Engineers: Be Subversive To Be Green

Engineers: Be Subversive To Be Green

The caterers for the volunteer workforce behind the summer’s MCH hacker camp in the Netherlands served all-vegan food. This wasn’t the bean sprouts and lentils that maybe some of the more meat-eating readers might imagine when confronted with vegan food, nor was it a half-as-good array of substitutes with leathery soy hamburgers and rubbery fake cheese smelling suspiciously of feet.

Instead it was a well-crafted, interesting, and tasty menu that was something to look forward to after several hours driving a vanload of handwashing sinks. It was in one of their meals that I found food for thought when driving a week later past the huge Garzweiler open-cast lignite mine on my way through Germany to Luxembourg’s Haxogreen as part of my European hacker camp summer tour.

The meal was deep-fried soy protein strips and the mine is probably one of Western Europe’s dirtiest and most problematic CO2 sources in a country that likes to imagine itself as environmentally friendly, so where in this unlikely connection did I find a pairing?

Finding The Point Of It All With The Aid Of A Vegan Breakfast

Looking into the gigantic pit at Garzweiler, while the earth grapples with environmental difficulties all around, it’s easy to pack up and go home. After all where’s the point in saving a few tons of CO2 when the German power industry is belching the stuff away like it’s 1972? But we’re hardware hackers, and we spend out time idly thinking of solutions rather than glumly accepting the futility of trying.

Which brings me back to that meal. Deep-fried soy protein strips don’t sound very appetising, but if I told you they’d given it just the right combination of fattiness, salt, and crispiness to make the perfect bacon replacement then maybe you’d at least understand why it made an impression.

Have you ever tried vegan fake bacon? It’s underwhelming, to say the least. Pink rubber strips with a suspiciously uniform consistency and a vaguely baconish flavour, they’re an expensive way to remind you of what you’re missing. Meanwhile the MCH caterers had nailed what makes bacon so bacony, by not trying to make bacon at all and devlivering something that very explicitly wasn’t being represented as bacon. On my MCH breakfast plate I had the perfect metaphor for how to approach green projects as a hacker, even if it took me a week to understand it.

Whether it’s fair or not, it’s safe to say there’s a long-held perception among consumers that the eco-version of a product is never going to be as good as the real thing. LED light bulbs and cyclonic vacuum cleaners may be triumphs of 21st century technology, but as anyone who has used some of the cheaper organic-solvent-free paints will tell you, sometimes eco-freindly substitutes are a mediocre substitute.

The lesson that came to me as the autobahn wound its way for miles round that huge hole in the ground was this: that just as with so many commercial attempts at plant-based food we are doomed to make a poor substitute if our solutions only seek to replicate what went before. Instead as hardware hackers, when faced with an environmental challenge we should seek to subvert what went before rather than simply make a bad job of copying it.

Ask Why, Don’t Simply Go Along With It

It’s easy to say that as a call to action, but how about an example? Oddly, while the LED light was cited as a triumph of an eco-friendly product, it serves to highlight a perfect case of clinging to an older technology. While an LED is a low voltage device, the LED lights most of us use are high voltage devices designed to replicate a filament lamp invented powered by a high-voltage AC mains supply, both of which were 19th-century inventions.

As a result our LED lights have a bunch of electronics to bring the mains voltage down to LED voltage, all of which serves only to waste power and to shorten the lifetime of the device. Why do we still use 19th century power distribution within our houses to run low voltage equipment? Finding an alternative that wastes less energy is what I’d call subverting what went before, rather than simply adapting the new to be compatible.

Driving past Garzweiler made a deep impression on me, one that persists more than a month later. I come from a place where lignite wasn’t mined and which has mostly shut its coal-fired power stations, so to be brought face to face with something which should by rights have ended decades ago was a shock. My voice is not enough to see it closed, but as an engineer I can turn my mind to ways to make its energy unnecessary. I hope you can too.

Garzweiler panorama: Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0.

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