Efficiency and performance are environmentally destructive metrics

Efficiency nearly never leads to energy reduction. Performance nearly always involves the use of more materials.

It started in the coal mines of England. They needed a way to more efficiently mine coal. The steam engine gave them efficiency and power and they mined a lot more coal because of it, and with each improvement in performance and efficiency, more mining occurred and more waste and pollution were produced.

They used to mine gold by hand. Over time, the easy-to-find gold was used up. We needed innovation. It came in the form of cyanide and mercury, combined with high technology. As a result, it is vastly more devastating to the environment and to all forms of life. Today, to get enough gold to make one gold ring, 20 tons of toxic waste are created. That’s 99.9999% toxic waste. That waste will be piled up in a tailings dump, and over time that toxic dump will seep into the water table and physically collapse.

This is regarded as progress, innovation. This helps GDP. It supports growth. We have become very efficient at destroying the environment.

“I’m an engineer,” Pietro Jarre tells me. Pietro has spent a lifetime dealing with the environmental impacts of mining. “I notice that when I studied engineering forty years ago, as much as when my son, who is 35, studied engineering ten years ago, all we learned was a series of procedures, processes, methodologies, in order to increase the efficiency of units. The efficiency of an engine. The efficiency of a chip. The efficiency of a fridge.

“Technical engineers, they focus very much on reducing the unitary consumption, but actually the real stakeholder that matters—which is called Earth—the Earth don’t care about the efficiency of a single engine. The Earth cares—the Earth is impacted by the unitary efficiency multiplied by the number of tools which run. The Earth would be much less impacted if only one huge ship with a horrible 200-year-old engine carried goods from China to Europe. Instead of one million ships—with extreme efficiency. The point is how much we use, how many engines, how many computers and so on. The point is to reduce the consumption of materials, as well as to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use, of energy we use. The point is not to increase the efficiency of solar panels. The point is to use less electricity. Period. To create technologies that help us to use less materials instead of the opposite.

“All the technology industry today is developing products which increase our use of the Web. Today, the amount of bytes that we use is increasing at such a rate that we already have an impact on energy consumption. I don’t think the solution is to use renewable energy for data centers. The point is that we should not fill the data centers with all the crap that we’re filling them with. As much as with the mining industry, we are very, very, very efficient at creating huge dumps, huge landfills. It seems that humans’ first ability is to—sorry—shit in some place, and to leave the land full of garbage, waste, with data and materials and the like.

“Hoping that increasing efficiency will better the world is a very primitive thought. The issue should be tackled at the root. Let’s try to train engineers who understand how to decrease the number of cars used, not how to make the cars more efficient.”

Pietro Jarre podcast interview: No such thing as sustainable mining

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