Hackers: The Practical Green Activists

Video by Ellie McCutcheon and Mike DeVito

Hackerspaces Logo The symbol of the Hackerspaces movement (Courtesy Hackerspaces)

"Green" is a pretty popular thing to be right now. It's fashionable and practical - you can be part of the latest trend while also doing some good, and all it takes it the decision to modify some aspect of your life. Maybe you save energy, maybe you buy sustainability sourced products, maybe you compost or sort the recycling for your entire block. No matter what you do, you decided to be green, made a plan, and then went for it. Story after story, we've been reporting all year on people who have made conscious choices to be green. This time, though, we found a group that may be more green than all the rest combined - and they don't even think of themselves as environmentalists. Hacking (the traditional kind - not the people writing viruses and breaking into mainframes, who are actually called "crackers") is, simply put, the art of modifying, repairing and rebuilding technology oneself to suit particular needs. It's repairing the screen on your iPhone instead of buying a new one. It's 3D printing a custom-designed case for your homebrew Linux minicomputer instead of buying one at the store. In one particularly interesting case it was attaching electrodes to sandwiches and bananas to create edible musical instruments. It's creation, simply put, and not necessarily with the intent of being at all environmentally friendly. The mindset, though, makes hacking green almost every single time.

The Self-Repair ManifestoThe Self-Repair Manifesto (Courtesy iFixit)

My partner Ellie McCutcheon and I recently visited our local Hackerspace, HacDC, to see what exactly was green about the hacking process. We found a mindset that focuses on a huge problem in the modern world: waste. Our culture has, in some ways, become waste-centric as everything becomes disposable. We produce over 6.6 billion pounds of electronic waste each year and that number is on the rise, with less than 18% of those discarded electronics actually making it to recycling. The rest go to landfills where toxic chemicals within can seep into the environment - the detailed stats are disturbing, but worth digging into. That sort of information goes a long way towards propping up the first point of iFixit's Self-Repair Manifesto: Repair is Better Than Recycling. Why even tangle with the troubled recycling process if you can just reuse? One of the HacDC members, Julia Longtin, may have explained the anti-waste mindset best:

By saving components, reusing devices and ensuring anything that is beyond repair is properly recycled the hackers go further than most of us in terms of environmental protection. That's without a green initiative or New Year's Resolution - it's just how they do things. Meanwhile, think about your old cell phones - did they all wind up in the right place?

HacDC's Fractal LogoHacDC's Fractal Logo (Courtesy HacDC)

It's not just about waste, either. There are some key forward-looking, environmentally friendly technologies that the hacker group plays around with as well. Many people at HacDC are working with 3D printers, one of the most promising green manufacturing technologies, and they're doing it with green materials - instead of the more popular petroleum-based printing materials, they're using one based off corn. They're even printing their own replacement parts, a practice that some say could change the global economy. They're also using environmentally-friendly materials to etch circuit boards, in direct contrast to the industry-standard practice of using highly corrosive and decidedly environmentally-unfriendly ferric chloride, as HacDC member Jon Horner explains:

So is hacking green? Even though it's not on purpose, it looks like a "yes." The best part? They're quite willing to bring you up to speed if you want to do it yourself. So next time that smartphone breaks, think on it for a minute before rushing off to the store. Maybe a little time invested in repair is a good way for you to do your green deed for the day.

- Mike DeVito

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