High Tech Optimism

SUBHEAD: In defense of high-tech tools for living a more sustainable life. And a critique.

By Derek Markham on 17 Janaury 2014 for TreeHugger -

[IB Publisher's note: We couldn't hrlp but make a running commentary on the content of this techno-optimistic utopian nonsense. Yes use the existing technology, but it isn't much more than a temporary crutch.]

Image above: Keyboard with seedlings growing out of dirt. Either the keyboard or the plants won't survive. From original article.

High technology is here to stay. [IB: Here to stay? Every one of the devices alluded to here will be curio or drink coaster within the decade. There will be no way to resurrect your old smartphone, ipod or tablet from the boneyard.] 

It's in our pockets, on our desks, and in our cars, and regardless of the initial (and even ongoing) cost to the environment, some of it can and is helping us to make our lives more sustainable. [IB: "Regardless of the cost" is the key phrase here. The expense and rare materials needed to manufacture high-tech telecommunications gear we use by the billions is taking an unsustainable toll on the environment.]

After publishing my piece on low-tech and simple tactics for living more sustainably yesterday, I found it interesting that the one high-technology point I used (small solar chargers) was met with some criticism, both on the post itself and on social media channels (and in several private conversations).

The biggest arguments that several commenters here (you know who you are) love to make against the "greenness" of many tech products tend to come from an LCA (life-cycle analysis) and EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) perspective. [IB: This is correct thinking.] In other words, asking if the product does the most work, with the least amount of energy input and the lowest environmental impact, and then what happens to it at the end of its useful life? (Obviously I'm simplifying and summarizing that quite a bit.)

One of the problems with using the word sustainable is that because it's such a black and white issue for some folks, it can be construed as meaning only that which is fully able to be sustained indefinitely with no external inputs, with no middle ground whatsoever. [IB: This is a straw-man put up to be knocked down. Mr. Markham is saying it is an black and white issue. It is not, and he knows it. He said "It's in our pockets, on our desks, and in our cars, and regardless of the initial (and even ongoing) cost to the environment". These consumer products are everywhere and are viable for only a short time.  They need to be replaced and their market expanded to make a profit. That is what is unsustainable.].

The ]It's a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, and I'd argue that strictly speaking, 100% sustainability isn't really achievable, just due to entropy and the natural aging process of just about everything on the planet, and that what we can and should aim for is living "more sustainably."

By that I mean taking steps to reduce our environmental footprint, our energy consumption, our water usage (and wastage), our household and office waste streams, as well as steps to replace the amount of single-use items with those that are longer lasting and made with renewable resources, and to replace some of our fossil-fuel based energy use with that coming from renewable sources.[IB: The steps are simple but painful for many. Drastically reduce your consumption of manufactured goods and processed food. Stop moving around so much by car and plane. Get simple tools you can maintain for a lifetime. Grow your own. Make your own. Entertain tour friends.]

And I think that high-tech does play an important part in that, especially when we use those high-tech items we already own to reduce our environmental footprint in our everyday lives. [IB: Agreed. The high-tech tools we already have can be useful. But don't count on them for the long run.]

Here are a few points in defense of using high-tech tools for living a more sustainable life:

Sharing information and community-building: Most of us already own a computer, and use one for both work and pleasure, and by connecting to the internet, we have access to the biggest repository of information on green living, DIY, energy efficiency, etc. in the history of humankind. [For the time being that is true. That will not be true the day after it is no longer "profitable" for Google to support gigantic server farms and Verizon can't afford to maintain giant communication networks. We'll be back in a flash to the Arpanet used by the the research facilities (.edu), the government (.gov), and the military (.mil).]

There are also a great number of communities on the web that not only instruct and inform across a wide variety of sustainable living topics, but also offer support and human networking for those looking to living a greener life. [IB: The Whole Earth Catalog did a pretty good job of "networking" those interested in the "greener life" in the 60's and 70's. Get yourself a copy of the twelve volume set of the 1970's Foxfire Books at Amazon for $215 (http://www.amazon.com/Foxfire-Complete-Collection-Books-Through/dp/B0073XCN2K/ref=sr_1_1). It will explain hide tanning, weaving, hog dressing,  butter churning, animal care, etc.]

Before the internet and personal computers, that knowledge and those personal connections and communities were much more difficult to attain, so the high technology that goes into personal computers can offer a large amount of leverage to us. 

And again, we already own them, and if we're using them to learn how to live more sustainably (even if just for part of the time), it seems at least incrementally greener than using them only to watch movies and laugh at GIFs and share memes. [IB: True. But also very temporary.]

Digital and paperless products and transactions:
Aside from those that print out their emails or insist on always having a hard copy, many of us are already very comfortable with going digital. Using digital files for everything from ebooks to bill paying to music and video downloads can radically reduce the amount of physical materials that must be produced and disposed of in our lives. Emails vs paper mail is one example that most of us use daily, as is reading the news online or getting a digital version of a book or music album instead of a physical version. I'd also argue that with digital photos, we can now capture more images and videos than ever before, without the need for the film, photo paper, and processing equipment necessary to print them, and by using the web to display them, I can do things such as share a photo of my composting toilet design with an interested person in Sweden without needing to produce and send a physical artifact. [IB: There will be no useable record of today's transactions, publications or images. Do you think in thirty years from now will you be able to read Photoshop files on a Windows 7 formatted hard drive? I have a 1/2 digital tape cassette with a $50,000 CADCAM program created by General Electric that can only be loaded onto a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) VAX 16 bit computer that is less than 30 years old. Will I ever be able to run that program again? DEC was the second largest computer manufacturer in the world at the time. DEC no longer exists. Does the Smithsonian have an operational VAX.]

Smartphones as multipurpose tools:
With the wider adoption of smartphones as our primary communication device, we can now replace multiple gadgets with one multipurpose device. We don't need to own and carry a separate camera, music player, map and compass (or GPS), or watch with us, unless we need specialist tools (a pro photographer would obviously not simply replace their DSLR with a smartphone camera). In addition to the hardware, the ability to run third-party apps on smartphones opens up a number of angles for living more sustainably, from energy consumption software to e-guides and apps to help us make greener choices in our daily lives. [IB: Like for example Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies?]

Electric bikes and vehicles:
While many of us won't be in the market for buying an electric car until their prices drop significantly, for those that can afford one as an integral part of a home and personal energy strategy (with PV panels perhaps), electric vehicles can make for a cleaner local environment and reduce the demand for fossil fuels for transportation. A lower hanging fruit for more sustainable transportation is the electric bike, especially when an e-bike can make the difference between being able to commuting by electric bike and having to rely solely on a gas-powered car. Taking bigger and less efficient vehicles off of the roads, especially those used to only transport one person at a time, can be a step toward a greener world. [IB: Not doing daily commuting would do a whole lot more for the world.]

Smarter home technology:
While I think that Lloyd made a great point about the need for "the dumb home, done right" before we need the smart home, most of us can't go out and build a new home that embodies the passive house ethic and appropriate technology. We're stuck with what we have, and so in order to make the homes that already exist more sustainable to live in and operate, we can take advantage of high-tech solutions such as smart energy monitors, intelligent thermostats, connected devices that we can control remotely or schedule the operation of, or even such boring tech advances as double-paned windows and efficient home insulation. For those that can afford it, a PV array (either grid-tied, or a standalone system with its own microgrid) can offer long-term sustainability benefits, and as a lower-cost entry point, LED bulbs can make a difference in greening our lives. [IB: This whole idea of saving the world by shaving a little off consumption through economy of use is self delusional.]

Smarter agriculture and gardening:
For the small home gardener, high-tech products may not appear capable of making a huge difference, but even something as seemingly low-tech as drip irrigation tubing coupled with an electronic control system can radically reduce the amount of water needed to grow food. For the bigger operations, the smallholders and small farmers, the use of soil moisture monitors, weather forecasting devices, smart irrigation controls, and even GPS units on tractors (for more precise control of cultivation and fertilizer application), can help make the growing operations more sustainable. [IB: Permaculture, intensive organic gardening, SRI faming, etc, do not need much technology.]

Small scale solar power:
I like to think of small scale solar power as a gateway to renewable energy options, as portable solar chargers and small independent solar arrays can not only provide energy to power those gadgets and devices mentioned above, but can serve as examples of an alternative to our conventional addiction to the fossil-fuel grid and offer advantages in mobility and energy independence on the small scale. If we can use those small solar chargers and battery banks to teach us to live within our "energy means", then we may also learn to be more mindful of our resources in other areas of our lives. [IB: We agree that small scale solar is a benefit. But it will not be a gateway to renewable energy options that rival our current level of power consumption. Solar PV may end up a less painful route to a lower level of energy use by us over-consumers that may last a generation or so.]

I'm not arguing that we ought to go out and buy more high-tech devices in our quest to live more sustainably, or advocating "shopping our way to a greener life", as some critics say we do here at Treehugger (though I do believe that there is a case to be made for investing in some of this technology to save time or energy and to increase efficiency), but rather that we can move incrementally to a less wasteful and more intelligent use of resources. [IB: What in the hell Derek Markham saying here. He sounds self-conflicted and deluded by Green Smoke and Techno-Optimism.]

After all, we're here on the planet already, and we consume natural resources just to stay alive. We can't go back and wipe the slate clean and start over, only this time with 100% renewable and 100% sustainable energy, tools, and materials. [IB: "We can't go back"? Oh yes we can, or we won't get through the coming bottleneck when this industrial contraption we are in rolls over and dies. We are going to go through the rabbit hole with only a memory of our current electronic friends and a need for knowledge base on reality.]

We've got to start where we are, and that means learning to live more sustainably, using less energy, less water, and less resources, and I think that high technology definitely has a role to play in that. [IB: Yes. An ever diminishing role.]

See also:
Ea O Ka Aia: Seven Sustainable Technologies 1/15/14


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