There's a palpable change in the air regarding sustainability and environmental issues. Concern for the condition of the planet and efforts to do something about it have gone mainstream. To take one example, look at climate-based venture capitalism. The Climate Tech Venture Capital (CTVC) Climate Capital List has more than doubled in the past two years. The amount of capital pouring in demonstrates a desire and a willingness to solve hard climate challenges.
It's great that people want to take action, and I'm here for it! But I also see a real risk: As people rush to take action or jump on the bandwagon, they may unwittingly participate in greenwashing.
The Wikipedia definition of greenwashing calls it "a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization's products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly." In my view, greenwashing happens both intentionally and accidentally. There are a lot of good people out there who want to make a difference but don't yet know much about complex environmental systems or the depth of issues around sustainability.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking a simple purchase like offsetting travel or datacenter emissions by planting trees will make something greener. While these efforts are welcome, and planting trees is a viable solution to improving sustainability, they are only a good first step—a scratch on the surface of what needs to happen to make a real difference.
So what can a person, or a community, do to make digital technology genuinely more sustainable?
Sustainability has different meanings to different people. The shortest definition that I like is from the 1987 Bruntland Report, which summarizes it as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Sustainability at its core is prioritizing long-term thinking.
Sustainability is more than environmental preservation
There are three key interconnected pillars in the definition of sustainability:
- Economic / governance
Conversations about sustainability are increasingly dominated by the climate crisis—for good reason. The need to reduce the amount of carbon emissions emitted by the richer countries in the world becomes increasingly urgent as we continue to pass irreversible ecological tipping points. But true sustainability is a much more comprehensive set of considerations, as demonstrated by the three pillars.
Carbon emissions are most certainly a part of sustainability. Many people consider emissions only an environmental issue: Just take more carbon out of the air, and everything will be ok. But social issues are just as much a part of sustainability. Who is affected by these carbon emissions? Who stands to bear the greatest impact from changes to our climate? Who has lost their land due to rising sea levels or a reliable water source due to changing weather patterns? That's why you might have heard the phrase "climate justice is social justice."
Thinking only about decarbonization as sustainability can give you carbon tunnel vision. I often think that climate change is a symptom of society getting sustainability wrong on a wider scale. Instead, it is critical to address the root causes that brought about climate change in the first place. Tackling these will make it possible to fix the problems in the long term, while a short-term fix may only push the issue onto another vulnerable community.
The root causes are complex. But if I follow them back to their source, I see that the root causes are driven by dominant Western values and the systems designed to perpetuate those values. And what are those values? For the most part, they are short-term growth and the extraction of profit above all else.
That is why conversations about sustainability that don't include social issues or how economies are designed won't reach true solutions. After all, societies, and the people in positions of power, determine what their own values are—or aren't.
What can you or I do?
Many in the tech sector are currently grappling with these issues and want to know how to take meaningful action. One common approach is looking at how to optimize the tech they build so that it uses electricity more effectively. Sixty percent of the world's electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels, despite the increasing capacity for renewable energy generation. Logically, using less electricity means generating fewer carbon emissions.
And yes, that is a meaningful action that anyone can take right now, today. Optimizing the assets sent when someone loads a page to send less data will use less energy. So will optimizing servers to run at different times of the day, for example when there are more renewables online, or deleting old stores of redundant information, such as analytics data or logs.
But consider Jevon's paradox: Making something more efficient often leads to using more of it, not less. When it is easier and more accessible for people to use something, they end up consuming more. In some ways, that is good. Better performing tech is a good thing that helps increase inclusion and accessibility, and that's good for society. But long-term solutions for climate change and sustainability require deeper, more uncomfortable conversations around the relationship between society and technology. What and who is all this technology serving? What behaviors and practices is it accelerating?
It's common to view advancing technology as progress, and some people repeat the mantra that technology will save the world from climate change. A few bright folks will do the hard work, so no one else has to change their ways. The problem is that many communities and ecosystems are already suffering.
For example, the accelerating quest for more data is causing some communities in Chile to have insufficient water to grow their crops. Instead, datacenters are using it. Seventy percent of the pollution caused by mobile phones comes from their manufacture. The raw resources such as lithium and cobalt to make and power mobile devices are usually extracted from a community that has little power to stop the destruction of their land and that certainly does not partake in the profit made. Still, the practice of upgrading your phone every two years has become commonplace.
Open source leading the way for sustainability
It's time to view the use of digital technology as a precious resource with consequences to both the planet and (often already disadvantaged) communities.
The open source community is already a leading light in helping people to realize there is another way: the open source way. There are huge parallels between the open source way and what our wider society needs to do to achieve a more sustainable future. Being more open and inclusive is a key part of that.
We also need a mindset shift at all levels of society that views digital technology as having growth limits and not as the abundantly cheap and free thing we see today. We need to wisely prioritize its application in society to the things that matter. And above all else, we need to visualize and eradicate the harms from its creation and continued use and share the wealth that is does create equitably with everyone in society, whether they are users of digital tech or not. These things aren’t going to happen overnight, but they are things we can come together to push towards so that we all enjoy the benefits of digital technology for the long-term, sustainably.
This article is based on a longer presentation. To see the talk in full or view the slides, see the post "How can we make digital technology more sustainable."