Transition and technology (1/2); know the environmental problem

When traveling by van or car, a difficult moment is when you arrive in a new city; we would like to be alone on the road, have no one braking in front while you read a sign or being honking at a red light when you hesitate on the road to take. With GPS and phones it’s now times of the past. Magic of Internet, we know the cities before we get there, a simple search and we know where to go. The candor of the visitor, walking in unknown places is now over, except to those of course looking for him.

Yes but, well…

Just like transportation, food or education, it is important that the technological aspect of our society and how we apprehend it should be include in  the vision of  the transition. The services that technology currently renders us in our current way of life is undoubtedly, but it also brings many contradictions that we do not question because it’s use is considered normal, on another scale. But,  I am surprised when a person wants to develop permaculture, but has Google Bot in his living room. I do not understand when in the middle of a discussion about resilience the person is looking at his phone to answer the last message. I am surprised with my addictive behavior to talk about the project on the networks.

The social impact of these companies can be very harmful, like the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but also all the practices that result from our use of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). However, in order to begin thinking, it is important to understand the environmental impact of new technologies, the one we do not see. If we do not question our practice; what does it mean to build a community garden, create events to redo the link or talk about a local change?

Limited resources

There is a mineral, called Coltan, which is the primary resource for electronic devices. If they are not at the origin, the 60 to 80% of the world reserves being in the Kivu and Congo region are not foreign to the continuity of the current conflicts. A great importance for everything related to our screens, the rare earths-elements in which 48% of the resources in China represent 95% of the market, are more and more consumed. The energy transition is overused by many entrepreneurs and politicians as the solution, these new technologies, however, accentuate the problem of resources.

The problem of resources in new technologies express the technological breakthrough expressed by Rob Hopkins on the different visions of the future that we can have. Boosting clean energy consumption, but not taking into account upstream costs does not solve the problem. On Arte’s documentary E-waste tragedy we learn more about the end of life of our devices, most of which end up in landfills in West Africa. From there, the recycling is done for survival matter by the people of these districts. We learn that even devices that were thought to have put in a recycling program can end there; throwing away is less expensive, there are so many subcontractors, links in the chain, that we can not trace everything.

Data center

If you do not see it at home, it does not exist. High-speed Internet and the new economy, where we are the product, allows us to have accounts with almost unlimited storage limits, so we do not pay attention and we archive, just in case. However, this data must be stored somewhere. Data centers are the places devoted to this for the companies of the net; GAFA‘s have all theirs. A data center is a warehouse of hard disks, tens of thousands of hard drives always bigger that save the data of your inbox, the photos of your Instagram, your Google-docs, your Youtube videos and your Facebook account .

So we can access to our datas with any device, but at a environmental cost. The largest data center is in China, 25 km², you can see more here. Who has never had a computer that is racing after an order that he is asked to do; imagine more than 200,000 hard drives running at full speed; imagine the noise and the heat created. More than half of the energy used by these centers is used to cool them. Many new projects are now taking place in northern countries, where the outside temperature can be used to cool down.


When I worked in a bank, we had an internal mail, Lotus, at the bottom of each email there was the mention “Do you need to print this email? Think about the environment and save paper”. As we saw earlier, archiving is a problem, but what you need to know is that sending an email is not trivial and consumes energy. When we press Send button of our email, it is an electrical signal that communicates with our mail servers that will go through dozens of relays to reach the recipient (wich email will also be archived) and he will use an electrical device to read it. See the router email path.

Here is an interesting study and an extract took on this site (french):

According to the same study, sending an e-mail of 1 MB to 1 person is equivalent to the consumption of 25 Wh, or 25 min of use of a 60 W bulb! This mail potentially entails a fossil fuel consumption equivalent to 6 g of oil and the emission of 20 g of CO2. On the basis of 20 emails per day, this would represent per person per year in CO2 emission the equivalent of 1000 km traveled by car! Here the PDF of the study (in French)

There may be other environmental problems caused by ICT, but these 3 points are surely those that we could say common to all users. Almost 1 in 3 people in the world are connected to the Internet with a personal device. The planned obsolescence and the capitalist logic of growing economic make the problem of ressources a major issue. But this is only worsened by our desire for more and the virtual economy where free services are fighting to offer more and more in order to conquer market.

How to curb this logic and this leap ahead technological? How is it possible to use so many everyday tools that we do not own? Not knowing how they work, nor being able to change their mechanism? Several tracks are put in place and that even from the first existence of the Internet: Open-Source softwares; but also a more recent movement taking all these issues into account: the Low-Tech.

Also published on Medium.

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