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Linux and the Environment

Date/Time Permalink: 03/18/06 04:13:09 pm
Category: General

A friend of mine a while back threw away a computer. "It doesn't work.", he explained, as I flagged him down on his way to the dump. He took it back in and showed me how he could plug it in and hit the switch: no lights, no sound, nothing. "Well", I ticked, mentally running through the possibilities, "I can always reclaim some parts." And I got it. The only thing wrong with it was that the power box was blown. $65 at the computer store later, I had it running again. I asked my friend if he wanted it back, but he turned it down anyway. He'd already bought a new one, and this old one wouldn't have run the new Windows, anyway. It served me intact running Red Hat for another three years, and lives on still as parts scattered all across my home network.

Then there was the neighbor at my new residence who simply tossed her whole computer system out on the curb. I knocked to inquire about it, and was informed that it was so clogged with spyware as to be unusable anymore, even though it was only two years old. (Do I have to tell you what OS it was running?) Her boyfriend would buy her a new one. I was given blessings to take it under my
wing (of course - saved her the ten dollar city pickup fee!). It was indeed hosed beyond belief, but it wasn't anything "dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/hda" from Tom's rootboot floppy couldn't cure - and then it became my Slackware 10.1 machine, serving me to this day with only the occasional part replaced.

There are thousands of stories like these, but not all have as happy an ending. For instance, there's the worker at a used-goods store (the kind run by a charity) who told me that their policy when they receive computers is to plug it in and attempt to boot it. If it fails for *any* reason at all to come up, it goes into the compactor - monitor and all! The most recent victim of this process had been running Windows XP "but when it got to the desktop, it froze" - so out it went. I'm sure this had to be an isolated incident. I briefly volunteered my time to charity stores fixing up new systems out of old donated ones long ago - there is no better way to learn hardware really, *really* well! We'd get ten or twenty at a time tossed out from some corporate office, and for every three I got I could make two more. But installing Linux on them wasn't an option, of course, because they were planning to *sell* these machines in the store...(and I was much younger then and less persuasive.)

The environmental impact of discarded electronics in our society is threatening every year to choke us more and more with cadmium, lead, and mercury. Wasted computers are overflowing our landfills. Some recycling efforts are made, but let's face it - a motherboard is nothing like an aluminum can. The statistics I'm getting off the net peg the average lifespan of a brand-new PC to be just 2-3 years. Yet it's nothing for a Linux distribution to thrive on hardware 20 years old! Consumers have largely turned to using and discarding computers like tissues, despite their cost of hundreds of dollars to replace. The Environmental Protection Agency has it that up to 315 million computers could find their way to landfills by 2006 - at the current population of 295 million for the United States according to the CIA's factsheet, that could easily work out to one new computer for every United States citizen! All you have to do is run Linux...

This is the mess that is created by constant pressure for perpetual upgrades by proprietary systems. And it's going to go on, of course - I think the United States is the country with the lowest regard of all for environmental issues. Just posting this, I'm sure I got at least a few jeers of "tree-hugging-hippie!" Yes, and I'm not usually the one to get all hand-wringy over baby seals and rain forests - I'm the first to admit that not all the world's problems can be solved by a recycle bin. But the solution is just so *easy*, so *obvious* here, that I believe it's a shame that we'll continue as we have.

It doesn't just apply to computers, BTW. The other day, our DVD player would freeze when playing the opening scenes of a movie. I took a screw-driver to it and did the only thing I could think of to do with a DVD player, which is wipe the glass read-head with a lint-free cloth. Put it back together and it ran perfectly! Now, in how many other households would it have been thrown away? Then there's the thing with headphones - *why* are headphones made so the little wires connecting to the jack short out in six months of normal use? I went through three pairs in a year before, growling with disgust at the $20 I was throwing away each time on them, I took the wire ends out of the rubber casing and simply wrapped and taped them onto the post of the jack. They worked perfectly, and I've never bought headphones since.

So I'm going to be a complete hippie, here, and conclude my preachy sermon: In between the new Christmas gadgets we're all playing with and the New Year's resolutions we'll be making not long from now, may I suggest that we learn to fix something - anything at all - and reuse it, to spare it's being thrown away?

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