The data pollution problem

In 2020 we will create, capture, copy, and consume almost 60 zettabytes of data. By 2025, it will be 200 zettabytes, according to Cybersecurity Ventures. By 2035, there will be more than 2,000 zettabytes of data in the world.

In my interview with data expert Nick Evanson I asked him to calculate how much it would cost to store 2,000 zettabytes of data. Based on current prices, Nick told me, to store 2,000 plus zettabytes would cost about $58 trillion dollars. The global economy is worth about $80 trillion and could be worth $130 trillion by 2035. So, if data keeps exploding in the big bang tsunami that is currently happening, we could be spending about 40% of global economic output just to store data.

A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes. Yes, a trillion, which is a thousand billion. If you printed out a zettabyte of data you’d need the paper from 20 trillion trees. (There are a little over three trillion trees left on this planet.)

We are creating data in unimaginable, unheard-of quantities. We have created far more data in the last two years than in all of previous history. The vast majority of this data is crap. It’s useless waste.

The technology economy is actually built on waste. The entire model seeks to create as much waste as possible by encouraging people to create as much useless crap as possible and by designing products that will have the shortest life cycles possible.

Digital e-waste delivers fantastic short-term returns for the technology industry, yet is incredibly destructive of life on this planet. Here’s just one example why. The habitat of the Western Lowland gorilla in the Congo is under threat. In the home of the gorillas you will find most of the global resources for “a dull black metallic ore from which are extracted the elements niobium and tantalum,” according to Wikipedia. “Tantalum from coltan is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors which are used for mobile phones, personal computers, etc.”

About 80% of the pollution a digital device will create happens during its manufacture. The fact that most digital devices have very short lives massively increases their pollution impact. To make matters even worse, rich countries collect their old phones and computers and ship them back to poor countries, often in Africa, where they are then dumped, creating even more pollution.

What can we do?

  1. Think long and hard before you buy digital devices. They may seem cheap but they have a massive pollution cost to the earth.
  2. Hold on to your devices as long as possible. If they break get them fixed. And if they can’t be fixed, demand why. Make some noise. Write to your local politician.
  3. Stop creating data. Think long and hard before you create, collect or store data. Do you really need it? Is it genuinely useful?
  4. Reduce data consumption. Everything digital requires energy and thus creates pollution. If you can avoid using digital, and simply walk, think or ride a bicycle, do it.

The technology industry has grown super rich by being super bad for the planet. All the pollution and nastiness is cleverly hidden, exported out of sight. We can massively cut the waste by using technology wisely rather than wastefully. It will mean more modest profits for Big Tech but for the Western Lowland gorillas and so much other life on this planet, it will mean the chance of a future.

Big Data growth is not sustainable: Gerry McGovern chats with Nick Evanson

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