Innovation and activism for the public good

The rise of strongman politics, contemptuous of democracy and backed by obscene wealth, is making it harder than ever to find truth in an ocean of disinformation and lies. In these distressing times we need more than ever people dedicated to the common good.

One such person is Mitchell Baker, who co-founded Mozilla in San Francisco in 1998 when a fading browser company, Netscape, gave away its source code to the public. Mozilla is now a world-wide community of millions that puts people ahead of profits in its advocacy for an ethical and trustworthy internet.

Another is Anthropocene Magazine, a reader-supported advocate for the science of sustainability – “environmental solutions, not just problems”. Last week it reported on a new study of the environmental cost of the internet (not so small, after all), pointing up the value of a decarbonised electricity grid and a longer life-cycle for electronic devices. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, found that the internet is responsible for an average of 55 per cent of an individual’s fair share of Earth’s mineral resources, and thanks to the energy it consumes, a fifth of per-capita carrying capacity for freshwater nutrient pollution and a tenth of sea and air pollution and ecotoxicity.

Aside from not renewing functional equipment, what can internet users do about this? Mozilla offers options like going audio-only on Zoom calls, lowering carbon emissions from your call by as much as 96 per cent, or demanding transparency on companies’ carbon emissions, or using certified e-waste programs to recycle devices.

If all this is doing in your head you might opt for a coffee, the internet user’s beverage of choice. Which creates issues of its own, such as what to do with spent coffee grounds, currently being generated at the rate of 18 million tonnes a year?

Here’s another idea from Anthropocene, which last week reported how researchers in Brazil (where else?) have discovered that coffee grounds can soak up a toxic pollutant called bentazone, a herbicide used on vegetable crops and now widely dispersed in the environment. And would you believe it? Coffee grounds can be used as a low-carbon fuel to make low-carbon cement.

Nothing was said about coffee grounds in the “green” cement proposal that cropped up in last week’s federal budget papers – a $52.9 million grant to Cement Australia to replace about 35 per cent of the coal used at its Railton plant – mostly with wood fibre and some shredded tyres. The company claims that the investment will cut carbon emissions by over 100,000 tonnes.

Another concrete idea in the news last week was a new process involving olivine, an abundant mineral most of us have never heard of, which works naturally but very slowly to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists have worked out how to hasten the sequestration process using sulphuric acid to produce a carbon-absorbing cement substitute.

That story brought back memories of a discussion I had many years ago with Tasmanian innovator John Harrison about a bright idea to make concrete more eco-friendly: a magnesium compound that absorbed carbon dioxide as it set into concrete. That technology wasn’t quite the game-changer he’d hoped for, but he still has “good technology ideas to give the world,” as he says on his Tec-eco website.

In the public good’s hall of fame, I would be remiss not to mention another Tasmanian, Lindsay Tuffin, who died 10 days ago. “Linz”, as he signed himself, was no scientist or technologist, but a journalist like me. Actually, not like me – he was brave, bold, fearless and ready to take on anyone who offended his strong sense of decency and honour. 

Lindsay first came into my life in 1970 when I was parliamentary reporter for the Examiner newspaper and he was a youngster learning the trade not long out of high school. Bright and confident, he once challenged me in a moment of youthful hubris to an arm wrestle, which to my surprise he won.

In subsequent years, mainly at the Mercury,  he steadily developed his journalist’s craft while honing his intellect by studying philosophy and religion. In 2002 his personal concerns about political corruption and the state of the environment led him to set up the online Tasmanian Times, a brash, insistent vehicle for political activism and the public good, which was to become his main occupation. 

A memorial service for Lindsay will be held from 2pm tomorrow at Phillip Stephens Funeral Chapel, 28 Riawena Road, Montagu Bay. From 6pm there will be a wake at the Hope and Anchor Hotel in Macquarie Street, Hobart. All are welcome to attend.

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