Linux in an age of austerity


COP15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference Copenhagen 2009, is only a month away. For many it represents the 'Last Chance Saloon' for combined action against climate change.

As one would expect, the Conference's web site displays plenty of windmills and hybrid cars. No doubt it will be very well attended and trill to the sound of a thousand Blackberries and iPhones e-mailing and Twittering the latest forecasts of doom. Equally inevitably, those same attendees will be headed for the power outlets mid-afternoon (or sooner) for a fix of more electricity.

Thus this post is about the invisible. It is about the huge increase in power consumption that has come with the Digital Revolution and, possibly, what we can do about it.

The Digital Revolution

A quarter of a century ago there were no digital mobile phones, no PCs, no digital TVs or digital radios. In the last ten years especially the ownership of such devices has exploded globally. The public appetite for shinier, more powerful handsets is insatiable as is the electricity that they draw.

"Oh it's not much power".. you might say. Oh yes it is. Nowadays a 'first world' household uses about 3KW/hrs worth each day which is equivalent also to leaving all 20 of your low energy eco-light bulbs on day and night! In the not too distant future the vast populations of India and China will match us.

Here is a list of the common users of electricity in the digital household.

  • A digital set top box consumes 31watts 'on', 30 watts when 'off'
  • A 25" LCD TV running all day consumes 150watts
  • Playing games on a desktop computer or surfing the web uses 200 watts
  • It takes 10 watts to charge an iPhone (often the guys in our office are charging them twice a day)
  • A DAB radio uses 2.5 watts... when it's not on!

The digital age is fun, shiny and cool. 'Digital Britain' is a flagship policy for the Government but it all comes at a huge carbon price. So what can be done to change our digital habits?

Is an 'Age of Austerity' the answer?

I don't like it any more than you do. I like shiny, I like powerful, I like new. And so do most people I know. Human nature will not allow us to take the 'hair shirt' option willingly. Ask Jeremy Clarkson. But as Gordon warns of climate catastrophe, maybe we've got to get used to the bristles of a more austere digital experience.

But how do we make the experience slightly less uncomfortable? Can eco-digital be cool and desirable enough for us to use voluntarily?

I don't claim to have all the answers but here are some suggestions:

Personal Computing

The Netbook I'm using right now runs off 15 watts. This is better than my desktop PC by an order of magnitude. However, I know that I could make it even more efficient by swapping its OS from pretty Ubuntu to austere Puppy Linux. That'll run well on only 5 watt computers. I'll just have to forget about the translucent windows and 3D rendering stuff..hey ho

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