Small is Beautiful

On June 21 1973, Peter Lewis – the Daily Mail's Literary Editor – wrote a review of a book that was to change the direction of my life: Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered by E.F.Schumacher.

I rushed out and bought a copy and, among other things, was taught the wisdom of a focus on need rather than greed. It led me to the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), now called Practical Action, and many other environmental and sustainability initiatives.

I mention it today because, clearing out the garage the other evening, it fluttered to the floor. I thought you might like to read it. Click on the image to see it in a new window (zoom to suit).

SIB

Apologies for its general dishevelment. (And, to those who are sensitive to such things, for the fact it was in the Daily Mail.)

Eggs and baskets

Being away from here has given me a chance to focus intensely on launching a new magazine without too many distractions. We now have five issues under our belt and I have reaquainted myself with the rhythms of conventional publishing. I know where the peaks and troughs of effort lie and I can get back to a more normal and less distorted life in the troughs.

Creating, editing and writing for Blue & Green Tomorrow has been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. And it couldn't have happened without Simon, Lori and Dominic (publisher, sub-editor and designer respectively) and, of course, our marvellous contributors. Other people take care of 'webifying' the magazine at blueandgreentomorrow.com. You can register (free) which gives you an account tab and access to digital copies of the magazine. Otherwise much of the content is publicly available under the various themed tabs.

Even through the mayhem of the launch, I've continued to do the occasional course on how to handle the media, often with my long-time partner in crime, Martin Banks. We used to call ourselves 'Press Here' but, when we both deviated out into analysis work, we sold the domain and renamed ourselves greybeards. One look at our photos will tell you why. I also run the odd writing skills workshop for business people.

And, now, here I am blogging again. Given the nature of the magazine, I suspect that I'll be blogging more about sustainability (could a word possibly sound more boring?) than about IT. But it's hard to keep me away from software. Talking of which, I now have an HTC Desire smartphone running Android, and jolly pleased I am too. That could be another running theme.

We'll see. But, as you can see from the title, I think that a deliberate spread of activities, providing I can do all of them well, will makes for a more balanced and fulfilling life than having all my eggs in one basket.

So, the last post turned out not to be The Last Post after all, just a pause while I gathered my wits.

See you again soon.

David

 

Environmentalism: a by-product of making money

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.

The environment, Sun and the sun

I can’t be the first to have noticed that Sun, rather conveniently, shares its name with our star, the source of all of our energy. Whether it’s fossil fuels, wind, waves, water or (obviously) solar, they are all derived from the sun’s warmth.

Interestingly, Sun is one of the pioneers in taking an environmentally responsible approach to its business and to those of its customers. I know that Hewlett Packard was the highest placed IT company for environmental responsibility, so I’ll be coming back to it in another post.

Richard Barrington, Sun’s head of Sustainability and Public Policy, spoke to us recently about Sun’s environmental credentials. They’re impressive, providing you ignore the fact that kit has to be junked in order to replace it with Sun equipment. How about a desktop thin client that consumes 4 watts and lasts 21 years? Or datacentres that don’t require you to wear a fur coat? Or virtualisation slashing energy needs? These are all decent stories and withstand examination. Sun pioneered much of this stuff, even if others are beginning to catch up. The record is there to be seen.

More important are some of the big, thought-shaping issues, raised or triggered by Barrington’s presentation. One of the most important for all is that humans are pouring out toxins, waste and carbon and consuming the planet’s resources unnecessarily. For the good of future generations, we should change our behaviour.

Don’t even begin to debate what is causing global warming, or climate change as we’re now supposed to call it. It’s happening. It doesn’t matter whether you believe Al Gore or Martin Durkin, common sense tells us to make change, for the good of our pockets as well as our grandchildren. The planet, incidentally, couldn’t care less. It will survive without us.

Sun’s conference agenda was all about growth, a theme which sits uncomfortably with minimising our use of resources. But Sun is finding its growth in environmentally concerned organisations such as Betfair and Strato. They both chose Sun datacentre equipment because it balanced cost, service and energy use better than its competitors. Sun’s dream is to spot the next Google, so it can supply all the kit.

Interestingly, some electricity companies are offering rebates to customers who buy Sun’s Niagara servers. Suddenly, you realise that they’d only do this if they were concerned about their potential capacity. Energy companies actually face the real prospect of running out of steam. (No pun intended.)

Reflect on that a bit more and you’ll realise that clean sources of power are even more finite than conventional sources. Strato made a smart move by securing hydro-electricity supplies, giving them the right to claim its use of ‘carbon-free’ electricity. Not strictly true if you think about transmission and plant building etcetera, but you can see its point.

Getting away from energy, what about toxicity and waste? Buying companies need to look at the entire life cycle of their suppliers’ products or services. According to Barrington, "it takes two tons of raw material to make a PC." One ton of that is water. Whether it is reused, I have no idea, so one must exercise a degree of caution with the figure. But, two tons for a product that weighs a few pounds and is more or less useless after three or four years seems insane. Unless, of course, the components can be recycled into something of equal or higher value (see McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle book for more on this theme). Sun has moved to all metal construction for maximum recyclability, not to mention the avoidance of plastics which are made from expensive and harder to recycle hydrocarbons.

Have you considered tape storage from the perspective of energy use? It uses none, except when looking for stuff. Have you considered the changes in lifestyle that certain computing activities bring about? For example, remote working and videoconferencing save travel while online transactions save paper and postal deliveries.

It’s actually time to stop simply thinking about virtualisation and datacentre optimisation as the big environmental improvement opportunity. Before long this will be as much a novelty as the 3-1/2" floppy disk was in the mid-eighties. CIOs and their fellow board members will need to consider how IT helps companies to meet their wider environmental obligations.