Engineers respond to Gore's call for action -

Engineers respond to Gore’s call for action


“Engineers, fistfights, and saving the planet–all in 90 minutes! :)”

Al Gore said embedded systems designers have a moral imperative to work toward curbing global warming and will play an important role in creating solutions (probably making some good money along the way). What did engineers who saw Gore's speech at the Embedded Systems Conference think of it? Starting with our columnists and editorial board members, we're posting relevant comments about the speech and the issues it brings up. Read comments, review the speech coverage, and join in the discussion here.

Links to EE Times' coverage:

Al Gore’s message for embedded designers

Gore challenges embedded designers

Comment: Al Gore and the inconvenient amendment

Engineers' comments:

Here are comments from editorial board members who saw the speech. These board members will be familiar to you: they are columnists, feature writers, teachers; all of them are engineers and all live in the United States except Niall Murphy.

Niall Murphy: Gore gave a rousing call to arms for engineers to be part of the solution to global warming. However, I felt he dodged addressing the question of whether engineers and technologists have also been part of the problem. If Gore really wanted to confront us, if he really wanted to give the risky message, he would have told us to stop making so many devices that just get thrown away after a few years. That's what we're doing now that's so damaging. When companies continually demand cheaper and cheaper goods, manufacturers find a way to do accomplish that, and below a certain price point a lot of consumer electronics is assumed to only have a couple of years of life. How often would members of the audience get a new cell phone or MP3 player? This would have been a tricky message for Al Gore, a member of the Apple board of directors, to address.

Those same low costs are achieved by outsourcing to far east locations where the rights of workers and care of the environment are neglected. In western countries we pass laws to protect the workers and the environment. Then big business simply by-passes those laws by manufacturing in the far east. So western businesses create pollution far in excess of what they would be allowed to do if their operations were completely contained within the U.S., or other western country.

It was interesting that Al Gore repeatedly and emphatically made the point that the scientific community is unanimous in its conclusion that global warming is occurring. In Europe no one questions if global warming is really happening, so you never hear that debate among politicians because the science is widely accepted. Here in the U.S., Al Gore correctly feels that some people need convincing.

Dan Saks: Overall, I thought Gore's speech was pretty good. However, Niall does raise a valid point that Gore did not address. We do live in a “throw-away” society. When it comes to electronics, much of the problem is that manufacturing costs are often less than repair costs.

It used to be that manufacturing and repairing were comparably labor- intensive, so repairing a product was often cheaper than buying a new one. With contemporary automation, manufacturing is much cheaper, but repairing is still a labor-intensive art, so it's relatively expensive. Now it's often cheaper to throw electronics away than it is to get them repaired.

But it's the consumers, the ones who send broken products to the landfill, who are not paying the full price for dumping the stuff. Years later the EPA or some other agency will have to clean up that toxic dump at great expense. Repair might be more viable if the price we paid for products reflected the true cost of disposal.

In all fairness, there's only so much one you can cover in an hour, so it's hard to fault Gore for not addressing this.

Niall Murphy: Dan makes an excellent point about the value of repairing goods rather than replacing them. Many environmental activists have pointed out that if/when a scarcity of oil starts to hurt then the skill of being able to repair stuff will once again be valued, because it will get so expensive to manufacture new goods (compared to the cost now). The catch is that we engineers spend a lot of time trying, as part of our business model, to make stuff obsolete. New high definition DVD players will make older DVD players defunct, and the majority will go to the dump–many in a perfect state of repair, but obsoleted by the fact that the studios will stop selling in the older format. That is an ugly issue, but one that Gore would have been brave to address. He would have had to tell us 'Stop making stuff better so often, it makes people throw stuff away, and it took a lot of energy and a lot of raw material to make the stuff that got dumped'.

What we engineers really need to do is build stuff that costs twice as much and lasts twice as long. Most of the extra cost is paying for the cost of breaking it down at end of life. Lasting longer is not about having higher quality components, it is about not forcing a new model on the consumer all of the time. The cell phone industry is probably the biggest offender here: contracts encourage, and sometimes force subscribers to get a new phone every couple of years. But some of these issues can only be addressed by marketing and business decisions, and maybe laws that guide those decisions in the right direction, and most of that is out of the hands of the engineers.

Bill Gatliff: I really had no idea what to expect going into the Convention Center, but I was probably a bit biased against Al Gore's message because I was raised in a very “hard-headed Republican” household. I came away from his presentation impressed on several levels. There was something there for everybody, I even got involved in a little “smackdown” between two opposing view(er)s outside the venue as people were exiting (true story!). Engineers, fistfights, and saving the planet–all in 90 minutes! 🙂

One of the best moments for me was his comment, “you have to buy raw materials to make pollution”. Woven into that whole section was discussion on the Greatest Generation, how long-term thinking is in fundamental conflict with modern-day politics, and how everybody has a part to play in the fight against global warming no matter how small their contribution seems. Attacking global warming as a single problem is a difficult concept for me, but I can totally get engaged by the idea that It's Good For The Planet when my products use as few raw materials and power as possible, regardless of the target application. It doesn't matter if what I'm working on today is the front panel for a new appliance, or a smarter smart card, or a more robust electromechanical controller–if it can do it with less physical materials or energy, then I'm doing something helpful in the fight to reverse global warming.

Gore's electrical grid idea, which I had already heard about, is a huge concept that will require extensive cooperation between technology and politics. That's something I don't see coming any time soon. [Editor's note: the grid idea briefly described.] In the meantime, smaller-scale goals like mobile devices that go farther between charges and don't break as easily are probably the best we can accomplish–and those smaller goals also help to save the planet. Ten million MP3 players that each use 1 Watt less power is not the kind of energy and carbon dioxide savings you can ignore. So go forth and seek every small improvement you can make, because all those small improvements will add up to make a big difference.

As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that Gore's position provides yet another great motivation for Free Software. It's true that you can't add more memory to your cell phone by doing a firmware update, but you could certainly add features that people today probably buy a new cell phone to get. If people were more empowered to customize technology products to their own needs, maybe fewer of them would end up in the landfill.

Something to think about. I know I am.

Larry Mittag: The concept of solving problems by trying to limit the rate of progress has always been around, but it doesn't take much effort to point out the fallacies of that viewpoint. The simple fact that any such edict is unenforceable should be enough. If Apple skipped a design cycle on iPods, Microsoft or someone else certainly would step into that gap. In fact, I would venture to guess that the clothing industry is more wasteful of resources in that regard than the electronics industry. Even among fashion-challenged engineers I would wager that we all have closets full of clothes that are perfectly good but that we don't wear anymore.

The solution to all of those fully-functional but obsolete electronics items is the same as it is for all of those clothes: recycle them. One of the programs my wife is involved with passes along discarded cell phones to battered women's shelters. Thrift shops could certainly handle used MP3 players as well as your old pants and shirts. When the stuff does break, recycle the raw materials to make the new stuff.

This is not to say that there is an unending cycle of “newer is better”. When stuff gets to the point where no more meaningful improvements can be made, people tend to hang onto it longer. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players aren't exactly flying off the shelves right now because it isn't worth the cost and trouble for most people right now to upgrade. It's quite possible that both formats will fail because will instead wait for downloads to get sorted out. That would certainly be better for the environment than making millions of plastic discs every year.

The bottom line is that we have to innovate our way out of these problems rather than trying to do that by freezing progress.

The speech was actually much better than I expected. Gore tailored it to his audience, instead of just giving a canned speech. Obviously he wasn't real comfortable with computer technology, but he didn't pretend that he was.

Michael Barr: Should we perhaps accept that 'the market' wants more disposable products (rather than less) and accepts a certain percentage of product failures that can't be repaired? If we knew 5% of the widgets we designed would be returned on first use and discarded and that 90% of the rest would be discarded by the consumer within 24 months, we could start designing electronics that DON'T last! That is, circuitry that decays quickly in a landfill or can be recycled in some low-cost process.

My father is a mechanical engineer who designs machines to form paper and styrofoam cups. About ten years ago, Ben and Jerry's came to him with a mandate: make us an ice cream container that will decay in just a few years. The materials and engineering issues were tough, as the ice cream still had to stay put, but the end product was a cheaper to produce package than the one Ben and Jerry's had been using!

If it's true that it takes more raw materials to make more pollution, then disposable electronics should be cheaper to manufacture too.

Jack Ganssle: Al Gore was eloquent, relaxed and self-deprecating in a way few who watched his stiff performance in the 2000 election could believe. I was expecting some vocal dissent but the crowd was enthusiastic–is this because we were in California? He gave his usual global warming spiel and tried to frame parts of the message in terms of embedded computing, which was the only time he fumbled a bit.

In his book “Earth in the Balance” he identified three potential disasters: overpopulation, global warming, and ozone depletion. At the conference Gore noted that via the Montreal Protocol an international consensus on ozone resulted in the banning of CFCs. Businessmen screamed, engineers said “OK, let's invent an alternative.” Gore told us the result was that the CFC companies made gobs of money selling new ozone-safe alternatives. I wonder if that's the history of modern technology. Seat belts were going to put the automakers out of business. So were catalytic converters. Air pollution was too expensive to clean up. Remember LA in the 70s? The air was so bad it looked foggy. Today that's just a bad memory.

Gore suggested that mitigating global warming will be similar. I wished he were a bit more emphatic about it. In my opinion these sorts of gigantic problems are exciting engineering challenges that will create vast amounts of wealth. And so many of them are interlinked: using oil creates CO2 . But if we can invent cleaner alternatives (solar, nuke, wind, and The Next Great Thing, whatever that may be) the CO2 goes away and we won't have to rely on shaky supplies provided by tinpot dictators. That's important for our national security, for cleaning the planet, and, in the best traditions of capitalism, will make money at the same time.

Gore is right about embedded computing and the environment. Smart computing will be an essential part of any effort to effect change. A fleck of silicon, running clever algorithms (“Al Gore ithms”?), will save shiploads of oil.

Change is hard, but stasis is death. I came away from his speech pumped and excited about the possibilities.

Dan Saks: Gore knew he was a non-techie talking to techies, and he respected that. He was careful not to overstep his knowledge. When he did venture into technical topics, and did so competently. I can't think of any other (U.S.) politician (or recovering politician, as he describes himself) who's as technically savvy as he is.

Bill Gatliff: That means you're saying, one, you're surprised how technically savvy he is and, two, public policy needs to become more tech savvy.

Reader Response

How to make people buy more expensive but more environmentally friendly devices at present? Only if cheap devices are charged to become more expensive than the others!

How to make people select local-made products rather than world-wide known (and, say, “made in China”) ones? Strong transport taxes could be a solution, but “who hangs the bell in the collar of the cat?”

Try to convince everybody that goods are more expensive than they can afford (car, PC, TV, fridge). And tell businessmen they are not going to sell as many units as they are selling now because people will not be able to pay them… Who dares? Do not look at engineers!!!

-Jose G. Fernandez
Santes Creus, Spain

If the carbon which eventually finds its way into the atmosphere were sufficiently taxed the market would solve global warming. There would be no need to legislate responsible behavior, consumers could simply search for the least expensive solution. Go ahead and buy that SUV, disposable cell phone, or coal-fired power plant with a clear conscience–as long you can afford the associated carbon taxes.

The challenge is to implement an international solution. Developing countries will rightly wonder why they can't pollute like developed countries have in the past.

-Fred Fierling
Microplex Systems Ltd.
Vancouver, BC

The conversation continues . . . Bill Gatliff responds: How do we get people buy more expensive but more environmentally friendly devices?

I'm not sure it's an either-or proposition.

The hurdles to a fully reprogrammable cell phone, which should increase its lifespan and therefore make it more environmentally friendly, are largely bureaucratic and don't require any new materials.

Or even new devices, in fact: every cell phone I know of can already be reprogrammed over the air by the network owners. Just not by the *cell phone's* owner.

And lots of other devices in use today, like WiFi routers and the like, are also discarded due to lack of features that the base hardware could easily support via a firmware update. If you could get such firmware or the specs required to reproduce it.

In other words, the more vendor-sanctioned a device's hack-ability is, the more environmentally friendly the device seems. At least to me.

Reader Response

One of the statements made earlier was that everything should be made to decompose. Decomposing typically releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The arguments promoting that the consumer should bear the TRUE cost of ownership, including disposal, of electronics have validity, but unfortunately it is sometimes years or even decades later when those costs are understood (remember lead-based paint and asbestos?). However, artificially creating that incentive with taxes is a bad idea, as they will increase and shift focus with the whim of the politicians.

While imperfect, the best overall approach would seem to be charge the total known costs associated with the lifecycle of a product, and let the consumer decide. Then when other unknowns are discovered, society as a whole (in the form of governmental taxes) will have to step in to clean it up.

–Bill Wurst
Sr. Project Engineer
Q-Lab Corp.
Westlake, OH

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