Data centers: greenwashing par excellence

Why are data centers so super-secretive? “My hypothesis is that data centers are facing more and more opposition worldwide by local communities because these communities are starting to understand that most of the positive impacts of a data center will not be seen by the local community,” Gauthier Roussilhe, an environmental footprint specialist, explained to me.

“Most of the direct employment for the local community will be security, cleaning and so on. It’s rare to have local people trained to become IT engineers.” So, why is it common practice for governments to lavish financial incentives on data centers? “There was a joke about how Facebook was contributing $2 million to local communities, while they were getting a tax cut of $150 million,” Gauthier states. “And it’s not a labor-intensive industry to start with, and it’s becoming more and more automated… A city north of Paris calculated that the employment rate for a data center in the area was one fulltime employee per 10,000 square meters, when the average in the area was 50.”

Sadly, most politicians belong to the Cult of Technology. They are desperate to be associated with technology, and when the tech bros say jump, the politicians meekly ask: “How high?” We need politicians with a lot more skeptical views on the so-called benefits of technology. We must understand that it is the overuse of technology that has created the climate crisis in the first place. And now we’re being told that using more technology will solve the crisis that technology created. Hello?

“I don’t know what it’s like in Ireland but in France, between now and 2050, we have to reduce our final energy consumption by 40%,” Gauthier states. “That’s the framing we have to have in mind when we are analyzing such sectors. You can have all the data centers in Ireland absorbing all the renewable energy capacity that is being put on the grid. So, data centers might have very nice environmental reports, lowering the carbon intensity of the electricity mix but not allowing other actors to get this renewable energy, so it becomes a zero-sum game.”

This is an incredibly important point. We need to use energy and data much more wisely. We must reduce energy consumption and data production to have any hope of a livable planet in the future. 95% of data centers are data dumps. Full of useless data that nobody wants. Is this a good use of renewable energy? Absolutely not. Irish-based data centers are consuming more electricity than all of the family homes in rural Ireland. Let’s use renewable energy to help save the planet, not feed the fire.

And what about the 5% of ‘useful’ data? If it’s an Amazon data center, then its purpose is to drive the engine of over-consumption. A Facebook or Google data center is a surveillance capitalism, advertising, propaganda hub.

We must use data to reduce consumption, not use data to feed consumption. Data has so often been used to change us from consumers to devourers. We must rein in Big Tech before it drives us all over the cliff, all the while claiming that it is here to save us.

The hidden costs of data centers. A podcast with Gauthier Roussilhe

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