The true and total cost of free

Much of the digital world is built on lies. A search is not free. A tweet is not free. Facebook is not free. Packing and shipping are not free. Every years, billions of trees are cut down for packaging. Every year, Amazon uses enough plastic to smother the Earth. Delivery trucks cost. We return four times more bought online than in stores. Most returns end up being dumped rather than resold. Cheap and free cost the Earth.

The digital brands cleverly hide from us the true and total costs, and we hide from ourselves the acknowledgment that costs must be paid so that we can do these things for ‘free.’

We are in a climate crisis that has exploded onto a whole other level of harm since the 1970s. Of all the CO2 damage that humans caused over millions of years, we have caused 75% of it since 1970. In 50 years we caused three times more damage than in the previous three million years. This explosion in harm runs hand in hand with the explosion in technology.

A human with their bare hands can only do so much damage. A human with a smartphone is lethal. To manufacture, that phone caused 60 kg of CO2; 90 kg of earth were dug up; 4,000 liters of water were wasted. Using the phone, we can book ‘cheap’ flights, order four pairs of jeans when we only intend to keep one, browse the superficial features of the next planet-killing SUV we plan to buy. Digital has turned humans into devourers.

This is some of the cost of free. Relentless, AI-manipulating advertising. Google is an AI advertising machine, not a search engine. Facebook is an advertising machine, not a community. The free model of the Internet can only be maintained through overconsumption and constant growth. If we continue this free model, we are guaranteed to eliminate life on Earth within the next 50 years.

In 1970, we dug from the Earth 25 billion tons of material. In 2020, we dug 100 billion tons. In 2050 we will dig 170 billion tons. Mount Everest has a mass of 150 billion tons. Life on Earth cannot survive a species that is devouring a Mount Everest every year.

I have been very slow to change myself. Since 1996, I have been publishing this opinion piece for free. From January 2023, I intend to charge €10 for a 12-month subscription to the email version. Perhaps nobody will subscribe. That’s okay. It’s much better than sending thousands of emails every week to people who no longer want them. I will leave it for free on my website for those who genuinely can’t afford to pay but who would like to read it.

If you’re using the free model, I ask you to reconsider it. It is a poisonous and deceptive model, full of tricks and multi-layered costs. The advertising industry has an enormous underworld web, consuming vast quantities of energy and creating enormous and utterly unsustainable levels of waste.

Digital advertising is probably an even greater threat to life on Earth than the fossil fuel industry. Every time we buy into the Big Lie of free, we make a down-payment on our extinction.

When its free, you are the product and the Earth pays the price.

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