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Posted December 19, 2010
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DISCLAIMER: This article is not a knock on Apple products. If you clicked on a link to this article preparing to rage over the impression I have a poor taste in electronics, I apologize. I also politely suggest that you seek out new uses of your time other than seeking out those that may not agree with your taste in devices. I do also apologize if this article appears to single out Apple, as that is not my intention.

As a web designer/developer/what-have-you,and an environmentally conscious individual, I like to think that technology will help make for a smarter, more sustainable society. That our demand for new technology will bring about new solutions that weren't possible in the past to approach the problems of the present and our future. Unfortunately, I also have my doubts. This is a topic I hold close to me, as sustainability and technology are two of my passions, and often they are at odds with each other. I know these passions hold true for many of you out there reading this as well. This article will raise an issue that we need to address, but often avoid. There are no easy answers, but I'll try to propose some ideas, and I hope you all do too.

We are technology junkies.

Can we all agree that we are a society that's addicted to technology? A decade ago, you were in small company if you made a purchase through the internet. Now it's such a prevalent practice that you're probably in small company if you haven't made an online purchase while riding transit to work or school. When was the last time there weren't five of your neighbours' wireless network signals bouncing through your house at any given time? (If you live in a condo, multiply that number by 5). Well, it wasn't that long ago you connected to the internet via dial-up, if at all. Technology in the marketplace has exploded, and we are consuming it at an ever increasing rate, but is that really a problem?

I thought no device could replace books, but when I got my grubby little hands on an e-Reader for the first time, I was so amazed by how an e-ink screen replicates the visual experience of paper, I realized it might just be possible to transition to a paperless society. That kind of potential excites me, and why wouldn’t it? We could drastically slow down the rate which we cut down our forests, which in turn curbs the loss of our biodiversity, and helps our atmosphere. All this while owning a new fancy gadget. Sounds amazing doesn't it? Or does the my love of computers justified as environmentally friendly sound like...

 

Denial.

"The electronics I buy probably help the planet if anything."

Let's look at the e-Reader example, my beacon of hope that our love of electronics can actually bring us to a more sustainable society:

Lets compare the ecological impact of purchasing books versus purchasing an e-Reader to read books. I'm going to be over simplifying the comparison, as there are so many factors that can be analyzed.

 
Pounds of extracted materials required for manufacturing

e-Reader
Book
14.9
0.15
Kilowatt hours of electricity required for manufacturing

e-Reader
Book
100
2
Litres of water required for manufacturing

e-Reader
Book
299
7.57
 

Taking an average of those values (fully understanding that the number we've derived is now some sort of fictional quotient, but can provide us a very non-fictional ball park representation of relative impact), e-Readers have the same ecological impact as roughly the purchase of 63 books. Canadians read an average of 13.8 books a year. So, doing a little math here that I oh-so-love to do, Canadians need an e-Reader to last 4.6 years to break even ecologically. In reality, that number would actually need to be higher, because we haven't factored in the electricity used to operate the device, as well as the electricity powering networks and data centres that allow for e-Book sales.

Numbers are sourced from here, they're in the same magnitude as all other figures I found.

So are e-Readers still offering hope of a future that uses technology wisely to bring us to a life style more harmonious with our environment? It looks like the answer is no, but not necessarily because of what the device does. 4.6 years for a gadget's lifetime in today's world is becoming increasingly harder a challenge for us, and as long as it is, no technology on Earth will be sustainable. How often have you seen everyone from powerful politicians to lowly commentors on news sites state that we don't need to change our ways because technological innovation will give us the solutions to fix our ecological problems? If we don't change our ways, the right technologies may come by, like e-Readers, but we will be too busy consuming the crap out of it to make a difference. How did we get into this mess? We need someone to blame for it!

Anger.

"I'm not to blame, It's the tech companies' fault, they keep releasing new models!"

Do you remember when you were a kid and your family’s TV was older than you were? Or your walkman got you through most of your youth? Or your family used a rotary dial telephone in to the 2000s? Okay, maybe last example was just my family, but the point is that we all have examples of technology we owned that did what we wanted it to do and it lasted a long time. Or at least we had examples of that.  The problem is that the idea of buying a new gadget and having it last decades is an idea that's become completely lost in our generation. Technology used to be an investment, and now it's becoming more and more disposable.

So should we be angry at business? Certainly, but if we only blame them, are we not responsible for own actions? Businesses certainly go out of their way to show us the strengths of their product while isolating us from the impact of it's manufacturing and consumption. It's deceptive and hard for the average consumer to determine what products have less an impact and buy accordingly, and that's a problem, but businesses exist to be profitable, and it is up to us consumers to determine whether they will be or not. If a technology manufacturer's business plan for growth is to market incremental changes as revolutionary in order to boost sales, and we support it, is it really that company's fault for releasing new models often, or our own fault for endorsing it? Think of how many people you know who got rid of their perfectly good phone for the latest model. A product's life cycle is no longer from when we buy it to when it fails, but when we buy it to when it's not as nice as what's out there. The marketplace has capitalized on this culture accordingly. But what's the harm in buying just one more phone, anyway?

 

Bargaining.

"I'd do anything to upgrade my phone every year!"
e-WasteSo fresh and so clean...
e-WasteWe don't see when it becomes a scene from WALL-E.
(Photo from http://impeltfs.eu)

We already do anything to satisfy our technology demand, no matter how morally bankrupt it might be. We fuel the bloodiest war since World War 2. We recycle very little of our e-waste. What little we 'recycle' is often dumped as waste, poisoning the developing world. We drive workers to suicide from the low-wages and long-hours that allow the prices we pay to stay artificially low. We pollute the world through the amount of shipping required in product supply chains. It goes on and on and on.

These are all established facts about the consequences of the technology market. They can't be disregarded due to a "lack of consensus" no matter where you sit politically. Glossy marketing campaigns and sleek-looking product designs suggest that the devices we buy are part of a bright tech-savvy planet-saving future. In reality, this is just the ignorant bliss of the marketplace, hiding the dark realities of the mass production and consumption of these gadgets we are responsible for. Just because many of us drive the industry, and not only a few, doesn't mean we are no longer responsible for it's consequences. It's sad to think how we collectively wash our hands of atrocities like these simply because so many people are complicit in allowing it to happen. Which of course, brings us to the next stage.

 

Depression.

"How can I justify making a living off computers?!"

I know this article has really been a heavy one, but it's a heavy issue, and will only be more so if we don't acknowledge and tackle it - the good news is, it's not all bad. Despite all the ugliness I've mentioned, there are obviously many good things that have come from our demand for technology. Innovation. Education. Communication. Health care. These fundamental facets of the human condition have never been better. We wouldn't buy into technology if it wasn't doing good things for us, and it is.

Acceptance.

"The way we consume technology causes social, economic and environmental problems."

Technology is part of the solution to our social, economic, and environmental issues, but our addiction to it is largely the problem. Devices like e-Readers can change the future for the better, but only if we take advantage of these technologies responsibly. Unfortunately, we are addicts, and the way we consume electronics isn't responsible. Devices that should be useful for the better part of a life time are being readily disposed of for the latest and greatest things. The consumption culture we have created isn't sustainable. I'm a product of this culture. I present this entire article with no more moral authority on the issue than anyone else. I am aware of the problem at large and my negative contributions to it.

Many are still stuck in the denial phase and not aware this is a problem at all. Ignoring headlines about mineral fueled civil wars, disregarding the wide spread problems of pollution, not linking rising energy demand to their own consumption, wondering why the developing world struggles for economic improvement as we take advantage of their poor labour markets and over-politicizing all these issues seemingly to avoid taking any positive action. We need to accept that our technology addiction causes very real problems. Only once we accept this, can we bring about change to make our habits more responsible. I'd like to know how you think we can fix our ways, because this is a conversation we all need to have. With all that said, I leave you all with my proposals for a greener future, all of which require strong personal and political will:
 
  • Green energy: Harnessing smarter technologies, we have great potential to lower our impact on the environment by shifting away from traditional manufacturing of books, papers, magazines, albums, movies & software to digital media, but only if the power consumed by digital media is powered from sustainable energy sources. If we keep using fossil fuels to power our data centres we do nothing to lessen our environmental impact. It's like buying an electric car but plugging it nightly to a power grid based off of coal, and then somehow feeling good about that.

     
  • Paying the true cost of our electronics: Many people believe the free-market will solve the problem because products will be more expensive to purchase as they become more unsustainable. That may be true, but we won't know because our market isn't representative of the true cost of our purchases. The gadgets we buy have been subsidized the world over. Workers in the developing world subsidize our products with their poor wages. Our health care system subsidizes our products with treatment for the sick from pollution increases and chemical contaminants, and so on and so on. It may be an impossible task, but we need to be charged for our products closer to the actual price of their impact, with that additional money going towards reducing the impact.

     
  • Transparent and accountable business practices: Stronger government legislation is needed to ensure that businesses better document their social and environmental impacts to the public at large. We are so isolated from the negative impacts of what we buy that it's tough to make educated decisions. It might sound silly, but printing images of e-waste mountains (like the one featured above) on to the packaging along with some numbers about the problem may get people thinking, just like graphic images on cigarette packages vastly improved awareness of the consequences of smoking. People are smarter than we are given credit for, when we are provided with information, we make better decisions.

     
  • Responsible buying: We aren't going to stop innovating and developing new technology, and we aren't going to stop buying it either, but we can be responsible about our habits. Buy less often. Stretch out the lifespan of your devices. They may not be as nice and shiny as the latest models, but often the core features you originally bought the product for are exactly the same as the new models. We need to make sharing, and not owning, a more important part of our technology culture. We need to support companies with business models based on less ownership and more sharing. (Netflix Canada, get more selection!). With the wide availability of devices, we personalize our gadgets to our lifestyle, and this has had the severe impact of creating a disposable market place. We need to actively make decisions every day to shift the market place back to something with longevity.