Last week, I happened to pick up an old issue of National Geographic Magazine. The cover story was on Ireland which, at the time of publication, was ramping itself up into "Celtic Tiger" mode. The writer was focusing on how the increase in industrial, commercial and financial activity was affecting more traditional social values. The phrase that caught my attention was him wondering "what more efficient nations do will all the time they're so busy saving."
The next day I got the answer to his question. In a much more recent issue of a profoundly different magazine (Mental Floss), I saw a picture of two Connecticut state legislators caught playing solitaire on their laptops during a long and apparently boring budget debate. What do we do with all that time? We play solitaire (or engage in other activities, the primary purpose of which is to consume available time). Mostly, we do it on computers or other electronic devices.
Thus, when I attended an exhibit of student research, I looked at the posters and other presentations which focused on sustainability and (at least some of them) on computing.
First, a student enumerated the "green" aspects of a current-model notebook computer -- key among the advantages of this particular model was that the plastic of which its case was made included 30% post-consumer recycled material. Another student's work extolled the energy-efficient technologies being used in a recently-built "green" data center.
Now I impress easily, but not that easily. Thirty percent post-consumer recycled material is better than none at all, but the question to my mind is why, whenever anyone replaces or upgrades a notebook computer, there's really no choice apart from buying an entirely new product. Why couldn't notebooks be created that reuse parts? That allow user upgrades (or replacements) of specific components when needed? I've got a computer at home that I've been upgrading for the past ten years. At various times, I've upgraded or replaced the power supply, the cooling fans, the hard disk, the video, even the motherboard and processor. I realize that notebooks are more physically constrained, in terms of both volume and weight, than desktop computers, but still . . . A notebook standardized in terms of physical form factor could have tremendous market appeal, kind of like the "forever" stamps that the post office puts out. Sure, the current marketing campaign based on smaller, sleeker, faster with longer battery life is effective, but novelty isn't the only way to sell a product.
And the supposedly "green" data center -- most of the efficiency improvement comes in the way they cool the interior, but they're still cooling the whole interior of the building just to keep some components (which, collectively, take up perhaps one percent of total conditioned space) from overheating. It's kind of like saying that my four-thousand-pound car is "green" because it gets slightly better gas mileage than your four-thousand-pound car. Never mind that even if its drive train were 100% efficient (25% being a far more realistic number), neither car should be considered at all sustainable, in that each of them moves two tons of metal and plastic just to transport two hundred pounds of organic matter.
So there, in a nutshell, is the problem with equating "efficiency" and "sustainable". When we talk about improving the efficiency of some product or some process, we usually mean making some slight improvement at the margins while leaving the basic product/process -- and all the assumptions which implicitly underlie it -- largely unaffected. We don't tend to ask radical questions, so don't get to make radical improvements.
Because let's face it -- if we want to play solitaire efficiently, it doesn't require a computer costing five hundred dollars or more. It only requires a deck of cards costing a couple of bucks and consuming zero electricity. If we, as a society, approached all our problems on that simple and practical a level, state budget hearings might not need to be so long and boring. And inefficient. (Not to mention ineffective.)