This word… I do not think it means what you think it means!

One of my pet peeves is the tendency to talk about “green” behavior without any kind of understanding of scale. As long as we are still driving cars 24/7, it really doesn’t matter if you leave a night-light on in your bathroom. Really. No individual household’s consumption can compare with an average office building, and no office building can compare with an industrial factory, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to attempt a paradigm shift from the bottom. We need to change our biggest overconsumption problems, not our smallest.

Which is why I was ultimately annoyed by Six gadgets that could help green our lives, from the New Scientist. It’s just a little fluff piece gallery of some ideas presented in a recent competition, but it made my headache a lot worse so I feel compelled to share.

Child’s pay

Second prize in the competition – organised by design magazine Core77 and Greener Gadgets conference organisers – went to the Power-Hog, designed by Mathieu Zastawny, Mansour Ourasanah, Tom Dooley, Peter Byar, Elysa Soffer, Mathieu Turpault.

Designed to teach children about the cost of energy, the device controls the power supply to toys. It only lets electricity flow when coins are fed into the piggy bank.

This is really a symbolic action – the Power Hog’s electricity prices don’t match real electricity prices – but it could encourage children to question their energy usage, say the designers.

Yes. Shaming people– children, no less!– into saving inconsequential amounts of electricity.

‘Vampire’ killer

Two short-listed devices tackle the problem of “energy vampires” – electronic devices that use power even in standby mode.

Such equipment, from televisions to hi-fis, can increase an average household’s annual power bill by $100, according to Rachel Turner, the creator of the Standby Monster.

Her approach is to scare users into switching off devices with a pair of sticky-backed lenses that fit over the standby light and turn it into a pair of glowing, sinister eyes.

Why, look! More shaming, connected to even less consequential amounts of electricity! Because your wireless router is evil, and if only you could see how evil, you could end global warming!

Command central

Frog Design’s central kill switch is also designed to tackle energy vampires.

Wireless units called WattBlocks are fitted between the wall sockets and plugs of devices, making it possible to switch them all off in an instant using the master step switch (left).

I have to confess, I don’t really get this one. How is this different from keeping such things plugged into one power strip, and then unplugging that power strip to turn them off? Plus, again, “vampire” machines. Ooh. Scary.

Electricity alerts

Overall winner Tweet-a-Watt takes power management online. Limor Fried of Adafruit Industries and Phillip Torrone of MAKE magazine added a wireless transmitter (left) to a power meter creating a gadget that transmits daily summaries of energy consumption to the user’s Twitter account.

Another short-listed design – Bware by Ariel Drach (right) – promises to do the same thing for water consumption.

Read our recent article explaining how the power of social networks can help individuals change their environmental habits.

Mm, I love the smell of shame in the morning! An article from the BBC on the same event even makes explicit the intentions of the inventors of the Tweet-a-Watt– “The inventors hope it will foster a new attitude among the public and likened it to being praised for weight loss when dieting.” YES. YES IT IS. It is just like the societal monitoring and critiquing of people’s weights. Unfortunately, that kind of social pressure, wherein strangers are invited to judge you, well, it’s…reprehensible.

I mean, I agree that this would work, though probably the way dieting “works”– in initial drop to an unsustainably low level of usage, followed by a slow creep back up one one resumes living one’s life. It might work a little better than that if one started out with bad electricity habits– leaving lights on even when not at home, etc. It just seems a bit unnecessarily intrusive (and, again, shaming!) considering that, well, there’s a limit to how little electricity a person can use, and, again, cars on the road.

Blinding light

A Venetian blind made from flexible solar cells can light up a room without a power supply.

The Blight blinds were designed by Vincent Gerkens, who says that because people adjust Venetian blinds throughout the day to maximise the amount of sunlight they block out, his design catches much of the available sunlight.

When darkness falls, energy collected in a battery is used to power an electroluminescent foil built into the blinds, which lights the room.

Okay, this is actually really cool. The key to making alternative energy sources work is integrating them into our world in enough places that they can actually get enough energy to supply our needs. Wind and solar are currently a tiny percentage of our electricity production, but here’s a way to give some solar panels some sunlight without covering the ground with them!

Note, also, that this isn’t focused on changing consumer behavior so that people reduce use– it’s a way to increase the supply of acceptable electricity. To my mind, any electricity generated by burning coal is too much, and so it’s impossible to solve the problem by reducing use. We have to get creative like this, instead.

Café culture

Office printers consume energy and may even pose a health risk. But the hand-powered RITI Printer, designed by Jeon Hwan Ju, is different.

Power comes from the user, who has to pull the printer head back and forth as the paper is pulled through. Cleverly, the printer also does away with expensive ink cartridges, instead making use of waste coffee.

The printed product definitely smells of coffee – which some evidence suggests could help reverse the effects of sleep deprivation. And there’s no word on how permanent a coffee-printed document is.

And now we’re back to products that I kind of just don’t get. I mean, I love the idea of re-using old coffee grounds, but… why not just transition to a paperless office (or whatever) altogether? And I’m not sure when one could use this… impermanant coffee-scented papers would be inappropriate for most official paperwork, and for books. It could work for receipts, though– it could even work via their favourite method, reducing consumption, since fewer people will be interested in taking a receipt that they have to manually print themselves!

Now, to return to the broader conversation: I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both.  But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.

And would you look at that? Even as I try to articulate the problem I have with this obsession with “green,” Scientific American provides me with the perfect rebuttal! Check out Top 10 Myths about Sustainability, with the following excellent opener:

When a word becomes so popular you begin hearing it everywhere, in all sorts of marginally related or even unrelated contexts, it means one of two things. Either the word has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has real conceptual heft. “Green” (or, even worse, “going green”) falls squarely into the first category. But “sustainable,” which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs in the second. True, you hear it applied to everything from cars to agriculture to economics. But that’s because the concept of sustainability is at its heart so simple that it legitimately applies to all these areas and more.

I think a lot of attempts at “going green” are, at best, misguided (the innovations ranted at above, for example), or, at worst, deliberate attempts to make money off of people’s good natures (like with a lot of organic food). But I am a huge believer in the vital importance of sustainability. This article is a great explanation of why. If I link it a second time, will that double your chances of reading it? Because seriously, take a look!

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11 Responses to This word… I do not think it means what you think it means!

  1. Eng says:

    All right. Finally we enter a realm where I don’t feel out of my depth talking.

    So I agree with…about half of what you’ve said. The Power Hog thing, and the “WattBlock” nonsense, are about the worst ideas I’ve ever heard, for pretty much the reason you’ve said – the toy is dumb, and the power strip thing is unnecessary. The coffee printer is just too out there for me, and i agree that the blinds are about the coolest thing ever.

    However! This is a little unreasonable of me, but I have a pet peeve with standby devices. Not because they use a significant amount of power, but because the power they use is absolutely *worthless* – it just goes to waste, all of it. Also, I always liked the idea of little psychological tricks – like how you work harder when you put a pair of paper eyes above your computer monitor, because it feels like someone’s watching you. So I thought the glowing-eye thing was sorta neat, pretty harmless, and could do more good than harm. (Though yeah, “energy vampires”? Most ridiculous term ever.)

    The Twitter thing…I’m not sure; while I certainly don’t support people being publicly shamed for their actions to force them into a certain habit, as long as the Twitter thing is voluntary, it seems more like a way to keep yourself on track with your goals as an environmentalist – like publicly declaring something, so that you feel like you’re letting people down if you fulfill it (sort of like when you put up your New Year’s resolutions, etc., on this website).

    As for your opening paragraph, I could not disagree more. I have a friend who won’t take the time to recycle, because his car is so polluting that “anything I don’t recycle doesn’t even make a dent compared to what my car spews out.” It’s the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever heard. Reducing our impact on the environment has to happen at *every* possible level, and while yes, there are things which have larger impacts than others, we *cannot* afford to ignore the smaller ones. (Sorry if I’m getting abrasive. Again, a bit of a pet peeve.)

    At any rate. Thanks very much for the link to the Scientific American article (yes, in fact, I clicked the second one, so nice job with the psychology) and great post!

    • Crowfoot says:

      heh, I think this is the first time I’ve encountered something you’ve said, Eloriane, that I even remotely disagree with! I do agree with you that we need a paradigm shift from the top, except that I would say we need it in addition to a shift from the bottom. That we cannot do one without the other, actually. Though we will get further by changing what the giant polluters/users of energy are doing first. Coal burning, like you said, has to stop. We need to get our power from different, renewable resources altogether, and not just in little pieces in our homes. And you’re also right in that we need to integrate this new technology all over the place. I’ve seen solar panels built right into the roof of houses, for example (they just look like regular roofs too). And I also agree that most of those items on that list are a waste of money! Except for the solar blinds. Those are cool. I could so use a set of those in my west and south facing living room.

      I’ll have to agree with Eng and disagree with you regarding the pointlessness of reducing small amounts (mentioned at the beginning of your post). While it’s just a teaspoon compared to large office buildings and factories, there are still hundreds of million teaspoons out there, and everything we do adds to the problem. I think this is why the term “paradigm shift” is so apt – everything really does need to change: how we make things, what we make, how or whether we recycle, how much we reuse and reduce, what goes into our homes, what goes into our bellies, how all of that is made and transported and disposed of. It’s rather like the patriarchy. We need to collectively push the larger offenders to change their ways and to stop doing the shite they do, but we also need to change the little things we do ourselves and the little things we see around us. In order to create a revolution, everything must change. With anti-instituitionalized bigotry and with environmentalism, we need to “think globally, act locally.”

      “Now, to return to the broader conversation: I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both. But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.”

      And now as I reread your post I’m wondering if Eng and I have kind of misread you? Maybe we’re responding mostly to the first paragraph and not what I’ve quoted just now? Gah, I’m sorry, I need to get to bed and I might be wanting to rethink my whole comment but I don’t really want to delete what I’ve written so far… so I’ll leave it and come back to it tomorrow.

      “I think a lot of attempts at “going green” are, at best, misguided (the innovations ranted at above, for example), or, at worst, deliberate attempts to make money off of people’s good natures (like with a lot of organic food). But I am a huge believer in the vital importance of sustainability”

      I agree, in particular with the above list. Although your point, Eng, about the little psychological tricks is interesting. But yeah, the term “going green” really has been commercialized hasn’t it?

  2. Eng says:

    Right, that’s the thing! That one paragraph about paying attention to the little things sums up what I was trying to get at. At the same time, though, I feel like anything which has a net impact towards sustainability, no matter how small, is worth pursuing. Which is to say, as long as these little glasses things prevent more emissions than they cause (by being manufactured, shipped, etc.), then full speed ahead.

    “Going green” has been commercialized a ton, and I’m okay with most of that – at least it’s in the public consciousness, etc. Although you’re right, some of these things just seem like ways to play off people’s honest desires to be green.

    Crowfoot – total agreement about the idea of a “paradigm shift” needing to encompass everything. There’s a lot of inertia, and some things are simply not going to change overnight (I think diet choice is going to be the last thing to go) but every step we take to reduce our global impact is one worth taking.

    • Crowfoot says:

      Agreed. It’s all about life-style changes, eh? So that means all the little things as well as the big ones. I think you’re right about diet changes – it’ll be a while before a lot of people either give up meat or at least reduce it greatly (beef being the one with the largest ecological footprints?). But even moving to eating locally produced food is a big step in the right direction, apparently. I need to read that link to sustainability (even though I’ve been prompted 3 times so far lol – once at Shakesville and twice here)! I suspect that the concept of sustainability ties directly into combating the culture’s fundamental capitalist, exploitive, domineering tendencies?

      Re little gadgets being ok if they prevent more emissions than they cause. I see what you mean – though, of course, one really shouldn’t need little glowing glasses to remind us to turn stuff off! And I also agree with you re the stand-by devices. I mean, why?? My dvd player is not some massive machine that takes a couple of minutes to warm up for crying out loud. It really doesn’t need a stand-by mode. And I don’t need 5 clocks in my living room either (one on the dvd player, one on the vcr [yes I still have one], one on the cable box, one on the stereo…). I have a wall clock with a battery. And a watch. And a cell phone. It’s such a complete and stupid waste. This is a big part of the problem though, isn’t it? Why on earth do we even think to create a machine that just wastes energy like that? Because we go about thinking our supply is limitless, consciously or no.

      I’m surprised that Eloriane hasn’t popped in here yet – I’m suspecting internet access difficulties – but I’m thinking that her main gripe was the stupidness of most of those gadgets and the idea behind them? Out of all of them, only the solar blinds would be really useful, psychological tricks with glowing glasses notwithstanding. I agree with Eloriane that those gadgets are largely missing the point – and they were the top 6! It just looks like so much cashing in. A friend of mine wrote an essay griping about the commercialization of the term “going green” that I think really pertains to this conversation. I might be able to post it here…

      (and here I am writing another long comment! lol.)

  3. eloriane says:

    Okay, so, I wrote the first paragraph, spent a day and a half ignoring the post, wrote the rest of it and assumed the first half was comprehensible, and now I’m in trouble. The article I linked at the end is way more representative of my thoughts! (As is the paragraph Crowfoot quoted above.) I expressed myself poorly at the start of the piece. Let’s see if I can save myself.

    I want to note that my initial response to the individual products was based on the ways in which they seemed to be promoting a relationship with electricity that mirrors our culture’s messed-up relationship with food. Looking at the Tweet-a-Watt, all I can see is calorie-counting and disordered eating, only good because it’s “green.” The more I think of it, though, it’s not a good analogy, since electricity is not necessary to life the way food is, and because there’s less of a cultural juggernaut shaming people for consumption. Especially since it’s an opt-in process, its probably harmless, although ASKING the internet to judge you may be unwise.

    More importantly, though, I want to clarify my real beef with “going green.” Namely, I object to a lot of practices that are done in the name of “going green” but are, in fact, not particularly sustainable, and therefore have too little an effect to be worthwhile. Recycling is NOT an example of this– I recycle everything I can, and it’s a LOT! However, anything that tells you to BUY something to be “green” really gets my hackles up. I like using a canvas tote bag instead of plastic grocery bags, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go buy a new tote bag that says “I’m saving the planet, what are you doing?” Similarly, I am really passionate about the need for transportation other than “giant gas-burning monster,” but I can’t help laughing when my gas station informs me that my gas might be “up to 3% corn-based ethanol!” and that reaction is partially because 97% gasoline is not “green” but also because, dude, ethanol’s not much of an improvement.

    So when I’m talking about ““green” behavior without any kind of understanding of scale,” what I mean is stuff that, okay, it looks a little better, but doesn’t show any understanding of the problem we’re actually dealing with. Like “clean” coal, for which there are not enough scare quotes in the universe. (Seriously, how to they propose to “cleanly” strip-mine coal??) Dudes, I have a feminist blog– I GET the importance of teaspoons! But just as not everything that’s “nice” for women is feminist (i.e., infantilizing “chivalry”), not everything that’s being sold as “green” is actually sustainable.

    An act that is small, but IS sustainable, like recycling… go for it! Eng, your friend may be the craziest person I’ve ever heard. I hate the fact that my car runs on gas, but my solution is… minimize useless trips! Drive in a fuel-efficient manner! Recycle more! Basically, try to teaspoon twice as hard to make up for the things that are too big for me to attack.

    The reason I brought up issues of scale in this case is because, well, if I was going to have a big design contest to “green our lives,” I would want to give the fancy prize to something that had the potential to have a large impact, rather than cutesy vampire eyes. I think this is analogous to expecting feminists politicians, for example, to begin by working for the ERA, rather than trying to improve representation of women in superhero comics. It’s not that I don’t think comics are important, it’s that when you’ve got an organization (and associated the money and institutional power), your teaspoon has been turned into a bucket. So do something bigger! My expectations of individuals are not the same as my expectations of companies who host green design competitions. If all you have is that teaspoon, work it! If you have more, stop thinking small!

    That’s what I was trying to say in the first paragraph, but I can see that I did an extremely poor job, for which I apologize, but hey! You guys are brilliant. Don’t stop calling me on my rubbish.

  4. eloriane says:

    Oh, haha! Looks like I posted at the same time as Crowfoot! I meant to get back here sooner but I’ve been on the go since yesterday…

    A few more notes, huge YES on vegetarianism as an environmental move! Including fish, egads! Overfishing is a HUGE problem. I’m trying to wean myself away from fish, although with limited success. (Long story.)

    But for the spooky energy vampires… are they really that big a problem? I guess the only things in my apartment that stay on when I’m not using them are my microwave, my (single!) clock radio, my wireless router, and my computer. All of them except the computer tend to lose their minds when they get turned off and I don’t feel like re-programming them every time I want them. The computer just takes a really long time to boot, and I like to be able to leave windows open to come back to later. (I guess at the house we also have a TiVo, but it has to be on to record programs when we’re not home.) What kinds of devices have stand-by modes that aren’t necessary? Why would such a thing exist?

    Also, Crowfoot! Read the link already! It’s not that long! You probably already know most of it (subconsciously, at the very least!) I’ll even link to it again!

    • Crowfoot says:

      aha! you see, I knew I must have been misreading you! lol. well ok then 🙂 I have now, officially, never really disagreed with you. I’m sure it’ll happen and it’s no big when it does, but it’s funnier to share a brain :-p (ok kidding aside I think I must have disagreed with you somewhere, but so far not politically). I also know you know about teaspoons! So why did I continue anyways? I dunno – maybe I was triggered into my own little rant about what a paradigm shift really means, how all the little things are important too, on and on – I guess I really wanted to rant about that? Lol. I think a couple of your sentences (which sound like they didn’t really represent what you meant) triggered both Eng and I to go “aaah!” 😀

      Energy vampires/stand-by modes: I think somethings actually need the stand-by mode? Like the wireless router, and leaving the computer on is really useful. My dvd player certainly doesn’t need it. There’s no settings! Why is that little red light always on? I dunno. That’s the kind of stupid waste that’s so.. stupid. And really, one solar panel would probably power all of those things and more. How about someone links up the solar blinds to some kind of battery thing that the computer can run off of? (though you’d have to be careful about the computer shutting off if/when the power switches off a deleted batter…)

      anyways, my lunch is nearly over so I’m going to go read that article! For real too :-p

  5. eloriane says:

    I get that some things DO need a stand-by mode. My clock definitely does, for example! (Although it does this clever thing where the display goes very dark unless there’s motion nearby.) But why would you give something a standby mode unless it needed it? Like, the TiVo has to be on to record things, but an ordinary DVD player? It doesn’t forget its programming (the way a router does) when you turn it off. Is it just for the clock? Are we just that unthinking in our design?? It seems… staggeringly possible!

    But yeah, I can definitely see where my first paragraph doesn’t represent my thoughts well, and you guys were totally right to call me on it. I was just frustrated, since larger actions are larger, and when you’ve been given a platform and some money, you can do more! But in individuals’ lives, I am all about the teaspoons, haha.

    • Crowfoot says:

      heeh 😀

      yeah the dvd player doesn’t even have a clock 😐 I’d unplug it if it wasn’t buried behind the tv console/bench thing.

      the article you linked to made a very good point about the necessity of grass-roots movements, but noted that they are just the beginning – it needs to become government policy. It needs to become a larger, corporate, institutional thing. Grass-roots movements and the individual are only the first steps.

  6. […] I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of analogies to highlight systematic problems. When I posted about environmentalism earlier, for example, I frequently used analogies to the feminist movement to articulate my […]

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