Tag Archives: Environment

Apple and the environment

I have, since around 1990, oriented the way I live my life around the question, “Is this good for the health of the Earth?” Those that know me would probably agree with the suggestion that I’m a bit extreme in that regard. The way I look at it is that it is, fundamentally, a question lived ethics and survival. What we do everyday impacts not only our future survival but the survival of countless other species with which we share the planet. Our choices thus far have been leading us to the extinction of other species and quite possibly our own. Our time on this planet does have an expiration date. One day humans will no longer exist on this planet. That’s a given. But will we end our time here prematurely due to poor behavior? Increasingly it looks as though we will.

I have long argued (as many have) that capitalism is incompatible with the longterm health of the planet. As an economic system it is focused on profit and specifically short-term profit. Corporations have demonstrated time and time again that they don’t do well when it concerns the environment and questions of human social justice. In the past ten years Apple has begun to demonstrate that it is possible continue making a profit even as it undergoes a dramatic shift in it’s social and environmental impact from a negative to a positive. Apple isn’t just minimizing its negative impact but is attempting and succeeding at creating a significant positive impact.

In recent years as it makes these changes it has made an effort to communicate to the public what it is doing. On the face of it it’s pretty easy to dismiss as the usual greenwashing that many companies engage in when they care about that aspect of how they appear to the public. In other words, marketing. But here’s the thing, Apple has gone so far in changing the way it operates that it no longer appears to be trying to convince the public that it is a good corporate “citizen”. They have seemingly made it a part of their mission to set the bar of conduct at a new level. This is a sustained effort to shift the fundamentals of the company from one that prioritizes profit to one which puts environmental impact on an equal footing.

In the lead-up to Earth Day 2017 we’ve seen a push by Apple to share what it’s been doing in these areas. In past years they have done the same but with each passing year as the scope of their commitment deepens it seems to be a shift from corporate marketing to one in which Apple sees a “teachable moment” and is educating the public not for it’s own benefit but for the public good. They are setting an example not just for corporations but even for citizens and governments. They aren’t just meeting the too-low requirements and goals set out by governments. They are exceeding them and raising the bar and not just by a little. And then they are saying to the world, do better. Do much better.

A day or so ago John Gruber of Daring Fireball and The Talk Show published an interview with Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of Environmental Policy. I remember when Lisa Jackson moved over to Apple having served 4 years as head of the EPA under Obama. At the time I just figured, oh, the usual high-level corporate/government revolving door. I didn’t pay much attention to her. But listening to that interview I can only say that I am really impressed. She’s a fantastic asset to Apple as well as an excellent STEM role model who also addresses the connection between STEM and our social and ecological problems and needs. I’ve listened to it twice and might give it a third go. She offers some fascinating details about how Apple operates in relation to resources.

As an activist who protested Nike in the late 90s for it’s overseas labor policies I was keenly aware that Apple was having it’s own labor issues in the early 2000s (and probably before). I began paying attention then to both the labor and environmental practices of my favorite technology company with some hope that they would “Think Different” in their dealings with the world around them. They have not disappointed. While progress was made when Jobs was at the helm their move towards greater social and environmental responsibility really increased when Tim Cook took over. The focus on the social and environmental responsibility has intensified greatly over the past 5 years. This interview is an excellent summary of those changes. But what is truly breathtaking is the scope and depth to which they have gone.

It’s easy these days to become mired in a mix of hopelessness, despair, frustration and disgust. Our political system seems equal parts corrupt, inept, and circus. On the issue of climate change the U.S. has proven largely ineffectual and confused. From the public to government to business, we’ve made little progress at far too slow a rate. It seems very likely that we are past the point of no return and that all there is to do now is adapt and attempt to minimize what now seems to be inevitable. But I listen to this interview and not only am I inspired but I’m embarrassed that it is a company… a capitalist enterprise that is actually leading the way, that is setting the best possible example not only for other companies but for citizens. As someone who has long considered himself an activist (of sorts) I suddenly feel a bit ashamed of my despair. That might not be exactly it or quite the best way to put it but it’s close.

Also, Apple has put together four videos for Earth Day 2017. Good stuff.

And yet another bit of Apple and the environment bit of news, Macworld reports that Apple will return heat generated by data center to warm up homes:

Apple is building a new data center in Denmark, and it has some interesting ideas on how to power the data center with renewable energy, while also giving back to the community.

Excess heat generated by the data center will be captured and returned to the local district’s heating system, which will warm up homes in the community.

This is just one example of many that illustrates the scope of commitment that Apple is making to this effort. This is exactly the sort of project that Lisa Jackson is describing in the above linked interview with John Gruber.

Last but not least, Apple is set to move into it’s new headquarters, Apple Park. Much work is still being done but April was to be the month that employees started moving over. To say that I’m impressed with Apple Park would be a huge understatement. From native and edible landscaping to the heating and cooling to the local energy production, it is, by all accounts, the standard for large scale green architecture and landscaping.

Always another new gadget? Why not show a little restraint?

I recently came upon a post on Medium by Serenity Caldwell of iMore: Giving the baby 9.7 inch iPad Pro another chance. I wrote a lengthy response which I’ve edited into this post.

Something I’ve noticed as a general trend in the Apple tech press is a consistent pattern of hyper-consumption always in the context of, justified as, “my last purchase just didn’t quite get me the device I needed”. It goes something like this:

  1. Apple releases new iPhone, iPad, or Mac.
  2. Apple blogger/writer/podcaster purchases one of each in at least one size.
  3. Apple blogger/writer/podcaster writes about how they are writing current blog post/review on said new device.
  4. Various reviews of various keyboards/cases/covers (if new device was iPad). This case was too heavy, this keyboard wasn’t clicky enough, that case was too flimsy, this other keyboard had the wrong texture, that other case was too heavy, and so on.
  5. If said new device is an iPad it is a near guarantee that said blogger will give up Mac laptop for at least 6 months.
  6. Normally back to laptop after 6 months. 2015/16 was different because of the new iPad size/Pencil. Most everyone (in the Apple tech blogger community) seemed to go from an iPad Air to the big iPad Pro then to the small “Baby Pro” iPads. Some even decided to keep the big iPad Pro but concluded it wasn’t quite enough so added the smaller Pro as a second iPad. A few even then bought (or will buy) a new Mac laptop because the iPad (or iPads), while great, is not enough even if being used in combination with a Mac desktop. The conclusion is that a laptop is also needed.

The picture emerges of Apple tech bloggers/podcasters surrounded by small warehouses of devices and accessories. For the Apple nerddom fall has become that time of the year when new gadgets are announced. The time approaches and with it a fever pitch of expectations. I get that Apple tech media folk make a living writing about this stuff. But I think what gets under my skin a bit is that, in the context of a world with very real environmental challenges (climate being just the most urgent), so many words are written to justify personal purchases of so many devices and accessories. The impression I get is that no one is ever truly happy with this or that device or gadget because they are so quickly ready to replace them.

My humble iPad Air 2

My humble iPad Air 2

The same tech press will also sound the alarm a few times a year about serious problems at Apple because iPad/iPhone sales are not going up and up and up. And they continue with the bad news that Apple is failing its customers because Macs are not being updated on a more regular schedule. Meanwhile, back on planet earth, most of the normal people I know are quite happy to be using a three or four or five year old iPad. Some of these same people are also happy to be using iPhones from last year or the year before. Gasp, they might be using Macs that are 4 or 5 or even 6 years old. My dad is still happy using his 2010 MacBook Air. A friend of mine is using a 2011 MacBook Air. My brother uses a 2012 MacBook Pro. I’m happily getting some of my work done on a 2012 MacMini, the only Mac I have. What work I do not do on the Mini is handled quite well by a two year old iPad Air 2. The horror!

It seems to me that many of the Apple-focused media are living in a sort of disconnected echo chamber. They repeat the same “news” stories, same reviews, the same rumors and the same “First World Problems”. Year by year my RSS feed gets smaller and smaller. Helpful, original content about real world usage seems to dwindle. I know that there is a push now at iMore to address this very issue of regurgitated news with a new emphasis on helpful tutorials, how-to type material. Great! I’d say that is a step in the right direction (as far as content goes).

Of the various Apple tech writers I think Serenity is one the few to post helpful details about workflows. I greatly enjoyed her series on putting the iPad Pro to work and learned a great deal from those articles. Federico of MacStories also does a pretty fantastic job of sharing the many ways he is using his iPad. I suppose I’m just yearning for content that is more illustrative of how Apple tech is being used in the real world by real people (who are not full time tech bloggers/podcasters). For example, though I’m not working for an educational institution I often find Fraser Spears’ content interesting and inspiring. Fraser does a podcast, Canvas, with Federico all about mobile productivity. Teddy Svoronos has written (and guest podcasted) a bit about his use of technology as a PhD grad student. Oh, and David Sparks of MacSparky fame is a lawyer (among many other things) and often brings that context into his discussion of technology. He’s got a whole series of field guides for getting things done with Apple tech. David’s podcasting partner, Katie Floyd, is also a lawyer. She also does an excellent job of discussing how she uses Apple tech. Their podcast, Mac Power Users, is focused on that very thing.

I suppose I’m also looking for a bit of environmental sanity and responsibility within the community. It’s not reasonable to expect that people will replace devices such as iPads every year or even every other year. The same might be said of iPhones. These are computers manufactured with limited resources, why squander them? Why treat them as disposable? I would argue that the tech media, Apple-focused and otherwise, have helped create unreasonable expectations in regards to the purchase rate of computing devices.

Would I enjoy a new iPad Pro? Of course! Even more, I can predict that I will buy one at some point. But why not continue getting the most out of the iPad I have? It’s a powerful computer quite capable of the work I need to do with it. The same can be said for my Mac and iPhone. Indeed, it has often been said that Apple devices are of the highest quality, that they are designed well, made to be beautiful and durable. If this is true shouldn’t we expect to use them for awhile? Why not be a bit more restrained, discerning in our consumption? Why not respect our Macs, iPads and iPhones as the high quality, resource intensive products that they are?

Apple starting work on new solar farm in CA

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Apple’s been on a very impressive roll and I’m not talking about it’s ever evolving line of mobile devices and computers, but rather its continuing build-out of solar farms. In 2012 they completed their Maiden North Carolin data center with its own on-site solar power facility which is the largest privately owned solar array in the U.S. Since then they’ve completed work on a facility in Prineville Oregon that utilizes “micro-hydro” and another solar facility in Reno Nevada is set to come online in 2015. In locations where they do not generate power they are sourcing it from wind and other renewables.

In truth, their conduct in regards to the environment goes far beyond their solar farms. They’ve made great efforts in recent years to address the energy consumption of their devices, the toxic chemicals in the devices, the recyclability of devices and amount of packaging for new products as well as repair shipments. Their most recent construction project, a new headquarters in Cupertino is designed to be one of the greenest buildings on the planet. Apple says this about it:

Like everything we build, our new Apple campus in Cupertino pushes the boundaries of technology — it will be the most energy‑efficient building of its kind. Powered by 100 percent renewable energy sources, the campus goes beyond showing respect for the environment to forming a partnership with it. Air flows freely between the inside and outside of the building, providing natural ventilation for 75 percent of the year. And sunlight powers one of the largest onsite corporate solar energy installations in the world.

The building itself is just part of the story. Just under 80 percent of the site will be open space, populated by more than 7000 trees — including more than 6000 newly planted shade and fruit trees. Drought-tolerant plants will be used throughout the landscape to minimize water use.

For a comprehensive overview of their efforts to date check the Apple Environmental Responsibility page. It’s refreshing and long overdue for companies to not only acknowledge human climate change but to recognize their own impact and then make significant changes to their operations. Apple is doing this.

Here’s the latest:

“Apple Is About to Shell Out $850 Million for Solar Energy | Mother Jones”

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a massive new investment by the company in solar energy: an $850 million installation that will cover 1,300 acres in Monterey County, California. Apple is partnering with First Solar—the nation’s biggest utility-scale installer—on the project, which will produce enough power to supply 60,000 Californian homes, Cook said.

According to a press release from First Solar, Apple will receive 130 megawatts from the project under a 25-year deal, which the release describes as the largest such agreement ever.

Cook called it Apple’s “biggest, boldest and most ambitious” energy project to date, designed to offset the electricity needs of Apple’s new campus, the futuristic circular building designed by Norman Foster, and all of Apple’s California retail stores. “We know at Apple that climate change is real,” he said.