping enters the picture. In their efforts to bring you your new smartphone case or pashmina scarf in less than 48 hours, retailers disrupt various processes designed to consolidate orders and maximize efficiencies. If a truck has to leave its distribution center only half full in order to meet a delivery deadline, it usually will. Very often that means dispatching two trucks to carry the load of one truck—and emitting twice the exhaust in the process.
And what if the pashmina scarf turns out to be the wrong color? You can almost always send it back to the seller at low or no cost. That's another truck delivery that needs to be made, going in the opposite direction. Are you going to order new items in different colors that are more to your liking? Of course you are! Two-day delivery is free! And so another truck is filled—perhaps to capacity, perhaps to half-capacity—to bring you your second purchase in just as speedy a fashion as the first. In this way, consumers are now using vehicle fleets in ways they were never meant to be used: as a means of trying on clothes and testing out goods.
What started out as a cool-seeming perk offered by a handful of major online retailers has today, thanks to market forces, become the industry standard. Companies "are caught up in a game where they're competing with each other," said Jaller. "And the way they're competing is by trying to outdo each other in offering this fast, almost free, delivery service. So they're incentivizing bad behavior on the consumer side."
Jaller applauds the steps that companies are taking to maximize fuel efficiency in their fleets, from discouraging left turns—a practice that UPS says cuts idling time and reduces its vehicles' CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons each year—to truck platooning, in which communications and sensor technology allows trucks to follow one another closely but safely on the highway, reducing their aerodynamic drag and boosting their mileage.
He worries, however, that "we're losing a lot of these gains and efficiencies at the delivery point: trucks idling while waiting for an establishment to be ready to receive the goods, or needing to go around the block several times because there's not enough parking." He's hopeful that more companies will come to see the wisdom of moving to an electric delivery fleet, now that so many zero-emissions vans and small trucks boast ranges of more 100 miles. (Studies show that 90 percent of parcel deliveries are made within a 100-mile range.)
But the biggest changes will be seen, Jaller said, when consumers "change their behavior to slow down companies' operations, so that they can be more efficient and optimize what they already have," instead of needing to build more warehouses, set up new delivery points, and buy more trucks—all just to make sure that you can get your stuff within 36 hours of ordering it.
So this holiday season, you might consider giving the planet a lovely gift: ordering multiple items per shipment (instead of just one at a time), double-checking sizes and colors before clicking "send," and opting for five-day delivery. This gift may seem small, but it'll mean a lot.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>