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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!