Thoughts On Environmental Factors

wind mill

You may have heard terms such as Sustainability, Organic Farming, RoHS/Green Technology (one of many Green initiatives), Marine Stewardship and others that businesses use to describe the methods or practices used to grow food, manufacture products, etc. What do these term really mean to the average person? Can the regular Jane or Joe distinguish the difference between Natural Food, Organic Food and Organic Certified Food? Most people don’t know the difference, but that does not necessarily mean that they don’t care. The gap between the information that advocates for green practices gather and the public, has been pretty large. As technology and computing systems increase, so has the application of the technology to our every day life; which is forming a gap between the information about products and people.

An embracement of web and mobile technology is paving the way for smart consumers. People who look beyond the label and look at the whole picture. With all the information that is available about the products we consume, its only a matter of time before all that info catches up to the main stream. We are a long way from Bruce Sterling’s idea of Spimes which will allow us to know intimate details of a products with the click of a button. The ability to instantly accessing data about a product is are already at our finger tips, but is a bit complex. Phone Apps like the “Barcode Scanner” by ZXing Team and other mobile apps are allowing people to scan items and Google the serial data to get instant information about any product. These technologies are affecting the way that people consume because information critical to the consumer’s decision making process, is just a couple of clicks away. Deep down, people want the highest quality product for their money. Some will pay a bit more when they know which product is more friendly to the environment and their health.

With all the information available we can safely deduce that things like powder mix, such as Tang or Kool-aid are not as healthy to drink every day as organic orange juice would be. Our perception in 1965 was a bit different. We thought that Tang was better since it came from science and was engineered in a lab. The same was true for TV dinners which ensured that your frozen meal would be ready to eat in a few minutes. Fast forward to 2010, the general perception is different. We now know that fresh food is healthier than individually packaged servings of preserved food which also produce lots of garbage. There is a cultural change relating to consumption that is being accelerated by web technologies. Not only can you find information by using Google in smart phones and various mobile devices, you can also look up information like the health risks of trans fat. Weather it is via cell phone or browsing the web with your personal computer, people learn the facts and then put pressure on the regulation of such ingredients.

Online social media has a big impact on all products. When the BP oil rig collapsed in the Gulf of Mexico, we where reminded of the drastic change in the way news get communicated. The dramatic change is not in how the news get communicated, but by who does the communicating. Most likely than ever, it is the every day people that are the first to capture and distribute the news. Online social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are the key components that allow people to communicate with a large network of people in real time. The conversations that revolve around events like the BP oil spill are key to understanding the effect of this new data stream in our culture.

Technology is not a wonder cure for all our problems, it is at best only speeding our awareness of the things that are going wrong and right in our society. Technology is actually an active participator in damaging the world. In 2007 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Report on data center energy efficiency “…estimated that Server Farm power consumption accounts for more than 1.5% of the total electricity usage in the U.S., at a cost of nearly $4.5 billion.” Since 2007 our technology needs have increased and so has the consumption of Energy. The race for developing green server farms has begun. Companies realize that being green is not only good for the environment, it is also profitable since being green means being efficient.

The internet’s footprint is only the start of how technology has had an impact on our environment. Lets take two simple examples of manufactured products and look at their effects. First lets look at electric hand dryers and paper towels (Why would any one go through the trouble of figuring out the energy content of a paper towel? Because you never know when you will need to know how much energy a paper towel contains.)

A paper towel has approximately 4,500 joules or 1.25 watt hours; enough to power a 100 watt light bulb for around 45 seconds or to be more familiar almost the same amount of energy in a AAA battery which has 1200 mA/h or 5,071 joules.

If you compare a paper towel (4500 joules/s or 1.25 watt-hours) and a hand dryer (1500 watts or 1500 joules/s) the we can see that the energy of one paper towel accounts for 3 seconds of hand dryer operation. Most hand dryers take anywhere between 10-30 seconds to dry your hands. That is around 4-10 paper towels towels or to make it sweeter, 1-5 AAA batteries! And that is not accounting the amount of energy and resources it takes to manufacture the wretched machines.

So are paper towels better? or are hand dryers? the biggest misconception is that the technological breakthroughs are better… Not true. Now lets look at personal computers and the rest of electronics. Do we want to go there… Yes, but instead of writing about it, here is a video (out of two in this documentary):

As a society we have not done a very good job in making sure that our environment remains a healthy place to live (that was a not in the previous line.) The alarming rate of waste we produce from the things we consume is taking a big toll on the environment. This is why online social networks [and real life social networks] are important to the development of a “Green Culture” where everyone is aware of the good and the bad about the products we like and dislike. The images you see in the video may look foreign to you, but its actually hitting closer to home than you may think.

There are a lot of web sites that are beginning the process of aggregating as much information as possible that will allow people to make environmentally conscious decisions. Some of them include The Green Guide which shares helpful information about every day things that can be done to help the environment out. Good Guide that rates products on their environmental impact. Energy Star which helps you find energy efficient products. Eat Well Guide which helps you find local sustainable and organic food.

These websites are only the beginning of a long process that as a humanity must tackle. That process is to achieve a sustainable system of consumer goods. This may sound like an impossible task, which may be even more true when we start to question even the most “Sustainable” methods we currently practice.

Toby Hemenway, author of Gaias Garden is one such person who believes that we are doing it all wrong. Toby Hemenway proposes new methods of food production to tackle the degenerative systems of food production.

Screen shot 2010-08-16 at 5.04.06 PM or YouTube play list >

Although Toby Hemenway’s proposed methods for food production may be a little too radical, his observations about the food systems are very interesting. There are other projects that touch on these subjects. One interesting project that has received a lot of attention is The Window Farms Project

Window farms are a derivative of rooftop farms and gardens. Although they may not be the answer to the farming dilemma, they are a good project to bring awareness to the problem and hopefully encourage more people to begin conserving and re-using resources. Change is slow and until you decide to start your own home garden, you can buy from local produce from the Green Market Farmers!

Our world is shrinking. Not only because we are running out of space to live or land to grow food. Our social networks and technology will allow us to become incredibly interconnected to the point that the average person will have to pay for privacy which will shrink our interactions to a limited social norm. Lets just hope that the social norm is one where we are striving for sustainability and not uncontrolled consumption.

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