Desktop Linux: Great for the Environment, Bad for Economy?

Tuesday Aug 10th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Is using desktop Linux better for the environment and the economy than running Windows or Mac OS X?

Is using desktop Linux better for the environment than say, running Microsoft Windows or Apple's OS X?

In this piece, I’ll explore the ideas behind Linux as the operating system for the eco-friendly masses, and how desktop Linux could potentially affect the hardware/software sectors of the economy.

Then finally, I'll put the pieces together and examine whether a sudden increase in Linux usage on the desktop would spell trouble for the economy.

Recycle and reuse

Computers and related computing devices can always be recycled. But the idea that computers can also be reused in place of recycling them may be the best way to ensure each computer in question receives the most from its life here on this Earth.

The problem with this kind of reuse policy is that proprietary operating systems and their hardware partnerships tend to encourage waste by their very nature. Example? Get rid of the old so you can buy the new.

If we stick to the proprietary road on the operating system front, reuse of older hardware becomes much more difficult than merely tossing it aside to be recycled.

If instead, one decides to install Puppy Linux or DSL (Damn Small Linux) on the older computer instead of disposing of it, the computer gains extended life straight away. If the computer's hardware is still intact, why get rid of it for recycling? Instead go ahead and see if you can squeeze out another year or two from it.

Need some additional motivation to get more people on desktop Linux? How about this: Running older releases of Windows can be dangerous. Because older releases of Windows are often no longer supported with needed security patches among other fixes, you're putting the older computer and yourself at risk of malware issues.

Alternately, what about buying some new low-impact netbook or something like it? Isn't this just as good as reusing existing computer hardware?

Watts vs Waste

Power consumption. It's something that I have personally listened to people debate about for hours. The issue arises when it comes down to purchasing a new computer using less power vs. keeping the one they already own which is a power hog.

If I buy this new netbook, I'm doing the environment a favor by then recycling my old notebook/desktop in its place, right?

Wrong!

My take on this is rather straight forward. Recycling a working computer is just wasteful without a specific computing speed option not being addressed.

Yes, non-functional computers absolutely need to be dealt with responsibly and placed into the recycle bin with the right people. However, entertaining the idea that buying a new computer to "save energy" while getting rid of a working computer to be eco-friendly seems a bit short-sighted to me.

There are certainly are exceptions here. I myself have needed to upgrade to faster systems for video editing, but I kept the older systems and put them to use in other parts of my office. I’ve chosen to reuse 99% of my old computers in one sense or another. It's just better for the environment.

Desktop Linux, it's better for the environment

Software packaging, gas used to travel to the local big box store for software…I could go on. But I think you see where I’m going with this. When you utilize desktop Linux as an option instead of the usual proprietary OS, you generally find that you've saved on both wasted packaging for software as well as the expense of going out to buy it.

Digital software copies have helped with this to some extent, but the fact is, brick and mortar stores are still stuffed to the gills with packaged proprietary software for the masses.

Some individuals may say this is fine, as it's helping our economy. Software sales are connected to jobs. But what happens if there was suddenly a big enough shift in the economy that people stopped buying software both in person and online?

How is a big box store full of packaged software with a ticking expiration date of OS compatibility a good thing for anyone?

Economic consequences of going green

Just for the sake of exploring such an event, let's say we wake up one morning and half the world suddenly decides that they are never going to buy software ever again. Worse, due to the economy taking a further dive south, no one is in the market for purchasing those shiny new computers we see sitting on big box store shelves.

It's a big negative for those who have businesses and employment related to these areas of the market. Yet it also provides us with an opportunity to use our existing computers a little more wisely. And dare I say it – with a more "green" state of mind.

While software/hardware sales would fall instantly, brand new income opportunities would suddenly arise as new Linux users would be desperately looking to learn all they can about Linux on the desktop. Small businesses might also suddenly find themselves expressing greater interest in expanding the Linux market. They might focus on Linux-based POS software for existing systems and finding alternatives to traditional security systems through DIY solutions like ZoneMinder.

The economics of "who is earning what" would shift -- and likely shift in a very big way, I suspect. Yet at the same time, the opportunities for everyone willing to learn are still very much available.

The room for growth in this arena is huge: computers running live distributions without the need for hard drives, older computers finding a second life running various NAS (Network Attached Storage) solutions. Sadly, taking such an approach based on environmental concerns hasn't yet been enough to unlock most from their own proprietary world.

No, most people will do what is easy and convenient. Even if this might bite them down the road later on, people love to do things the easy way. Why is this the case? Partially, because this is often what they see in schools and with their local governments.

Through adversity comes freedom

I don't even begin to entertain the idea that I have all the answers. Clearly, selling software is not going away anytime soon, and the likelihood that computers sales are going to grind to a halt is simply the work of fiction. I’m totally fine with this as I prefer seeing users having the freedom of choice.

Despite all this, we must ask ourselves: at what point does Linux on the desktop begin making a bigger impact? While not everyone out there is willing to make the switch, there are some groups for whom not using Linux is not only environmentally wasteful, it’s also economically wasteful.

With local governments and schools squeezing every dime possible, we see education money being spent on new computers with proprietary operating systems. Counterproductive, perhaps? Older, still operating computers being tossed aside for recycling despite their ability for reuse is just wasteful and completely avoidable. I realize that some schools and local governments are making the switch, but the truth is they are few.

Let's examine some options that provide older computers with the new life they deserve, bundled with an economic model people need outside of schools and local governments. You know, so school-government groups can lead by example.

Value Village PC?

About two years ago, I lived for a period near Portland, Oregon. During my time there, I discovered a local non-profit that basically offered computer recycling along with revamping older computers that were donated to the group. The non-profit is called FreeGeek. They’re awesome.

For those willing to give their time revamping computers at the Portland location, the participants soon become eligible (after a set number of volunteer hours) for a reused computer of their own. Up until late 2009, the group had been quite successful at returning working, older computers to the community that needed them.

It was great for the environment, awesome for those who needed access to a computer and ¬¬ -- best of all -- only broken computers were recycled.

Today we see FreeGeek practically starving for donations in the hardware department simply because new recycle outlets are now available to the populous. So the end result is more recycling of working computers and less reuse through efforts of groups like FreeGeek.

This is bad on a multitude of fronts, including low income folks not getting access to technology, and unnecessary recycling of working computers. Giving people access to computers even if they’re unable to afford them new is good for all of us and to a larger degree, good for the economy.

Environmental and economic stimulus with Linux

The ability to connect over a cheap $10 per month dial-up ISP to look for a job, the ability to print out a resume, access to email for future freelancers, even starting an online business: This is how reusing Linux PCs can help people from suffering any further economic despair.

Back on the eco-friendly side of things, we see less recycling of perfectly good computers and more reuse instead. This is fantastic for the environment, and provides a solid example for schools and local governments (among other groups) who are crowing about how they need to "do the right thing" to tackle environmental issues.

After all, it's clear by now that schools here in the States are in dire need of more positive ways to spend their tech budgets and it's up to us to lead the way forward. We need to exclaim loudly "sustainable technology please, not more Windows boxes with expiration dates attached."

At the end of the day, I think the secret to striking harmony between being environmentally friendly while keeping the economy strong in the realm of technology is by not being wasteful. Thanks to efforts behind FOSS and Linux on the desktop, we no longer have to buy new computers to have access to up to date technology.

So how about if all of us make a more active effort to think about ways we can reuse our old computers, before we automatically haul them down for recycling.

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