5G: A symptom of the Growth Death Cult

5G is a symptom of our scientific and technological obsession with efficiency, progress, growth, innovation. It’s a great technology. It improves on 4G. It’s faster. It’s more efficient at transferring data. It is also one more tool we designed in order to destroy our environment.

5G is like 8K video. There is a scientific wow factor to it. It’s amazing. Like practically all modern technology, it’s environmentally damaging. There’s no real need for it. When using a smartphone or laptop, the eye can’t see a difference above 2K resolution. Yet, from a weight perspective, an 8K video can be at least 10 times heavier.

“The point is that 5G is a solution that is looking for a killer app,” Manuel Vexler tells me. “5G exceeds our biological capabilities to read, to watch, to listen. I don’t know a killer app for 5G.” Manuel Vexler is the Executive Director at the Actionable Knowledge Foundational Institute (AKFI) and a Cornell instructor and facilitator. He has a wealth of experience in leading and facilitating discussions on sustainability and digital transformation.

We are trapped in a scientific, industrial society that sees the environment as a cheap resource and a cheap dump. In a previous chat I had with another engineer, Pietro Jarre, he talked about how, when he was studying engineering, the environment was never considered in any genuine way. It was all about efficiency. He told me, how thirty years later, when his sons were studying engineering, it was still the same obsession with efficiency.

Manuel agreed. He told me about how in engineering school, “they don’t teach us anything about the environment. They train us to improve things. It’s another word for efficiency. We’re never asked to solve a social problem. We’re only asked to solve a technical problem. Can you increase the base stations? Yes. Can you reduce the power on the base station? Yes. It's not the environment that they reduce the power for.”

5G is one more example of a technology that is racing to the bottom while reaching for the top. The true and total cost to the environment needs to be a core part of the management and design process, not some greenwashing marketing and branding sprayed on for launch. We must change the way we design products. “We need people that are transdisciplinary,” Manuel explains. “Then we can have a conversation about the environment as well as about the technology. We need to be much more holistic, much more system oriented if we want to fix the problem of the environment.”

5G is about massive quantities of data transferred and processed at great speed. On a per-megabyte level, it will be more “efficient” than 4G. If 5G works, we’ll have self-driving cars and surveillance cameras tracking every step we take, every move we make. We’ll be dealing with hundreds if not thousands of times more data, so that the total cost to the environment is going to be absolutely huge. Much more mining. Much more toxic waste. Much more energy. Much more waste water.

5G will simply speed up our ability to devour our environment. Before we will see any real change, Manuel believes that “there has to be a catastrophic event near to the homes of the people who make the decisions.”

5G: A symptom of the Growth Death Cult

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
Listen to episodes