How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? John Schwartz, a climate reporter, discussed the tech he’s using.
What does your tech setup look like for work and at home?
It’s pretty messy, and it’s all about the laptop. I use a MacBook Pro that I carry back and forth. At work, The Times gives me a big second monitor and a dongle to charge the phone and tie in the backup drive. At home, I have a desk but do much of my evening research and writing in an easy chair in the living room with the laptop propped up on the chair arm.
More important than the way my system is set up is what I do with it. I have configured my computer system at work so that along with whatever stories I’m dealing with, the big extra monitor shows me a stream of photos of my grandkids, my children and my folks.
It’s no news to readers that the technologies we use can make us jittery, angry and sad. There’s Twitter outrage, Facebook and Instagram FOMO, and the constant nagging of email and Slack. And let’s face it, writing about climate change for a living isn’t exactly cheerful. So that stream of photos brings me little bursts of pleasure throughout my day, a regular lift. Similar images show up on my Apple Watch and iPhone. Why shouldn’t technology bring us joy along with all that angst?
You’re a climate reporter and self-proclaimed Apple lover. Many Apple fans buy every new iPhone every year. Does your knowledge of the environmental impact of yearly upgrades change your tech consumption habits?
I’ve been an Apple guy since buying my first ][+ in 1983. But I’ve never had the money to buy a new machine every year, and that kind of consumerism just isn’t for me, despite my Apple fanboy ways.
I’m cheap. My car is 11 years old, and I’ll drive it until it dies. I wear clothes until they get so ragged that my wife sneaks them over to the donation bin or into the trash. Even though my employer now provides my laptops, I don’t push for the latest and greatest. (I’ve even written a book about reaching financial security.)
So my understanding of the environmental cost of replacing tech hasn’t changed my habits, though it’s definitely a factor people should consider when the tech press starts trumpeting the latest toys.
Buying gadgets or using any kind of online service consumes carbon and energy. In a looming climate crisis, is it possible to be an ethical tech consumer? If so, how should we go about it?
The environmental and climate costs of the technology we use are stunning. But you can minimize your carbon footprint by buying refurbished goods instead of new, holding on to them a bit longer, repairing them instead of replacing them, and resell or recycle so that your old electronic devices are less likely to show up in landfills. I have been very happy with refurbished computers from Apple instead of buying new.
If you want to incorporate ethical sourcing and low waste into your purchasing plans, there are companies like Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise.
What is some of the most interesting tech being used to monitor climate change?
Science is so wonderfully accessible; some of the most fascinating work is there for you to read for yourself.
All you need is a screen, an internet connection and a browser to see what satellites tell us about the extent of ice loss in Greenland or river levels during spring flood season along the Mississippi River Basin.
You can find out the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Keeling Curve site, and the extent to which the planet, or even your state, has warmed at the Ed Hawkins “Show Your Stripes” site (or check out this amazingly simple feature that shows you how much your hometown has warmed since you were born).
Outside of your job, what tech products are you personally obsessed with?
For someone who loves technology, I don’t have much of it in my house. My wife is a proud Luddite, and doesn’t like tech for tech’s sake; we don’t have Alexa or HomePod or any of the talking gewgaws, no camera at the door. She yanked out all the wires for the security system that came with the house after it kept going off when the power went out.
I’m still semi-Luddite in some ways myself. I was recently visiting my daughter and son-in-law, and my granddaughter asked me to turn on “Aquanauts” for her. I couldn’t even figure out how to turn on the TV. (It required the game controller to choose among the channels and subscription services.) It was a good excuse to read books instead.
Having said that, I love my Apple Watch, which has worked its way into my consciousness in ways I hadn’t expected: It tracks my exercise and lets me see my notifications without having to pull the phone out of my pocket and spend way too much time on my phone.
The unobtrusive tech that gives me the most pleasure is my Jabra earbuds, which I use when I’m running and seem to be just about impervious to sweat. And the camera on my iPhone is my constant companion. I take daily pictures on my morning run and post them to Twitter and Instagram.
There’s been a lot of talk about recycling, but some of it seems futile. Lots of plastics can no longer be recycled. What should we do?
Recycling is great in concept and fraught in practice. Like so many of the personal actions people try to take to address climate change, it can only do so much.
The most effective action on climate has to come from governments through major policy shifts, so the single most important personal action people can take is to vote their principles and work for candidates whose policies they favor — not just at the presidential level, but up and down the line, since even policies at the local level can have an effect on greenhouse gas emissions and the environment.
Does that mean personal action is worthless? Absolutely not. For one thing, it reinforces that save-the-planet state of mind and serves as an example to others. For another, small things add up.