Making sure technology doesn’t cost the earth

Just as with its predecessors, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the digital revolution is simultaneously bringing enormous benefits to humanity whilst threatening the planetary environment on which we rely for survival. It’s unthinkable that humanity could return to its pre-digital roots, but it has become a matter of the utmost urgency that we find ways to mitigate the damage our dependence on new technology is inflicting upon our increasingly fragile ecosphere.

The most obvious impact of digital technology is its energy usage. Something as simple and throwaway as sending an email has a notable energy footprint: after all, even if you’re messaging your next door neighbour, your message may have to ping across to a server in the USA and back again. An average email causes 4g of CO2 emissions, so 65 emails cause the same emissions as driving 1km in a car. Not too bad…but energy company OVO has estimated that Britons send 65 million useless/pointless emails a day, so every day the emissions from unnecessary email in the UK alone is equivalent to one million car kilometres per day! Higher order computing applications can use staggering amounts of energy; bitcoin miners, for example, use so much energy that they locate their servers in countries like Iceland to try to reduce the costs of cooling their machines.

 Fortunately a piece of amazing technology exists to mitigate our energy footprint in this sphere: it’s called the off button. Unfortunately most of us (this author included) frequently forget to use it. We wouldn’t leave all the lights on in our houses overnight, or go on holiday and leave the central heating on, but how many of us leave our desktops and laptops on standby overnight? When we’re not paying for the electricity we’re even more profligate; simply look out of a hotel room window in any major city and you’ll see whole office blocks lit up by the glow of screensavers, gobbling resources pointlessly through the night. At the turn of the century it was estimated that a staggering 5% of US energy production was wasted on keeping lights and computers on in offices overnight. Simply by hitting the off button we can make a major difference to global energy use – obviously choosing eco-friendly energy companies and ISPs could also have a significant impact.

The environmental impact of digital hardware is also enormous. Computers, tablets, smartphones etc use huge amounts of plastic, glass and metals – particularly rare earth metals that are frequently mined in atrocious conditions by exploited labour, and the processing of which involves deadly pollution leaching into watercourses and agricultural land. It almost goes without saying that these operations take place amongst some of the most deprived communities on the planet; just as the London merchant took his profits from the industrial revolution without considering the plight of children in factories in the North, so we enjoy all our shiny new Internet-linked toys without considering their provenance. One way of mitigating environmental harm in this area is to consider whether you really need the latest technology; just because your phone company offers you a free upgrade, you don’t have to take it if you’re happy with what you’ve got. Why spend £1000 on a new laptop when all you want it for is word processing, email and web browsing? This blog is being typed on a 2014 MacBook Air which was £190 secondhand and does everything its owner requires. 

Of course, sometimes technology does have to be upgraded or replaced; the question then arises of how surplus equipment is disposed of. It is estimated that 80% of binned technology ends up in landfill, where it leaches poisonous chemicals into the soil. Worse still, much of this landfill is illegally exported to those selfsame developing countries that were exploited for its creation in the first place. With a little effort is easy to find companies that either repurpose technology or strip it for its recyclable parts; better still, there are numerous charities that work on refurbishing machines and supplying them to individuals and educational establishments in developing countries that could never hope to afford a computer for themselves.

The digital revolution has enormous potential to help make the world a greener place and reduce humanity’s impact on the planet: every time a business holds a videoconference instead of insisting on meeting in person, many tonnes of CO2 emissions are potentially saved. The smart technology that increasingly runs our homes and appliances can make spectacular reductions to energy consumption. If we give a little consideration to how we purchase, use, repurpose and/or dispose of our technology, there’s no reason the digital revolution and a green revolution can’t go hand-in-hand.

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