No, it is not marketing’s fault – beyond the paper recycling bin

Posted on November 3, 2007


What am I doing now that detracts from a more sustainable future?

On Thursday I presented “Green IT” to Otago University’s IT Seminar, organised by Neil James. Not knowing who to expect I started with “curriculum; community and compost” and then tried to make the talk generic enough to engage people from any of those sectors. I showed them the graphics from the UK climate change report (previous post) and we talked about how most people accept the need for change but don’t know what they can do to make a difference.

It turned out that the 50 or so people there were from across the campus, from many disciplines and in both academic and service roles. They really engaged with the story of the skip (previous posts). (note to self: we really need to get on with some statements about the role of computing in a sustainable future, ditto for expected behaviours).

I asked people to write down their answer to a ‘simple question’: What am I doing now that contributes to a more sustainable future? and then we spent some time writing these up on the board. The answers were mostly the predictable “recycling paper, recycling toner cartridges” a few contributed “giving away old computers” (to which others asked only just in jest: “why not selling?”), one suggested some interesting sounding research. I then asked them another simple question: “What am I doing now that detracts from a more sustainable future?” this didn’t take long, especially when someone pointed out that it was simply not doing the things we identified earlier: not recycling paper etc. No one offered anything that could remotely be called a transformative act.

We then talked about the Design Manifesto (previous post) and made the comparison between Barnbrook’s discussion of the transparent communicator and computing’s role. Everyone could see the value in having a discussion like that in design. I pointed out that the list of “sustainable acts” we had listed earlier was the equivalent of socially aware designers worrying solely about lead-based paint.

Probably the single statement that made the biggest impact was Eli Blevis’ discussion of the iPod:


deliberately unsustainable act intent on driving consumption and with the clear side effect of premature disposal

to which someone responded “it’s all marketing’s fault then!”. No it is not. It is all of ours in expecting the latest and greatest all the time. I suggested that on an institutional scale the rush to replace computer suites on short cycles was the same – perhaps, I challenged, we should hold off replacing computers and say why. Some people sniggered but others muttered about us not really needing transparent windows for word processing.

Thank you Neil, an interesting lunchtime, I look forward to seeing more Green IT activities around campus. I hope I raised awareness and that people went away with eyes looking slightly further afield than the paper recycling bin.