Opinion and Return on Technology and Environment

ALTOM: Going green here may not be going green there

April 10, 2010

Most of us have treasured little business tenets that somebody taught us once. One of mine is skepticism. When the majority moves in one direction, I get particularly doubtful about the wisdom of going there. As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” The pickings must be slim by now.

The principle also applies to beliefs. If “everybody knows” something, it must be so compromised, watered down and distorted that it isn’t really true anymore. To fit into so many minds, it must be too mushy for my taste and I need some stronger evidence. One bumper-sticker piece of wisdom I’ve imbibed is, “In God we trust—all others provide supporting data.” This contrarianism doesn’t endear me to my close friends and family, but it makes for fascinating conversations with my peers.

Take the “green office,” for example. The idea behind the green office is to have a slightly smaller damaging effect on the environment in general. Buying biodegradable cleaning solutions, for example, is supposed to contribute less to chemical pollution. That sounds great, but I never forget that you can’t make ripples in only one part of a pond. How much more does it cost to make biodegradable solutions? Does it end up using more electricity or other resources? If you use more electricity, it has to be produced using more fuel and produce more waste.

The situation is even more complex with the greening of technologies. For example, one of the bits of advice we often see is to print less paper. It saves trees, uses less toner or ink, causes less paper in landfills, and generally benefits the whole world. Make documents available online, as PDFs or in Google Docs, so people can just read them online.

But how much does it cost to archive, search, fetch and read documents online? What resources are we using up to do it? Shareable documents have to be kept on a server somewhere, and usually in big rooms with rows of racks containing dozens or hundreds of big, hot computer boxes. They require a lot of air-conditioning, which uses a ton of electricity.

Local computers have to work fractionally harder fetching, displaying, scrolling and modifying documents. On balance, are we really saving Mother Nature any aggravation? It’s tough to tell, because nobody seems to have firm answers. Most estimates consider only the paper part of the issue, not the entire tapestry of resource usage.

How about working from home? That would seem like a safe way to get greener. Fewer employees milling around in an office means you can downsize the space, reducing heating, cooling, lighting and even insurance costs. Employees don’t drive cars as much, so the air should be cleaner.

But for the most part, we’re only moving most of the resource usage from one space to another. Instead of maintaining an office environment in one place, we split it up into many spaces. The lights at home are now lit during the day, and most of it is still incandescent, which is much more wasteful than the typical office fluorescents. Instead of being able to set back the temperature during the day, the home-worker now has to maintain a comfortable temperature in every one of his 24 hours. He’s using more electricity to power his gadgetry.

Heating, cooling and lighting individual homes is much less efficient than maintaining one central space. On balance, is this saving us anything? I don’t know. I see conclusions both ways, and few from people I know I can trust.

If going green helps the immediate bottom line, at least that’s measurable. If we make fewer copies, we use up less money, too. But a lot of green initiatives aren’t intended to benefit us directly, or they just shift costs from our offices to somebody else’s. While we save money on paper and toner, somebody else may well be using more electricity to allow us to store more online documents, which requires the power plant to make more electricity, and hence more pollutants. On balance, it may not be doing much good because, as economists say, we get the benefits and never see the true costs.

I’m not against energy efficiency. I want my descendents to the 20th generation experiencing the same magnificent lifestyle I enjoy, and if some sacrifice on my part could help bring that about, I’m pleased to do it. But I don’t want to rush to green just because it’s fashionable. I’ve gotten too stodgy and cynical for that. I no longer let my dreams cloud my judgment. If you know of studies along the lines I mentioned here, by all means let me know and I’ll look at them. It’s an important issue and, while I’m a contrarian, I’m not unreachable by a good argument.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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