E F Schumacher became the first popular environmentalist when his "Small is Beautiful" book was published in 1973. His theme was "Economics as if people mattered" and he introduced the concept of ‘sustainability’ with respect to our exploitation of the planet’s resources.
At the time the book was written, we all saw the planet as a source of raw materials to be plundered at will. It was natural capital which cost us nothing apart from the cost of extraction and, through war or purchase, the cost of securing the land for its exploitation.
We were equally ignorant of waste. The seas were huge and could easily cope with whatever we threw into them, whether directly or through rivers. We were much more aware of pollution of the land we lived on and the air we breathed but, where there was money to be made, we were somewhat less than conscientious.
I don’t remember much about the detail of the book, except that it touched me profoundly. One story related to a manufacturing plant that sucked in river water at one end of the factory and pumped waste water out at the other. Schumacher suggested that the inlet be placed further downstream than the outlet. The idea was simple, but the implications profound.
At the time the book was published, I was running the IT department of a company whose products were made from petrochemicals. Fascinating stuff it was too. The chemists there were happy to explain how they manipulated hydrocarbon chains to create flavours, perfumes and colours.
As a direct consequence of reading the book and the earlier influence of tv programmes like the BBC’s "Energy Crunch", I handed over to my deputy and went off to learn how to communicate, the idea being to then promulgate the ‘green’ message. It actually took me 29 years to return to the subject in any meaningful way, when Michael Moores’ "Stupid White Men" pricked my conscience. Within weeks, and by an astonishing coincidence, I was invited to work on a major sustainability project with the Science Museum.
A huge influence on the museum work was another book, "Cradle to Cradle", written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and published in 2002. Grossly oversimplifying, the idea was that we can reverse our negative environmental impact by treating industrial waste and end-of-life products as raw material to be used in creating new material of an equal or higher value.
The WEEE directive is a nod in this direction. It requires the recovery of raw materials from discarded electrical and electronic products. The ROHS directive aims to minimise the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing.
Many IT vendors, especially those with operations in Europe, are taking this stuff seriously. But, do you know what? The need to protect the environment is not their primary driver. They do it because they see it as a way of improving their image, conforming to regulations and cutting their costs.