Digital: the great accelerator of the climate emergency

The Website Carbon Calculator is a real go-to tool for me when I want to find out how much CO2 a particular Web page is creating. This, and many other great initiatives, comes from Wholegrain Digital, a company founded by Vineeta and Tom Greenwood in 2007. Tom has recently published an excellent book, Sustainable Web Design, for A Book Apart. I wanted to know how Vineeta and Tom got started so early in promoting a culture of sustainable Web design.

“If I’m being honest,” Tom replied, “when we started the business in 2007, we were very much moving into digital as a panacea to environmental problems. Vineeta was an electronics engineer and I was an industrial designer. We were both very much concerned about the manufacture, use and disposal of so much physical stuff. And really looking at digital as a potential solution to that.”

I remember first coming across Greta Thunberg and all those other young idealistic and practical doers and thinking: “Great to see this happening. Glad I’m working in such a green industry like digital.” In fact, for many years I had argued that digital was by default better for the environment because it was not physical.

In the last 100 years in the physical world humans have run rampant. According to Jason Hickel in his excellent book Less Is More, the metric for raw material consumption “tallies up the total weight of all the stuff humans extract and consume each year, including biomass, metals, minerals, fossil fuels and construction materials. These figures tell an astonishing story. … In the decades after 1945, something truly bewildering happens. As GDP growth becomes entrenched as a core political objective around the world, and as economic expansion starts to accelerate, material use explodes: it reaches 35 billion tons by 1980, hits 50 billion tons by 2000, and then screams up to an eye-watering 92 billion tons by 2017.”

Over the years, I have read many accounts such as the above. It seems that from the Seventies onwards we began to behave like drunken sailors on the earth. We began extracting, producing, consuming and wasting at levels unimaginable even 50 years previously. And our waste, our toxic, poisonous waste, spread across the planet like a plague. It’s estimated that within the next 50 years the weight of plastic in the sea will grow bigger than the weight of fish. Our grossly wasteful behavior is literally creating a sedimentary layer of plastic. We will be remembered in history as the plastic people who destroyed conditions for life on the planet.

I began to wonder about digital’s role in all this. As the digital revolution exploded in the Seventies, so too did raw material extraction, consumption and waste production. As the Web accelerated in the Nineties, so too all the life-destroying metrics accelerated. What was happening? Was digital an innocent bystander? The more I’ve researched, the more I’ve come to realize that digital is the great secret accelerator of the climate crisis. That it has fed and nurtured a culture of wanton disposability and waste, convenience at any cost. Digital culture, founded on speed and transience, is the engine of the climate crisis. If we don’t break our addiction to the easy fixes that digital delivers, we cannot solve the climate crisis.

Website Carbon Calculator
Sustainable Web Design, Tom Greenwood
Less Is More, Jason Hickel

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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