FOSTER: Technology, environmentally harmful practices inseparable

Column: Techsploitation

Acid rain is pouring from the digital cloud. 

Save a tree by taking notes on an iPad, buy a Tesla and stop funding the oil industry. Increased usage of technology is often associated with eco-friendliness and enviro-wokeness. The internet itself, especially social media, has also been credited in part with the expansion and connectedness of today’s climate justice movement, and has indeed played an important role in rallying the public and gathering like-minded activists. 

Especially crucial is how accessible information is made about deforestation, fossil fuel usage and climate change (and about the governments and corporations most responsible for this crisis).

Certainly, modern technologies' role in creating positive change are not to be understated. 

The inner workings of the companies that create these devices and platforms are another story. In fact, the realm of the digital is rife with its own share of environmental exploitation, as well as violations in human rights for the people whose labor allows this technology to exist. 

Anatomy of an AI System is a visual map of the true costs of a single Amazon Echo, including the extensive environmental costs of the technology we use. One particular point of interest is the usage and subsequent depletion of rare metals in devices such as smartphones, digital assistants (Amazon Alexa and Google Home) and laptops.

Lithium and cobalt are extracted from Bolivia, Chile and Argentina to power smartphone batteries (8 grams per phone) and Teslas (7 kilograms per car), while the workers who mine these materials are paid approximately $1 a day. 

They are going to need to keep mining it. The iPhones are built to be replaced within a few years, their planned obsolescence necessitating upgrades to ever-shinier and better phones as newer versions continue to come out. With each discarded gadget, the demand for these finite natural resources increases, as well as the burgeoning weight of global electronic waste. 

The quantity and speed of device discard has been increasing further each year, according to a report from the Ends Europe agency from The Atlantic. "The share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years grew from 7 percent of total replacements in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013,” according to the article. Many of these devices are added to landfills with only 29 percent being recycled in 2012. 

This is a big problem, and it is going to keep getting bigger. 

The extent of the damage caused by technologies' environmental footprint is not only limited to the devices and products we can hold in our hands. It extends into the digital cloud itself, the space where data exists and platforms operate. 

We tend to see the internet as metaphysical, existing outside of any degree of influence upon the earth and its natural resources. But the information that is stored on the internet needs to live somewhere, such as in one of hundreds of thousands of data centers across the globe. Each one houses a technology company’s computer systems and information technology operations. They need to be kept running 24 hours a day, which means they eat up a lot of electricity.

In fact, data centers alone consume approximately 3 percent of the global electricity supplied annually and account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, giving it around the same carbon footprint as the entire airline industry, according to an Independent Report.

To put that figure into perspective: Google’s 11 data centers alone used as much electricity annually as the entire country of Turkey in 2015, and more than 500,000 global data centers exist today, taking up, in total, approximately 300 million square feet of space. These numbers are all expected to increase exponentially within the next 15 years.

It does not stop there. 

The majority of data centers use batteries made of lead-acid. This acid mine excavation and draining has led to “ecological destruction in watersheds and the contamination of human water sources by sulfuric acid and heavy metals, including arsenic, copper and lead,” said biologist Dr. David Coil. The high levels of acidity and toxins produced by this process sterilize nearby water supplies, kill fish and can continue to produce drainage hundreds of years into the future. 

Furthermore, companies like Google are building these data centers on huge swathes of land, often in rural areas, and are getting massive tax breaks for doing so. The city of Mesa, Arizona, offered Google a property tax break of $16 million over the course of 25 years in a development agreement for one such data center, according to The Arizona Republic. 

It will be built on 186 acres of farmland and will use up to 4 million gallons of water per day to generate electricity and cool down the systems it will house. 

The technology industry needs to own up to this. Our dreams of the digital extend far into the future, with technology often positioned as the solution to these issues as opposed to part of the problem. 

But in a time of global climate crisis, we cannot afford to exempt it from accountability for the environmental damage it causes or the brunt of that cost will fall on us instead. 

Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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