How capitalists are saving the planet

It’s opera. My wife is listening to opera while jogging. The heroine will, one assumes, come to a tragic end. But the batteries won’t, because she’s using a digital player. On which, I trust, I can record the sound of environmentalists applauding the technological advances capitalism brings. Strange. I hear nothing. But I’ll keep trying. For like most journalists, I tape things a lot. That once meant a “tape recorder,” huge wobbling inconvenient piles of cassettes or microcassettes and a pile of batteries to warm the heart of any pink mechanical bunny. Not any more. Now my digital devices record MP3 files I store on my computer, and their batteries recharge right through the USB cable while I download.

Searching an MP3 file for a clip is much faster than rewinding a squealing microcassette. MP3s don’t snap at bad moments and are way, way easier to make backup copies of, with no loss of sound quality. It’s also way easier to search one CD or DVD than three dusty (my wife’s word) desk drawers full of cryptically labelled tapes. And because they don’t have to drive a tape around a spool, digital recorders use a lot less power so you don’t have to lug 10 extra batteries up, say, the Golan Heights so your tape deck won’t die at a bad moment.

They’re also cheaper for much the same reasons. You don’t have to keep buying batteries, tapes and furniture to store the tapes in. Did I say cheap? I just bought an external sound card for about 70 bucks that lets me digitize all my old tapes and chuck them. And an inexpensive scanner lets me preserve documents I accumulated in half a lifetime of pack-rattery before, in a similar process, going digital with my letters and file storage. The stuff I keep may still be rubbish, but it won’t fill a dump. PDFs, like MP3s, should bring a smile to the face of any environmentalist.

Permit me, then, to wipe it off deftly by pointing out that self-interest is what’s driving this greener technology. Most of us value the environmental benefits to some extent. But for all of us, digital technology means going green without suffering. Which will displease some in the organic-hair-shirt crowd.

It will upset others that companies are succeeding where governments often fail. The European Union’s environment commissioner just admitted that biofuels promote rainforest destruction. Legally mandated efficient light bulbs may give some people skin problems. The failure of governments to build nuclear plants has contributed massively to greenhouse-gas production. But over there in the private sector, it’s just progress progress progress. Wretched, isn’t it?

The progress is enormous. That digital dictaphones use less power not only means fewer dead batteries full of weird metals chucked into landfills, it also means fewer new batteries manufactured then schlepped about using fossil fuels. The DVDs we store MP3s on require far fewer resources to manufacture, and generate far less trash when they’re history, than LPs, spools or the aforementioned three drawers’ worth of microcassettes. (And just wait until I discover external hard drives.) Fourth, a subtle refinement, early digital dictaphones required proprietary software CDs and connection cables that also had to be manufactured, transported and, one day, discarded; newer ones send standard files through standard USB ports or wireless. Fifth, we e-mail, FTP and stream this stuff instead of couriering or mailing physical copies.

If you’ve ever been in a darkroom while “film” was being “developed” (Google it, kids) the stench of sodium thiosulphate tells you instantly that digital photos convey at least equal benefits. (And how, incidentally, do you dispose of old photos you no longer want? Landfill? Burn? Yuck. Whereas now it’s right-click, delete, empty recycle bin, goodbye ex-mother-in-law.)

Some greens advocate going back to a time when the human “footprint” on the environment was smaller. But we actually have to go forward, technologically speaking. The “footprint” of a portable cassette device was far larger than that of a digital player, while a medieval monk would have had to lug some nit with a lute on his back to enjoy Greensleeves while he jogged, to say nothing of plucking geese, skinning sheep and mixing who knows what gunk to write down the sheet music.

True, he would have heard something less appalling than opera or rap; technology can’t make moral or aesthetic choices. My wife is, as I noted, listening to opera and I can’t fix that.

Oh wait. I can. Press one little button and it’s all erased, leaving lots of room to record the stormy applause for capitalism I expect to erupt among environmentalists. My finger’s hovering over the record button. Yup, any moment now …

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]