Low End Mac Round Table

Earth Day and Low End Mac

Low End Mac Staff - 2012.04.23

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and it has been observed annually since then. We like to think of Low End Mac as the greenest Mac website, since we do our best to help keep old Macs in use and out of landfills. However, there's a lot more to green computing than that, including energy use (older Macs can be real power hogs) and responsibly recycling old Macs, accessories, expansion cards, batteries, etc.

That's the subject of this week's Mac Round Table.

Charles Moore (several columns): This probably won't make me popular with some folks, but to me Earth Day amounts to just another feel-good exercise enabling participants to imagine they're "doing something" to "save the planet " most often by making empty symbolic gestures, in some cases in lieu of real, probably inconvenient , behaviour changes - say, taking fewer showers (brings to mind British novelist Neville Shute's observation that for mid-20th Century Brits, bathing more than once a week would have been considered excessive), washing clothes less often and air-drying them, hand-washing dishes, and all those other tedious small things that add up.

Don't misunderstand. I'm convinced that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious threat, probably in ways no one has imagined yet, and I'm supportive of making actual - effective and sustained - efforts to diminish our energy-use/carbon footprint.

At our house, we've replaced most light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and I'm obsessive about turning out lights in unoccupied rooms. We do laundry in cold (or at most warm) rather than hot water, make an effort to wait until we have full loads, and dry it on an outdoor clothesline or on racks in the house, bypassing the electric clothes-dryer unless something really needs drying in a rush.

We have a low-flow shower head, don't insist on daily showers, and don't own a dishwasher. We don't use air conditioning or heat our home to July temperatures in January. We close off low-traffic areas in winter, bought an insulation blanket for the hot water heater and wraps for hot water pipes. We use laptop computers and an iPad - more energy-efficient than desktop units - and we're low-enders. I have two going on 12-year-old Pismo PowerBooks in active service, and my wife's daily driver is my old 17" PowerBook G4.

We try to minimize automobile use by walking for local errands and organize shopping to require fewer vehicle trips. We have no gas-guzzling toys like ATVs or powerboats - all of this and more on an ongoing basis - so I'm not inclined to apologize for being an Earth Day skeptic and curmudgeon.

Popular rhetoric about how something "must be done" about carbon emissions and climate change" contrasts with most people's actual behaviour; especially when it comes to making real compromises of levels of lifestyle comfort and convenience this consumer culture has come to regard as "necessity."

A Pew Research study a while back found that the average North American's definition of what constitutes "necessity" has expanded greatly, with majorities including a car (91%), washer (90%), dryer (83%), home air conditioning (83%), microwave (68%), TV (64%), car air conditioning (59%), and home computers (51%, and I would bet this metric is much higher today). Substantial minorities also included cell phone (49% - ditto to my comment about computers), dishwasher (35%), cable or satellite TV (33%), and high speed Internet (29% - likewise redux), and a few even considered a flat screen TV (5%) and an iPod (3%) "necessities."

These metrics illustrate why I'm skeptical about meaningful and substantive environmental reform. An inconvenient truth is that a whole raft of "necessary" personal care habits, information entertainment, and household appliances, which in saner times would have been considered luxury conveniences, are mostly energy hogs, and their cumulative effect on, say, global warming, is spectacular.

However, an even bigger and more intractable factor than our existing high-energy, high-consumption behavior in the developed West is the exponentially growing number of people who aspire to live that way. In my 60-year lifespan, global population has substantially more than doubled from about 2.5 billion to more than 7 billion, which I suspect already exceeds the earth's sustainable carrying capacity. The combined populations of India and China alone now exceed total global population when I was born, and the UN is predicting that by 2030, one-third of people will be living in water-shortage stressed regions.

For some perspective, China alone reportedly burns more than 2 billion tonnes of coal each year, accounting for about one-third of the world's total coal consumption, and is planning to build 200 more coal-burning plants. And while China now has only about one-twentieth as many cars per person as America does - about 35 million cars for
1.3 billion Chinese, versus 185 million cars for 300 million Americans, it has been rapidly closing that gap - a recent analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute projected that China will have about 120 million vehicles by 2020. Reportedly, 25,000 new cars are sold every day in China, which has embarked on a highway building project, the "7918 Network," comparable to construction of the US interstate highway system during the '50s and '60s. The new highway complex will connect nearly 250 cities, all with populations exceeding 200,000, providing 1 billion people with easy access.

China has already passed the US as the world's biggest global greenhouse gass (GHG) emitter, and China and India together are projected to account for a quarter of global GHG emissions within 25 years, probably sooner.

I'm convinced that global warming and its consequences are something we'll have to learn to live with and cope with, because there's not really much we can do about it. With global population increasing by a billion every 13 years or so and exploding consumer markets in Asia, there's slim hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from present levels - indeed of not having them increase. It would be more productive and realistic to concentrate efforts on strategies to mitigate the inevitable and unpleasant consequences, rather than deluding ourselves that we can actually reverse growth of GHG emissions in the big picture.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): My first car was a poorly maintained 1967 Plymouth Belvedere II with a 318 V-8 engine that got about 12 miles per gallon city or highway and burned about 1 quart of oil per week. Our "foodmobile" minivan (my wife hauls a lot of food for a local food pantry, which compelled us to move from a Ford Taurus to an off-lease Chrysler Town and Country) gets twice the gas mileage of that old beast while providing a lot more space and comfort. That's just one indicator of how far we've come in environmental responsibility since 1970.

There are a lot of factors in play, and which ones are important to you may vary with geography and personal circumstances. Here in Michigan, fresh water is abundant, winters are usually quite cold, and summer days rarely break 90F. Our home is surrounded by maples that help keep things cool in the summer, but due to my wife's asthma we have to run air conditioning more than would otherwise be necessary. In the winter, we put plastic over our kitchen windows, which are very poorly insulated, and we use ceiling fans year round to distribute warm or cool air for pennies per day. Our house was built with radiant baseboard hydronic heating that uses inexpensive natural gas, and our water tank is very energy efficient, although we would like to go with an on demand system someday.

With gas up around $4 per gallon (this week), we drive conservatively - use cruise control to improve MPG, avoid exceeding the speed limit unless traffic flow requires it (a bigger issue when we go to Chicago than here in Grand Rapids), a combine errands. Part of that's environmentalism, but probably more of that is just trying to be frugal and live within our means.

I use old Macs, which you probably guessed. My Mac mini sips power, my 20" flat panel displays are quite energy efficient, my printer goes into deep sleep mode, and my two production G4 Power Macs also function as heaters for my office, which is thus the warmest room in the house. All our Macs are set to go to sleep, and I try to remember to turn off the Power Macs at the end of the day. (The Mac mini is a print server, so I leave it on.)

Although I have done it in the past, I would never throw out a computer or monitor, even if they are dead. Too many dangerous or valuable metals. I do need to go through my computer collection, determine which ones don't work and don't need to be kept for parts, and find someone willing to pay for the precious metals in them (gold contacts, copper in power supplies, etc.).

Earth Day used to be about air pollution, oil spills, strip mining, and living more naturally. It should still be about those things, but it's more about being a responsible citizen of Planet Earth. For the Chinese, that should mean less toxic metals from recycled computer components and power plants with smaller environmental footprints. (I'm a huge fan of Ontario Hydro, which provides so much power from hydroelectric plants near Niagara Falls, although I reallize that type of solution depends on geography.)

For the developed West, it means paying attention to Energy Star ratings, learning to turn off gaming consoles and PCs, avoiding power bricks that draw energy when there is no load attached, walking and bicycling a bit more, driving without a lead foot, recycling what we can, and making sure that old electronics don't end up in landfills. (Even little things like using an insulated coffee pot or carafe instead of heating a pot continually for 2 hours helps.) Bit by bit, as each of us does our part, we make the world a better place when we remember that we have to be responsible when sharing the planet with 7 billion others.

Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere): I agree that to an extent the climate change is anthropogenic. And I also agree there really isn't much we can do about it at this point. I think the over-consumption of Western society is to blame for many things, and it is a result of some seriously flawed education over the past couple of centuries, but I digress.

I also am taking the laptop and iPad route. I could probably go my entire life without owning a TV or a desktop computer. My ThinkPad uses a maximum of 30W, but spends much of its time running at 11-15W. My iPad uses what, a handful of Watts max? I'll soon be adding a more efficient ThinkPad X41 Tablet convertible laptop to my fleet as well.

This past decade has brought many changes, seeing many people transition from 200W desktops to 20W laptops and even more efficient mobile devices. I'm excited to see what the next decade brings in terms of energy-efficient computing.

While we're talking about fuel efficiency, my 87 LeSabre (3.8L V6) just got 28 MPG when I went to fill it up. Ironically, that's how many MPGs my dying Nissan Sentra was able to achieve (compared to the original 36 MPG) and also the average MPG of our 92 Ford Escort.

Makes me wonder, are these new efficient vehicles (such as the Scion iQ and the Smart Fortwo) really going to be that efficient in the long run? Will they still be boasting 30-40 MPG at 190k miles? Even the idolized Prius will have its batteries die over time, becoming nothing more than dead weight, straining the tiny engine. Does the world need a bunch of glorified, disposable plastic lawnmowers? Are they really all that beneficial for the environment?

Charles Moore: My 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis with a 4.6.liter V8 has a fuel economy rating of 18/25 city/highway, and I don't have much trouble beating that with a light left foot. My wife's 1990 Toyota Camry with a 2.0 liter 4 cylinder and a five-speed manual gearbox doesn't do radically better. Both cars have about 200,000 kilometers (that's about 124,300 miles) on them.

Join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or Google+, or subscribe to our RSS news feed

Today's Links

Recent Content