I have been pretty bitter of late about the state of environmentalism as a cause. Ostensibly this might seem an odd or even indefensible reaction to anyone for whom this cause is not directly hard-wired to the soul, as it is for me. George Bush admitted publicly that global warming exists. Al Gore got a Nobel Prize for convincing him. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president (who has been cozying up to Bush like Putin before that whole missile shield spat), said the following to Bush’s face:

“Those who love the country of wide-open spaces, of national parks and nature protected, nature reserves, expect America to stand alongside Europe in leading — I repeat, leading — the fight against global warming that threatens the destruction of our planet.”


Sadly none of this makes me feel any better because then I see corporations jockeying for “green” position with giant ad budgets and no actual effort. I see a whole lot of nothing being done about that completely demented farm subsidies system we have, or, you know, mandatory fuel efficiency standards, because nobody’s really committed enough, no matter how many Nobel prizes they give to Al Gore, to actually push anything through congress. I see environmental policy not coming up in the presidential primary debates. And meanwhile there’s the California wildfires, the Georgia drought, the great Pacific garbage patch, the coal apocalypse in China, and meanwhile it’s mid-November and in Boston there are still green leaves on the trees and gardens producing tomatoes, and the Boston Phoenix puts out one “green” issue printed on recycled paper, and apparently that’s enough reassurance to keep everybody complacently trundling along to their tech jobs and cooing to themselves about living in the most progressive city in the country.

But to rant and rage was not my object. I have seen a ray of light, and it is the crank-powered laptop. Yes! You have heard of such things before. For $200, a poor kid in Africa who can’t afford rice can now own a laptop. You wrote it off as a stupid idea. Why not just send them $200 worth of rice? Give a man a fish, I say, and he eats for a day. But give him a laptop and teach him to perform a low-end tech job, and he’ll give India a run for their money.

Ok, so I’m not completely serious about that. But education is a wonderful thing. And nobody in Africa’s going to be able to get by on subsistence farming once the real droughts kick in. Which they will. No ice on Kilimanjaro means no water anywhere else.

But actually, the benefits to the poor kids in Rwanda who can barely afford school fees to me are only half of it. Just go have a look at the crank-powered laptop’s tech specs: This thing is amazing. It is a marvel of engineering. It runs on 15 watts of power, can be charged up by a pedal, a crank or a pullchain, has a screen that can be viewed in full daylight, a built-in wireless router, Linux, and the durability of a tank. Frankly, it uses exactly the kind of innovation we ought to be devoting to cars, phones, construction, public transportation, and yes, computers, over here in the first world: lower capacity, lower cost, smaller footprint. Sacrifices for the greater good, as opposed to egomaniacal insular money grubbing nearsightedness. See the Sarkozy quote above.

What I’m saying is, I want one.

Ok, sure, my livelihood depends on high-powered graphics rendering capability and enormous disk space. I can’t ditch the computer I have. But every time I go out to the cafe or the library to sit and write fiction, I’m using ten times the electricity (or more) to do the exact same things I could be doing on the crank laptop. And what about the other people sitting in that cafe? Whether it be the cafeteria at Whole Foods or the bar at the Lady Killigrew, I am going to be fostering some mad green tech envy. This is Western MA, where owning a hybrid car makes you a capitalist hero, helping to prove the economic viability of not fucking up the earth. Pretty soon, everybody will be wanting a crank-powered laptop!

Just think: with a little bit of effort and mechanical ingenuity, I’m willing to bet I could figure out how to hook my laptop crank up to my bike pedals. Then I could be charging up my computer on the way to the library–so by the time I get there and get cozy, I won’t be using any power at all. It blows the mind.

The people making the crank-powered laptop are offering a deal, starting today and ending on Black Friday (ie the day after Thanksgiving), where if you buy one for a kid in Africa, you get one of your own.


  1. Wow. Now I want one, too (and to send one to a kid in Africa). It’s rather magical, really.

    But then, I also live in Western Mass., where there are lots of crank-y type folks.

    People come up with the damndest things. Somebody ought to hook up the crank laptop people with the steampunk people, who seem to have a lot of extra ingenuity floating around. Then the crank laptops would all be made of wood and brass…

  2. I want one now too, and have told my wife that it would make a good early birthday + Christmas present. Boon: you’ve already started the fad! And I’m not even overly environmental!

    I completely agree with your larger point, as well. Ever since corporate American started bandying about the term “branding,” it’s all they do now, devoid of actual meaning.

    When I was kid, “Official _foo_ of the _bar_” meant that there was some meaningful relationship between the product foo and the event bar. “Official sneaker of the NBA” would have meant that all the players wore that sneaker. But now you’ve got totally non sequiter endorsements like “Official SUV of the Olympics” and “Official chicken of the World Series.” Sheesh.

    Fast food companies have realized that healthy food is perceived as being upper class, and that they can therefore charge more for it. Oh, and by the way, it’s not really healthy. It’s just branded that way.

    And, back to your point, what the hell does NBC having a “green week” mean?? I wasn’t aware that cable transmissions were destroying the environment. Now if the actors and execs at NBC all stopped driving their Yukons and Escalades for a week…

    ARGH. The worst part is that they do it *because it works*. Why do we buy it all, both figuratively and literally?

    1. Yay Ian. You have said many of the things I wanted to say in this post but resisted for fear of undermining my argument with my intemperate railings.

  3. Thought you might like to know that the founder of this project was on the PBS News Hour today, and gave a very interesting interview. I didn’t get to see the end, but enjoyed what I did see.

    1. Cool, thanks Liz! I have been very curious about what the people who created this thing were intending. I will have to see if I can download a clip or something.

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