This is an issue I've been struggling with for a long time. I'm an unrepentant, unabashed technophile. OK, well, not so unrepentant or unabashed since I'm writing this post on the varied factors around technology and the environment, and have been thinking about this issue for myself for a long time. And I will start this post off by being clear - this is as much of an internal, personal conflict for me, and a way in which I see my own behavior and my values diverge at times. We are approaching a time when just about everyone should be thinking hard about use of fossil fuels, consumption and waste. Global climate change is beginning to affect our lives in a real way. I offer this set of data points, if you will, with the hope that it will spark some thinking and perhaps discussion. Cloud computing There is some argument as to whether or not cloud computing is good or bad for the environment. On one hand, you have folks saying that moving organizational data and functions into the cloud means gaining efficiencies not possible in server rooms. Most organizational servers do not run at full capacity, whereas servers in the cloud generally are using more of their available capacity. One could argue that 100 servers running at 1/2 capacity is better than 200 servers running at 1/4 capacity. That said, we are doing a lot more than just moving stuff out to the cloud. We are creating whole new infrastructures that didn't exist before (think Facebook, Google, etc.) But it also means that we can use lighter clients. Will the move to, for instance, tablet and phone computing be a net positive or negative benefit in terms of resource consumption? Green Hosting There are a ton of hosting companies claiming that they are "green hosting." Just Google it. And you might see "powered by wind power" or some such. The truth is more complicated. Green hosting companies are just like any other hosting company. They have a big data center that's attached to the grid, from which they draw power. And they become "green" by purchasing renewable energy credits, or by purchasing carbon offsets. There are some arguments about whether or not these are really helping the environment. Figuring this out is far beyond the scope of this article. But I think it's fair to say that the jury is still out on this one. Production and Disposal of Technology Equipment So this is where it gets ugly. I remember, back in the heady days of the early Circuit Rider movement, when one of the big issues was that nonprofits had old, outdated equipment, and they never budgeted for its timely replacement. I remember we talked about planning to replace 1/4 to 1/3 of the hardware in an organization each year. The logic behind this is very hard to fault. Computing changes at a breathtaking pace. Software is written for current high-end hardware, so upgrading software on older machines is either painful or impossible. The argument goes - nonprofits need up-to-date tools to do their work effectively. It all makes sense, but what results is nonprofit technology's contribution to e-waste. And as our tools get more and more functional, and slimmer and smaller, and, well, cooler, we're more than happy to toss the old stuff in the trash. We don't see or interact with e-waste. We leave that to China, Ghana, and other countries. E-waste pollutes the environment and poisons people. And all because this technology, all of it, is "designed for the dump." (Follow that link, please.) (And, parenthetically, although it's not really about the environment, check out this information about Coltan, a necessary ingredient in many electronics, including mobile phones.) And then there are the resources that go into producing our technological gizmos. For instance, it takes 500 pounds of fossil fuel, 50 pounds of metal, and an enormous 1.5 tons of water to make the average computer. That is a staggering amount of resources. And, between phones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, desktops, servers, routers ... it's an incredible amount of resource consumption and waste. So what to do? I recently read this article that I found interesting on "Seven Criteria for the Adoption of New Technology." It's written by someone who is working at living a simple life, and finds the same kind of conflicts in this that I do:
As the world rushes toward an overcrowded but new and improved grave full of “articulated task lamps” with “industrial style charm,” wines with “velvety” appeal, and cordless window shades that are “safe® for children and pets” (that’s just one section of today’s paper), I find my supposedly simple-living self caught on the same slow slide toward more. The bike I ride now is better than the one I had a year ago. Before long I’ll need a new computer, and it will be better than the one I have now. The force of inevitability takes over. What is one to do? How exactly, and realistically, can a person resist, or cope, or somehow do something other than just get swept along? My impulse is to rant.Here are my modified seven criteria: 1) How would the technology affect dynamics of organizations, friends, family and community? 2) Would it help us live and/or work in more stable circles, and strengthen our communities? 3) Is there a way to limit it, or does it push us down the slippery slope to even more? 4) Would it do “work that is clearly and demonstrably better” than the thing it replaces? 5) Who would want us to get it, and who would not? 6) Would it bring joy and satisfaction to life? 7) Does it represent what we believe in? Thoughts?