“To reverse the effects of civilization would destroy the dreams of a lot of people. There’s no way around it. We can talk all we want about sustainability, but there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter that these people’s dreams are based on, embedded in, intertwined with, and formed by an inherently destructive economic and social system. Their dreams are still their dreams. What right do I — or does anyone else — have to destroy them.
At the same time, what right do they have to destroy the world?”
― Derrick Jensen,
We have some huge steps to climb in the field of technology. Technology (aka: tools) can be of great importance to civilization. They can also destroy it. In the technology and computer industries, one of our main concerns should be environmental sustainability because if we destroy the world, there will be no use for tools anyway. Watch some of my favorite documentaries like Sustainable (this is my all-time favorite documentary), The Smog of the Sea, or In Search of Balance, and you will quickly understand the importance of a healthy environment.
Computers, with their large amounts of power-consumption and their heavy reliance on precious minerals from the Earth, certainly have their environmental impact. The good news is that many people and companies are working on reducing and even eliminating that impact.
The biggest enemies of the environment seem to be corporate-scale farming (aka factory farming), transportation, and power production/consumption.
The Computer Industry Takes Its Toll
The computer industry fits into each of these industries in various ways. The most obvious is power. Computers use electricity. Computers also use other natural resources from the Earth like silicon and steel. And, if not properly recycled, they contribute to pollution.
In the corporate-scale farming and transportation sectors, there is a little more hope. The processing power, the analytical thinking power, of modern computers can be used to find ways of making farming (and other industries for that matter) more sustainable. The networking power of modern computers can be used to significantly reduce the environmental impact of transportation simply by allowing more people to work remotely. This can significantly cut down on driving and flying.
I’m not an easy person to convince, and if I were the ruler of the world, I would probably just say, “to Hell with computers. We did alright without them for a long time.” But then again, I don’t know God’s ultimate plan, so the best I can do is what I am doing right now, think about how I can do what is right, what is virtuous.
Great News for the Environment
In my thinking and researching, I found some great news. In fact, it may be the best news I have seen all year. It should be news that is on the front page of every newspaper and news website. It should be spread because it is good news, and it is news that can affect positive change.
The great news I found is that Microsoft, Google, and Apple (pretty much the three biggest players in the computer industry) all do at least a little bit – they are at least aware – by way of environmental sustainability. In fact, after finding the environmental web pages for each of the companies, I am hopeful that computers may be more of a solution than a problem for environmental sustainability.
Here are links to Microsoft’s, Google’s, and Apple’s environmental sections. They all look pretty good. Microsoft claims that its global operations have been carbon-neutral since 2012, Google claims Google’s got all kinds of projects working towards sustainability, and Apple claims that 100% of the energy used to power their data centers is produced by wind, solar, or water.
Of course, it would not be in these companies’ best interest to report on the bad, so we can’t expect them to do that. But the important thing is that they are putting some effort into doing good for the environment.
Improvements that computers can help with
That good news got me thinking less about throwing my computer out the window (although, I would still like to do that with a few of the computers and people I deal with each day), and more about ways I would like to see computers improve our world. Here are a few of my ideas:
- Improve network infrastructure and communication media to make it possible for more people to travel less
- Improve efficiency in the workplace so that people can work less. Wouldn’t 30 hour work weeks be awesome!? My hope is that this extra time would be spent on positive things like gardening/homesteading (sustainable food), cooking (instead of eating out, because restaurants typically don’t use sustainable practices), and being with family and friends (happiness).
- Provide opportunity for the poor to get out of their poverty if they so choose. Essentially, I would like computers to be accessible enough that they create a more even playing field, so that those who work hard and contribute to society are justly compensated. Computers can create a more even playing field by giving the poor opportunities for work that they might not have otherwise had. These opportunities might include giving a voice to the voiceless (by way of blogging/broadcasting), providing free information for learning and knowledge, and aiding in finding work.
We’re not there yet, but we can be soon
- Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick (book)
- User Experience in the Age of Sustainability by Kem-Laurin Kramer (book)
- Some Computer Science Issues in Creating a Sustainable World (blog post)