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Tech expert thinks hackers can help develop more sustainable future: 'They are trying to improve situations by exceeding limitations of design'

"Talented people with great ideas and lots of energy."

"Talented people with great ideas and lots of energy."

Photo Credit: iStock

Greg Newby sees planet-saving potential in what many people might consider an unlikely group: hackers. 

But the tech expert and environmentalist from Ontario, Canada, wants you to look beyond the mainstream concept of hacking, often packaged for mass consumption in a movie like "WarGames."

That's because it's a counterculture he thinks can be leveraged to solve some of the planet's biggest problems, including pollution, disease, and extinction. 

"Talented people with great ideas and lots of energy. That's the type of thing we need to address the climate emergency," Newby told The Cool Down about a month before speaking at HOPE XV, a hacker conference scheduled July 12-14 in Queens, New York. 

In addition to Newby, speakers will be hitting on topics like artificial intelligence, DIY geoengineering, and "enshittification" (you can look that one up).

Newby sees it as a venue to offer solutions for social consciousness, fairness in elections, privacy concerns, and our planet's health. He will make his case to hackers about the crucial role they can play in our world. 

His conference talking points include tips for how hackers can help during climate-caused weather disasters, which NASA has linked to the warming of our planet. Information engineering for social good and reducing pollution are also on the agenda. 

"What are some of the opportunities?" he asked. "Maybe there is something we can do about methane?" 

While there are hackers in the world working toward nefarious ends, Newby said they are the minority. What he called "white hat" hackers are the good ones, the folks who are solution-finders. The "black hat" culprits are the exploiters and are often "less talented," he added. 

Newby, 59, has a master's degree in sustainable business and a doctorate in information transfer. He started teaching university classes about the internet in the late 1980s and has taught at the universities of North Carolina and Alaska, among others. Before moving to Canada, he worked at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology supercomputing laboratory in Saudi Arabia. Now he is a security expert in IT for the Yukon government. 

Newby said that useful hacks often lead to practical, everyday solutions. In that regard, it's proof that the hacker underground is not an exclusive group communicating through encrypted channels. A curious mindset seems to be the main ingredient needed to discover useful workarounds

He cited figuring out how to make a Tesla go faster without a costly upgrade as an example. But even inventing a way to give empty parmesan shakers a second life is a hack that can make an impact. Developing a composting plan at the workplace (most hackers have other gigs) to prevent more waste from piling up in landfills is another example. 

"They are trying to improve situations by exceeding limitations of design, looking for vulnerabilities," he said. 

But it will take more than recycling programs to make a noticeable impact, according to Newby. In his opinion, many of the big innovations, citing carbon sequestration specifically, are far from being scaled to needed levels. The U.S. government is investing $1.2 billion in technology to capture and store air pollution, often safely underground. But Newby said it's not enough. 

"There is no magic bullet," he added. 

Newby, a vegan, lived for a while with his wife, Ilana, and 24 sled dogs in Alaska. It's likely not what many would consider a vegan's paradise. But he said it's proof that the lifestyle isn't as hard to pull off as many people think. 

Among his other efforts is Project Gutenberg, an online library of free books, often classics. The books are scanned and made available to download. Newby said that Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is among the most popular. He advocates free access to information, a concept that fits the hacker mindset. 

Moving forward, Newby said that he is "guardedly optimistic" about our ability to overcome the environmental problems plaguing our world. As a kid, headlines about species extinction, recycling, and the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster caught his attention. Many of the issues from decades ago remain a concern. 

But innovations — perhaps among HOPE-inspired hackers — will lead to some breakthroughs to help, "because it's necessary," he said. It might be in the form of mylar sails to block some of the sun's warming rays, a big invention in carbon-capture tech, or an easy way to reuse everyday trash. 

In the end, "the imperative to survive will win out," he said. 

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