June 2008

It’s striking how value-defining pearls of wisdom come to you from the darndest places. I have the TV comedy show “My Name is Earl” to thank for the impetus to think about my environmental and financial stewardship. The show is about Earl - a ne’er-do-well, petty crook who wins a $100,000 lottery and gets immediately hit by a passing car and ends up in the hospital with no winning ticket. While incapacitated, he finds karma through the Carson Daly show. With a new sense of purpose, he creates a list of bad things he’s done and proceeds to fix each one.

On one such quest (”Robbed a Stoner Blind”), he finds himself forced to live in a dung hut with hippies and learns about global warming. Appalled, he goes back and zealously works to “fix global warming”. While picking up trash off the street, he notices that his actions are cancelled by his ex-wife. Ever-observant, he quickly finds out it’s not just his ex cancelling out his efforts, it’s the whole town! Earl resorts to flattening tires and breaking electrical boxes to stop people from destroying the planet. Alas, a panic-stricken Earl, then hears on the news that China is scheduled to be the biggest polluter in the world. He was being cancelled by the whole world!

It is this same incomprehensible vastness of a problem that overwhelms us to inaction, lulls us to inattention. After all, where do we even begin to fix a colossal problem like global environmental degradation? How do we stop China and India from exponentally expanding their pollution footprint? For that matter, how do we convince the developed world to take aggressive steps to curb their own emissions? How do we solve absolute poverty in the world? How could we possibly show first-world consumers that their $17 billion / year spend on pet food contrasts with the almost-equivalent $19 billion / year to eliminate hunger and malnutrition across the world (WorldWatch)? We can’t though we whip ourselves into a frenzy.

The answer, as Earl finally realized, was to do what little you could. He decided to be Earth-friendly for five minutes a day. Perhaps that’s the best way to affect change - to have the peace and discipline to control what is in your power to change and to not get all knotted up by the rest. That’s what Gandhi concentrated on. That’s what Mother Theresa concentrated on.

So what am I going to do personally? Take my ten minutes a day:

  1. One minute to put plastics, cans, and glass in separate recyclable bins. (Added benefit: wife loves you)
  2. One minute to turn off lights in rooms I don’t use
  3. Three minutes to stifle the agony of not going to Starbucks for a $4 latte, but instead make coffee at home (five minutes) which I can carry in a washable mug. (Added benefit: take the $4/day I save and put it towards a monthly contribution to clean water or food supply for people in a third-world country. My $4/day would pull two people from hunger and malnutrition in a world where 1.1 billion people in the world live on less than $1/day and where mothers bake clay chips for their children to eat so it keeps their hunger at bay.)

So there it is. I am a little ashamed to say I have a lot more Earl in me than Gandhi. But at least I won’t be a total sloth!

When it comes to environmental stewardship, I have always felt a vague satisfied smugness when I compare the software industry that I work in to a host of other industries. After all, unlike a car dealership selling gas guzzlers, my industry comes up with tools to keep people from travelling like video conferencing and cheap phone calls. And I have to admit - my company’s footprint is pretty darn small. We e-fax, we web conference, we generate electronic contracts, we email invoices. And no one could possibly begrudge me a little self-congratulation for whipping up notepad or excel on my computer when brainstorming instead of a pen and paper.

But some of that smugness evaporated when I read a recent Gartner study stating that the information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions - on par with the aviation industry! Within the ICT industry, 40% of emissions are from PCs and monitors and a solid 23% from data centers. So what does this mean for web software developers like us at Lance Technologies? I jotted down (in notepad, of course) the obvious countermeasures:

1. Strategic server provisioning. We have paid little attention to server sprawl. Only a couple months ago, we fired up five servers - one per application! The solution: more strategic thinking - for instance, is virtual private server technology better suited to host multiple applications on one server?

2. Evalutate new technology such as virtualization. We need to be better at evaluating processing loads and using virtualization technology to consolidate servers.

3. Do we really have to keep workstations on all night? No, so we won’t.

After the obvious items, I began wondering about the value of frugal application design. I recall developing web apps a few years ago when 56k modems were still a big part of the landscape. I remember serious attention being paid to web optimization. Then broadband came - speed at work, speed at home, speed with an aircard in the middle of a field - and we became lax in design. It’s not uncommon to see web applications using PNGs instead of optimized JPGs or GIFs. Similarly, often only cursory evaluation of the efficiency of presentation layer code is done. (”Might CSS have been better than using excessive nested tables?”). The same analysis holds true of backend code. If you can do something in five lines, don’t be a slob (mentally and environmentally) and use fifteen! Lastly, “frugal design” also means desiging applications that are not gold-plated with excessive, rarely-used features. The more “stuff”, the more processing, the greater the CO2 footprint, and all for naught!

4. Frugal Design as a Mantra. At Lance Technologies, we have still kept up with the “frugal design” ideology - vaguely. But it needs to be articulated and made tangible.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person to have this thought. Steve Souders performed an intriguing thought experiment that suggests that if Wikipedia web optimized its home page (expires header for better caching), it could save 500-1,000 pounds of CO2 annually. As Steve so aptly put it, “Make your pages faster. It’s good for your users, good for you, and good for Mother Earth. (High Performance Web Sites Blog)”

And that brings me to Part II of this Environmental Stewardship miniseries: Technology, Poverty, Stewardship: Life Lesson from “My Name is Earl”