Introduction: Why digital is killing our planet

Digital is physical

Digital is physical. Every byte is supported by an atom. Every single action in digital costs the Earth energy. Turn the electricity off and you turn digital off. Digital is demanding an increasing share of the Earth’s energy and resources and is a major contributor to the generation of toxic trash, to a culture of disposability, convenience and the most wasteful behavior ever seen in human history. 

Used wisely, digital could be saving our planet, making things more productive and efficient, and more environmentally friendly, while improving living standards. Right now, however, digital is killing our planet. It is helping make the rich the super-rich, the middle class the working class, and the working class the working poor. 

The climate is warming, reaching dangerous levels at abnormal speeds. “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated. “These findings have been recognized by the national science academies of the major industrialized nations and are not disputed by any scientific body of national or international standing,” Wikipedia has confirmed. 

We are using resources at unsustainable levels and we are creating massive quantities of useless and often dangerous waste. It’s all speeding up at a frenetic pace. In the last 50 years, humans have been wasting the Earth at unprecedented levels. In the last 50 years, digital technology has grown at unprecedented levels. 

For us lucky enough to be employed in digital it has been boom time. In my home country, Ireland, digital has turned parts of the Emerald Isle into the Silicon Isle. In Dublin, the average annual pay packet of a Facebook employee in 2017 was €154,000, according to the Irish Times, with the average Irish full-time salary being €46,000. Yet while the tech elite thrive, much of the rest of society struggles.

I was lucky enough to catch the Internet wave back around 1994. It was incredibly exciting and financially rewarding. It seemed obvious to me that digital was a good thing for our society and economy. When more people started talking about global warming in the early 2000s, I felt lucky to be involved in a sector that I believed was inherently environmentally friendly. Becoming more digital seemed like the answer to global warming. Our physical activities were destroying the planet, but our digital activities would help save it. That’s what I believed.

I had some nagging doubts, though. Since the late Nineties, I have worked on a lot of intranets and internal systems. Peering inside a typical organization at their IT infrastructure was like going on an archaeological dig. The external “branding” may have made the organization look modern but the internal IT systems had that ancient feeling to them, riven with complexity and appallingly designed; usability close to zero. 

In organization after organization I was told by employees that it was really hard to find anything on the intranet. It took them literally years to understand how arcane systems worked and where everything was, and they could only do that by constantly asking questions of more experienced employees. As time went by, things weren’t improving. As I was writing this book, I talked to a developer at one of the world’s largest IT consultancies. Their own intranet was a joke, a nightmare, he told me. This isn’t the promise of IT. Software isn’t supposed to suck this much.

I began to wonder whether we had too much digital “planned obsolescence” “innovation” and not enough social and organizational innovation. Had digital become a creature trained to eat itself, waste itself, replace itself as quickly as possible so as to maximize short-term growth? 

Do we have too much software and hardware, and too little quality design, too little quality thinking? Too little time to do the right thing in an age of digital gadgets and services promising to save us time? 

Digital puts you on speed. Digital is a stressor. You can move 50,000 words in digital around the world in seconds. Moving a 50,000-word book is going to require a lot more effort and time. Because we can do things much faster in digital, we do. Its nature calls us to speed up. Left in its natural state, digital gets faster and faster. Nearly all the digital projects I was involved with were hungry for the low-hanging fruit, the quick wins. “We know this is the right way to do it, but we don’t have time,” was a recurrent mantra. We don’t have time to do it right. We only have time to do it wrong. 

In the last 50 years, while there has been a huge investment in information technology, productivity and return on assets have been poor. “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” Nobel laureate Robert Solow stated in 1987. There was a positive productivity uptake during the mid-Nineties but since the Great Recession, that has fallen away severely. Between 2010 and 2020, productivity growth in the UK, for example, was a truly miserable 0.3%, according to the Royal Statistical Society. “The UK has just had its worst decade for productivity growth since the early 1800s,” Harriet Grant wrote for The Guardian in 2019. Since the 1800s?

The tech evangelists have been making the argument that we should expect a delay from when a new technology is launched to when the society and economy fully understands how to get the best out of it. Maybe. They’ve been making that argument for decades now. A much deeper issue than productivity is general societal prosperity. Artificial intelligence promises to eliminate not just working-class jobs but also many middle-class ones. Digital has and will continue to deliver inordinate rewards for a tiny elite, while taking the jobs of millions and turning millions of others into low paid “gig economy” serfs. Digital concentrates power. Digital concentrates wealth.

Correlation is not causation. Just because massive investments in digital technology are correlated with a rapid increase in global warming, rapid growth in natural resource depletion, huge increases in waste production, poor productivity, and a decline in the middle class in the very economies who have embraced digital the most, it does not mean that digital caused all these things. 

Digital could be an innocent bystander to historical events outside its control or ability to influence. Which is a bit worrying, isn’t it? I totally bought into this whole Digital Revolution thing that kicked off in the mid-Nineties with the advent of the World Wide Web. If we’re saying that there’s no causation here, are we also saying that Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google (FANG) don’t matter that much to the big picture? That FANG has had no real impact—either positive or negative—on global warming, productivity and the decline of the middle class? That the Web itself is neither here nor there when it comes to the lives of ordinary people? That all this Digital Revolution stuff is just tech candy? That’s a hard sell, isn’t it? 

Digital is no innocent bystander. Digital matters. Digital is shaping our lives. Digital is shaping our planet. Digital is an accelerant and a concentrator. Right now, it is accelerating bad behavior and concentrating wealth. Digital puts the foot to the pedal and shunts us forward at a speed we are currently not capable of coping with. Beyond certain points, speed becomes dangerous and highly wasteful. We are racing into the future with no seat belt. 

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when we have used more natural resources than the Earth can regenerate in a given year. In 2019, it was July 29. It is the “advanced” digital economies that are doing by far the most overshooting. In the United States, 2019 Overshoot Day arrived on March 15, in Canada on March 16, in Denmark on March 29, in Sweden on April 3, in Finland on April 6. At the other end of the calendar, in Indonesia Overshoot Day didn’t arrive until December 18, in Ecuador on December 14, in Iraq on December 7. Think of what would happen to the Earth if every country became an “advanced” digital nation? Whether global warming is happening or not, the way we live in the “advanced” digital world is not sustainable.

Every year, Overshoot Day gets earlier. When the 1970s started, it was close to January 1, so we were in a type of balance, with the Earth renewing at the same pace as we were using up resources. As you’ll see throughout this book, in the last 40–50 years we’ve gone into hyperdrive, using up everything at a pace never before seen in human history.

Useless waste

Up to 90% of what we take from the Earth and make into digital stuff, quickly ends up as waste, much of it useless, toxic and dangerous. Digital is the most ravenous and fastest growing child in a mob of production hunting down natural resources. According to the 2019 International Resource Panel report:

  • The use of natural resources has more than tripled since 1970 and continues to grow. 
  • From 2000 to 2015, the climate change and health impacts from extraction and production of metals doubled.
  • 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by resource extraction and processing.

Consumption is ramping up at a speed never before experienced in human history. China consumed 6.6 gigatons of cement between 2011 and 2013. That’s more cement than the US consumed during the entire 20th century, Forbes reported. “The world has almost doubled its energy consumption since 1980,” Bloomberg reported in 2019.

It is hard to even imagine how wasteful we are as a species. The more research I did for this book, the more shocked I became. Huge quantities of products never even get bought and end up as waste. The stuff we buy, a great deal of it we barely even use—it ends up as waste. We hardly recycle. Most stuff goes straight to the dump or into the ocean. Humans are wasters.

Digital encourages extreme waste and an extreme waste mindset. I will focus throughout this book on how 90% of what we do in digital is either useless waste to begin with or else quickly ends up in a data dump or a physical dump. 90%. It’s one thing to deplete natural resources in order to create useful things, things that we need to live, to eat, to keep warm, to get around in, to be entertained with. To dig up the Earth in order to create a giant dump of unnecessary crap, of half-baked products and services, of gadgets that meet nothing but a passing whim, to leave YouTube streaming in an empty room on a large screen, to back up files that have absolutely no useful function, that sort of behavior should make us feel ashamed. 

“72% of the global ice-free land surface is dedicated to supporting humans,” according to Mark Lynas writing for CNN in 2019. There are at least five million species and possibly many more, according to research by the University of Sydney, but between a quarter and a third of the entire output of the world’s plants is consumed by the human species. 

In the last 40 years, there has been a 60% decline in the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, according to the World Wildlife Fund. “More than half of all insects may have disappeared since 1970,” the World Economic Forum reported in 2020. The UN has described the situation as “unprecedented” and “accelerating.” Digital rises, nature declines. 

I still believe that, properly used, digital can help us conserve this beautiful planet. It is digital that is helping us analyze the vast amount of data on climate. It is digital that allows us to make reasonably accurate predictions. Digital can help us plan better and work more efficiently, thus saving energy and resources. Digital has massive positive potential. 

Thinking in trees

There are about three trillion trees in the world, according research by Thomas Crowther, a professor at Yale. Since the beginning of human civilization, the global number of trees has fallen by about 46%. We lose 15 billion trees a year, according to Time magazine, and plant five billion, according to Tentree, giving us a net loss of 10 billion. 

Trees breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, which makes them an ideal part of the solution to climate change. A part. The scientific consensus is that it is not possible to plant nearly enough trees to even come close to combating global warming. We need to plant ideas and take action even faster. Ideas that focus on consuming less and conserving more.

Trees can absorb anything from 6 kg to 22 kg of CO2 per year. “The average Pine tree absorbs about 10 kilograms of CO2 per year,” GoTreeQuotes states. For simplicity purposes, I will use a figure of 10 kg in my calculations throughout the rest of the book. 

It’s not that simple, though. It never is. Almost all trees both emit and absorb methane, a gas that, while it lasts in the atmosphere for a lot less time than CO2, is estimated to be 30 times more polluting. In tropical rainforests, in particular, trees can emit substantially more methane than they absorb. However, “In the wider world of climate change, their benefits are almost always much greater,” researcher Sunitha Pangala told YaleEnvironment360. “Even for an individual tree, the methane element usually turns out to be quite small compared to carbon storage.” Trees, of course, have many other benefits, as journalist Fred Pearce points out: “They recycle moisture, create shade, stimulate cloud formation, protect biodiversity, and cleanse the air.”

It was only relatively recently that Sunitha Pangala’s research helped identify the methane impact of trees, and she did it with the support of digital technology. Digital can help us understand our world much better. It can give us the information that can help us to optimize our environment, to target where the waste comes from, and to promote activities that conserve. Perhaps there are certain types of tree that produce less methane? Digital can help us find out. But we must want to do this. We must want to conserve. We must want to not waste. 

We need to plant more trees. Again, here’s where technology can help. Drones can plant trees 150 times faster than traditional methods and with tremendous accuracy, reaching areas that are inaccessible to humans. They’re also cheaper. 

This is not a book about digital’s amazing potential. It is a book about why we have not nearly realized that potential, how we are in fact currently using it in ways that are destructive to societal wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet. I’m going to suggest actions that we can take to take control of digital so that we use it for more positive purposes.

One of the most difficult challenges with digital is to truly grasp what it is, its form, its impact on the physical world. I want to help give you a feel for digital. Throughout the book, I’m going to analyze how many trees would need to be planted to offset a particular digital activity. For example: 

  • 1.6 billion trees would have to be planted to offset the pollution caused by email spam.
  • 1.5 billion trees would need to be planted to deal with annual e-commerce returns in the US alone. 
  • 231 million trees would need to be planted to deal with the pollution caused as a result of the data US citizens consumed in a 2019.
  • 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google. 

Print or digital?

When I started off writing this book my idea was that it should only be available in a digital format because that would be much more environmentally friendly than a print version. I wanted to show that, under the right circumstances, digital was clearly better for the environment. As I did my research, I found that it was not as simple as I had first thought.

Digital creates a sort of mirage when it comes to environmental friendliness. It can feel better for the environment to read something on a screen than to pick up a physical book. A digital book feels “lighter” than a physical book. All is not what it seems. The weight of digital is displaced from the book itself to the device upon which you read it, and from the device to the data center and the network that stores and delivers the book. Increasingly, your behavior as you read the book is being analyzed. That costs energy. There is always a weight to digital, always a cost to the Earth. Too often it is a hidden weight and a hidden cost.

When we look out across a physical landscape, we can generally get a sense of it. It’s not so easy with digital. Our senses were not designed for digital interactions. We can be easily fooled. We need to train ourselves better to understand the true nature of digital, the true impact of digital on ourselves and on the Earth, as well as its true potential to make the environment better. We can do this. It will take time and effort.

According to a 2010 New York Times analysis, one e-reader required 50 times the minerals and 40 times the amount of water to manufacture than a print book. You’d need to read more than 100 books on an e-reader before it would have a lower pollution impact than reading the equivalent number of print books. A 2009 analysis by Clean Tech consultancy had a much lower figure, estimating that you’d only need to read about 23 books on an e-reader before it would be a better choice for the environment. 

In 2016, Pew Research reported that a typical US citizen reads about four books a year. That would mean that an average person would need to hold on to their e-reader anywhere from six to 25 years for it to become the environmentally friendly choice. 

Another thing that tends to happen in digital—particularly in the “free” model—is download without consumption. Richard Lea, writing for The Guardian in 2015, reported on studies of e-book reading that showed that 60% of e-books bought were never opened. The completion rates for those that were started could be as low as 20%. Not surprisingly, one study by e-book maker Kobo found that the more people paid for a book, they more likely they were to read it. Waste flows from the free mindset.

70% to 90% of the total pollution caused by a digital device is caused during its manufacture. This is a relatively new phenomenon, as traditional manufactured electrical/petrol-based products tend to cause most of their pollution during their lifetime of use. What this means is that the moment you buy an e-reader you acquire something that has already caused very significant pollution. It needs to be used a lot before it is “better” for the environment than reading in print. 

Of course, using something digital does cause some pollution. There is the cost of downloading the content and there is the cost of processing and reading it. If the content is “free” then these costs can be substantial because digital advertising, which underpins the free model, is highly toxic and environmentally damaging.

A 2009 study from the Swedish KTH Center for Sustainable Communications found that if you read news for about 10 minutes a day, then digital was a more environmentally friendly option. However, if you read news for more than 30 minutes a day, a print newspaper was the best option. A 2019 study of music streaming by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo found that if you listened to a particular song a lot, it would be better to play that song from a CD or have it stored on your local hard drive, rather than constantly streaming it. 

Luckily, books are generally not advertising dependent, so the impact of a particular book is down to its file size. The things that influence digital file size include: 

  • The number of images, charts and tables used and the formats they are saved in.
  • Whether the book is full color or black and white.
  • The number of pages.
  • The type of font being used. If it is a standard font, the impact will be low. If it is a custom font the impact will be higher.
  • The number of words have relatively little impact on file size because text itself is by far the most environmentally friendly form of communication.

In 2018, I published Top Tasks. It was almost 42,000 words. It was in black and white except for a simple two-color cover. This book, World Wide Waste, is 51,000 words. It’s in black and white, including cover.

Top Tasks had quite a few tables and webpage screengrabs. Its epub file size was 5.5 MB. World Wide Waste has no images or tables. It has almost 20% more words though. It has an epub file size of 0.35 MB. Its file size is thus nearly 94% smaller than that for Top Tasks, even though it has 9,000 more words. That’s a huge weight difference. That’s much lighter on the environment, less stressful, less polluting.

A reason why World Wide Waste has a much smaller carbon footprint than Top Tasks is because I was thinking about digital weight throughout the entire processes of writing and publishing. For example, I chose Times New Roman as the book font because it is a standard font. Had I chosen a custom font, that would have added extra weight. At every step in the process, I watched my weight, and it paid off. 

We must always think about the weight of digital. Things can get very heavy very quickly without us noticing. Weight equals pollution. It is often unnecessary weight. It does not add any value. In digital, we are constantly negatively impacting the environment for no benefit to anyone. There’s not much point in saving the planet offline if you’re killing it online. Think of the weight of everything you do in digital.

I have set out to make this book the least weight possible. It is black and white, and I have not used images or charts. I have used Times New Roman as a font, which is a standard font, thus it will have less weight.

The whole process of writing and researching this book has been a major wake-up call for me. It’s only a few years ago that, as I was reading about a small group of concerned citizens protesting against the opening of an Apple data center in Ireland, I was thinking to myself: “What are these fools doing? Why are they against jobs and progress? What could be wrong with a data center?”

There’s a lot wrong with data centers, despite the fact that they have become much more energy efficient. The millions of computer servers that they use all require significant energy to manufacture, contributing to the mountains of e-waste and pollution. These data centers facilitate Instagram Culture which accelerates fast fashion; they facilitate Ride-Hailing Culture which accelerates congestion and pollution; they facilitate Ecommerce Culture which has accelerated the return of goods so that now it is three times higher than the rate in physical stores. 

Key actions

Before you do anything in digital, think about its impact on the environment. Think about the Earth Experience, not just the user or customer experience. Focus on reducing the weight of your digital footprint. Reduce the digital waste. Before you make a decision relating to digital, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What’s the total lifetime impact on the environment? 
  2. How do we minimize this impact? 
  3. How do we reduce as much waste as possible?
  4. Do you need to do this digitally? Do you? Do you really need to do this at all?

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