Archive for the ‘environmentalism’ Category

Lately, I’ve been learning about the ewaste problem. I’ve written an article on the subject, and, last night, I attended Free Geek Vancouver’s airing and discussion of the Basel Action Network’s (BAN) two films on the problem: Exporting Harm and The Digital Dump. Knowledge of the situation is so alarming and depressing that I’m almost afraid to turn my computer on and add to the problem. Instead, though, I’ve been considering about what I could do in my own life to improve the situation.

Most people, if they stop to think, wouldn’t be surprised that the problem of discarded high-tech hardware is growing. These days, many households have not only multiple computers, but also multiple televisions, cell phones and mp3 players.

However, what people don’t know is that most hardware is full of toxic substances, including lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. Nor do they know that North American countries routinely ship the junk to developing nations like China, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan against the wishes of those country’s governments, using loopholes to get around the Basel Convention, the international treaty that is supposed to prevent such trade. There, the waste is stripped of any valuables under dangerously unsafe conditions and the remnant is burned, releasing toxic fumes.

And if all that isn’t enough, even supposed recyclers are shipping ewaste overseas. That’s right: even when you think you’re doing the proper thing, you may be adding to the problem. Many recyclers won’t tell you what they’re doing, either, citing trade secrets as a reason for keeping you uninformed. Even those recyclers who would prefer not to ship overseas often have no choice, because local means of dealing with the waste don’t exist.

BAN advocates legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their own products. Such laws already exist in many European countries. As part of this effort, it is also working with other environmental groups to encourage manufacturers to reduce the toxins in their hardware.

Besides supporting these efforts, and trying to deal only with true recyclers, what else can one person do? I found myself considering this question last week when I bought a new laptop.
Mindful of the ewaste problem, last week I decided that I would use Greenpeace’s assessment of the leading hardware manufacturers as a guide when I went to buy a new laptop. I chose to buy a Hewlett-Packard product, since Hewlett-Packard has one of the better records in removing toxic substances from its products.
I give nothing up by making this decision, since Hewlett-Packard’s laptops have a good record for reliability. In fact, I might have bought a Hewlett-Packard machine purely on its own merits. As things were, the company’s record on the ewaste problem was one of the deciding factors between buying from Hewlett-Packard rather than Acer or Toshiba.
Still, no company’s record is especially strong, so I still felt a few twinges of uneasiness. Never mind that my last laptop was bought eight years ago, and was used until it became unreliable.
During last night’s discussion, I suddenly realized that I could do more. As soon as I finish this blog entry, I’m going to write a letter to Hewlett-Packard, congratulating them on their awareness of the problem, and adding that it was one of the reasons I bought one of the company’s products. I’m also going to urge everyone I know to shop in the same way, and let whatever company they buy from know what they are doing.
Of course, I don’t deceive myself that a couple of dozen letters will have a huge influence on manufacturing decisions. Yet one of the common arguments you hear from manufacturers is that there is no demand for greener products, so enough letters of this sort might just help them decide to change their practices.
That’s why I’m also urging anyone who reads this blog to do the same. The effort is minimal, and can’t hurt – and just might do a small piece of good.

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I spent today at the Public Knowledge Project’s conference at Simon Fraser University Harbour Centre, interviewing people and lining up contacts for future articles. Student and instructor, I’ve spent considerable time at Harbour Centre, so going there always stirs memories. But, like most people at the conference, what preoccupied me was the fact that the air-conditioning failed in a humid heat wave in which temperatures were as high as 37 degrees Celsius. Whether the failure was a brownout downtown or confined to the campus, I’m not sure, but it started me wondering: Why doesn’t North American industrial culture ever build for the climate?

The question is worth asking. Place a few hundred people in an overheated, airless lecture theater is a recipe for extreme discomfort at the least. If anyone is old or has a heart condition, it could mean illness or death.

Fortunately, nothing serious happened so far as I could see, but, even so, the inconvenience was there. Many people were skipping discussions they had traveled to hear, so they could stand in the lobby and chugalug the free juice and pop provided by the conference sponsors. Campus security had to rush around more because the open doors brought many of the homeless in (something that doesn’t bother me, but bothers security staff immensely). Students were skipping classes, and campus staff were sweating and short-tempered – all because the summer heat wasn’t taken into account when the building was renovated to house the university. Apparently, the assumption was that the air-conditioning would always be available, and that the ability to open windows would be a security risk.

To be fair, the renovators had the disadvantage of having to work with an older building that was probably designed for the climate of southern England, rather than the Pacific coast of Canada. But Harbour Centre is far from the only example of local construction unsuitable to the climate.

Few roads in the greater Vancouver area are higher in the middle so that the rain for which the climate is notorious will run along the sides instead of creating giant puddles for cars to hydroplane through. And thanks to all the imitators of native son Arthur Erikson, local architects continue to use concrete in buildings that the rain can eventually erode – that is, when they’re not imitating styles suitable for the desert conditions of California and using flat roofs. For years now, leaky condos have plagued the area, and four-story buildings shrouded in plastic and scaffolding are still sprouting up everywhere like multi-colored mushroom.

It shouldn’t be difficult, while architectural students are learning about the tensile strengths of different materials, to teach them some basics about designing for specific climates. Much of the matter is common sense. Yet, so far as I can tell, this basic consideration is far from their minds when they sit down to design. Nor does anyone hold them to account. Instead, the public suffers and shells out for repairs.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to drink another three or four liters of Gatorade to restore some moisture to my dessicated tissues.

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Yesterday, I was at the Commercial Drive Skytrain station when I heard familiar querulous noises in the trees on the other side of the tracks. I scanned the trees, but the bright sunlight made the shadows so deep that I was on the train before I could confirm that a raven was present. It was shifting uneasily, trying to keep its grip on a branch that was too slender to carry its weight. Just before the train pulled out, I saw another one on top of the highest of the scrub alders that line the slope of the railway cut that the Skytrain runs through. As always when I see a raven, I felt unexpectedly cheered. If I were superstitious, I would have said the sighting was a good omen.

Considering ravens’ reputations as eaters of carrion – Old English poetry is full of references to ravens and wolves feeding on fallen warriors after a battle – this reaction may seem strange. I can only explain it by two facts: First, that having parrots in my living room for over two decades has left me absolutely bird-mad, and, second, that, when you look at raven, an aware individual looks back at you. That makes ravens spooky, and a small piece of wonder.

Some people say that they have trouble telling the difference between ravens and crows. To them, I can only reply that they can’t ever have seen a raven. In both size and sentience, ravens far surpass crows – and crows are undoubtedly one of the brighter species around, too. The first time that I saw ravens, I had no doubt whatsoever that I was seeing something more than a big crow.

That first encounter was on the western side of the Rockies, a few days after I had graduated, when I was on a camping trip that was really an excuse to visit a young woman who had briefly attended my high school and had written to me ever since. We were driving around a bend in the highway when I saw two ravens sitting on a concrete divider on the side of the road. As the car approached, they cocked their heads at us, then glided away above the creek bed below them, moving with a deliberation that immediately fascinated me.

A decade later, a pair of ravens were nesting in the green belt around Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. I first saw them one fog-bound morning in fall as Trish and I were driving to work: two low-flying shadows, their characteristic kronk amplified by the fog into something eerie. After we parked, I saw one perched on top of a blue Honda Civic, its wings draped over the windows as if it were resting after an effort to carry the vehicle away. A while later, I saw it on the jade boulder in the reflecting pond, reminding me of Emily Carr’s “Big Raven.”

For the next few years while I was working as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I would see the pair when I walked around campus or went for a run on the trails. Often, in spring, they would often be fleeing a mob of crows who were defending their nests and their young.

Once, I saw them behind Horizon’s Restaurant in Centennial Park on the west side of Burnaby Mountain. One was perched on a railing, standing sentry while the other was dumpster-diving. In the case of this raven, “diving” was more than alliteration: it really did go beak-first into the bin, vocalizing furiously as it sorted through the garbage. Then it would poke its head up as if breaking the surface of a pond.

When it found a food-smeared wrapper and flapped down to the grass to investigate it, I inched to within a few meters. It watched intently, its eyes darting to the other raven occasionally – not scared, but clearly evaluating me and the degree of threat I represented.

(It’s an unnerving feeling, being evaluated by another species. Like most people, if they’re pressed, I still tend to think of animals as less self-aware than I am. I’ve learned to make exceptions in the case of parrots, yet, even for me, the first realization that a species has a degree of sentience that overlaps with humanity’s is a humbling and profound experience. Science fiction is always talking about first contact with an alien species, but, for some of us, that moment has already happened.)

In the end, I backed away, acknowledging the raven’s right to examine its spoils in peace. But we stood watching from a more respectful distance for at least half an hour. Then a busboy came out from the restaurant with some garbage, and the ravens flew away.

Over the years, I’ve seen ravens several more times around the greater Vancouver area. Once, I saw them scavenging at an outdoor patio at the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia – a scene that tourists, I thought, would pay good money to see. I tried getting pictures myself, but the ravens were camera-shy, and would start away whenever I raised the camera to my eye.

Another time, I saw two ravens at the same Skytrain station – possibly the same ones. The railway cut is both a dumping ground for the garbage of the east end and home to hundreds of squirrels and small creatures, so it would be an easy source of food for the ravens, once they learned to keep clear of the trains and rapid transit line (It’s not true that ravens can’t hunt; they simply won’t bother if an easier food supply is available). At the time, I was going through the worst period of my life, and the unexpected site boosted my spirits considerably.

I’m not a birder, but I always notice birds far more than other people. When a red-tailed hawk has staked out a section of highway and is waiting for roadkill, I notice. I can tell you about the social structure of young crows when they first leave the nest, and where all crows roost at night in the area. And once, I spent far too much of early summer watching seagulls raise chicks on a flat, weed-covered roof in Yaletown when I was supposed to be writing a manual.

Yet, of all the local species, ravens fascinate me the most. That’s why I dislike the collective noun for a group of ravens: an unkindness. For me, sighting a raven is far from an unkindness. It’s a surprise gift, and the encounter always leaves me unexpectedly buoyed.

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I had my first chance in a long time to brush up my public speaking skills yesterday when I stopped by the Global Habitat Festival – Vancouver’s Live Earth event – to help with the Free Geek Vancouver booth. Considering how rusty my skills were, I question how much help I was, but I enjoyed the experience enough to stay a couple of hours later than I had planned.

In past episodes of my life, I’ve staffed all sorts of booths, including displays at open houses in university, a brass-rubbing demonstrations at a Renaissance fair, and exhibits at trade fairs for several different companies. In all of them, my teaching experience has helped me through. My between-degrees stint in a mall book store was even more to the point, since staffing a booth involves briefer, more one-on-one contact than even the most interactive teaching.

However, for the last few years, I’ve worked mostly from home, aside from teaching a few technology courses, so yesterday I had a hard time getting started. Observing just the right time to approach someone takes practice: you don’t want to pounce on them, but you don’t want to hold back so long that they walk away with unanswered questions, either. And at first I was diffident, not because talking in public or to strangers bothers me in the least, but because I could feel how awkward my skills were.

Fortunately, I and the other volunteers had the example of Ifny LaChance, one of the Free Geek coordinators to learn from – and, eventually, to shame us into action. I can only describe Ifny’s approach as putting her whole personality and attention behind talking to passersby, chatting and exchanging introductions in a friendly and unobtrusive way. Observing closely, I thought I could see the effort she expended, but her approach definitely drew people into conversation (despite the booth being directly behind the stage and the frequency with which bands made conversation impossible).

I was feeling more at ease, especially when I realized that I wasn’t the only first-time volunteer, but definitely still warming up when I and a couple of others were left alone at the booth. Necessity forced me to push myself more than I felt entirely ready for, but the choice was measuring up or fleeing in panic. For my own self-respect — to say nothing of my wish to live up to expectations, I stayed. I soon started feeling comfortable enough to enjoy what I was doing, and to find my own style of drawing people out, including a store of stock phrases for the most common questions I heard.

Probably because so much of my recent relevant experience centers on interviewing people, I found that the style that worked best for me was following the lead of those with whom I talked, drawing out what interested them until I saw what information or direction they wanted the most.

Unlike Ifny, I tended not to ask for names, although perhaps I might have encouraged more volunteers to sign up that way. But I felt obliged to be especially restrained in talking to female passersby, just to make sure that my approach wasn’t misinterpreted as a more personal interest. In the past, I don’t think I was so aware of that necessity. And I was pleased that I was using more eye contact and taking more care to draw in everyone in a group than I used to.

I was helped by the fact that the booth was design so that those staffing it had to stand in front it, rather than hiding behind the bulwark of a table, as so many of those at the festival did. Lacking such a defense, I had no choice but to engage people.

However, I’m still more comfortable on the free software and education questions than the recycling ones. Fortunately, the indignation that many people felt when they saw the photos of the unsafe conditions in which computers are broken down in China and Nigeria were more than enough for a conversation in most cases.

Still, despite my lack of practice, I think I managed to conjure up a ghost or two of my former ability. When I’ve dealt with the public in the past, there’s always been a sense of rightness flowing from me when I was connecting, and yesterday I was actually feeling an echo of that feeling by the end of the day. Even with my legs feeling the strain of standing on concrete for six hours, I was tempted to stay longer.

I didn’t show up for personal gratification, except that which comes from helping a good cause in a small way. Still, I was gratified to see that my old skills had merely been dormant, and not lost altogether. They’re a little lower key now than they were, but I think that, with practice, they should be just as effective as my former repetoire.

Next time, they may return more easily – provided, of course, that I don’t wait too long for the next time.

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In part of my never ending efforts to get out of the house for more than my daily exercise, last night I went to a meeting of the local Linux Users Group at the new Free Geek warehouse just off Main Street in Vancouver. I went away more convinced than ever that Free Geek is one of the more innovating activist groups about town.

Free Geek Vancouver, whose origins I’ve written about professionally, is the first Canadian implementation of an idea that originated in Portland, Oregon. Basically, the idea is to combine the recycling of computer equipment with education and the promotion of free software. For a nominal fee, the group will recycle computer equipment, taking care that it is disposed of ethically – and not just dumped in landfill or shipped to a developing nation where recovery of the raw materials becomes a health hazard to those who undertake it. Higher end computers are refurbished and loaded with free software like Ubuntu and OpenOffice.org and sold or donated to charities and other needy groups. Volunteers can also work with Free Geek for a set number of hours in order to get a computer of their own.

Officially, the group is run by consensus. However, if David Repa and Ifny LaChance, the two Free Geekers to whom I’ve talked the most are typical – and they seem to be — I’d say that it’s equally fuelled by apparently limitless supplies of enthusiasm and energy – to say nothing of a talent for principled promotion. Recently, for example, the group turned down coverage in a national newspaper because the journalist wanted to do a stereotypical article focusing on poor people who had benefited from the group’s services. Believing the story would violate the confidentiality in which they pride themselves, the group refused. Of course, with the coverage they are getting in the local media, they hardly needed the exposure, but many groups wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to compromise for the sake of publicity.

And the group is resourceful, too. What other group would turn having one of their members stopped with a bicycle cart full of computers on the way back from a client into an opportunity to enlist the local police department as supporters?

At the same time, the group is far from humorless. So far as I’m concerned, a group that claims to prefer “catalyst” and “primordial ooze” instead “founder” is refreshing in its refusal to take itself too seriously. The same humor is found in the movement’s slogan, “Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium.”

Besides the resourcefulness and outlook of the people involved, what I like best is the way that Free Geek combines two activist groups that traditionally have little contact. Too often, social activists never think to apply their convictions to the software they use, and geeks never think of applying their equally high ethical standards outside of computing.

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the Free Software Foundation’s efforts to bridge these gaps, and I’ve even made some attempts to help in this effort myself, notably in an article called “Free software!” for the New Internationalist. Now, in Free Geek, I’ve found another group interested in doing the same.

I’ll need to think about it, but I’m seriously thinking that one of the ways I’ll be getting out of the house more is as a volunteer. At the very least, I’ll be sending a cheque once I recover from the shock of paying taxes on my sole proprietorship.

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