There is no such thing as digital sustainability. There is no such thing as green computing. There is no such thing as clean energy. There is no such thing as renewable energy. There is no such thing as net zero. If we have any chance to survive long term as a species we must stop lying to ourselves.
Digital is about as far from Nature as we can get. It is based on the wholly unsustainable mining of materials, and the manufacturing of these materials using a galaxy of toxic chemicals. Digital requires huge quantities of water to manufacture and to maintain.
We can make digital less toxic. We can make it more sustainable. We can make energy more renewable. However, unless we can design computers from biodegradable materials, unless we can gain energy without the need for machines made of multiple materials, we cannot say that what we are is green, clean or sustainable.
Humans use technology to do a lot of damage to the environment. Our recent explosion of the standard of living for certain humans has been achieved by using Nature as a bank from which we have made massive withdrawals of materials. We have taken out huge overdrafts from Nature. Every year we take out far more than can be renewed. We take out more oil, more iron, more aluminum, more lithium, more cobalt. We abuse our water with overuse, plastics and chemicals. We abuse our soils with industrial farming. These overdrafts we expect our children and their children to pay back with the demand that they “innovate” their way out of the problems that we have caused.
We are driving our environment to bankruptcy. Our environment is the only thing that’s too big to fail. Meanwhile, we are focused on the economy, on growth. We can have an environment without an economy. We cannot have an economy without an environment.
We digital professionals are always making false promises. We must stop that. Is there a technological “efficiency” in the last 50 years that didn’t result in an overall increase in e-waste and an overall increase in energy consumption? We say 5G is more “efficient” at transferring a megabyte than 4G. True. Yet the business case of 5G is that we will be transferring multiple gigabytes. Meanwhile, the 5G infrastructure explodes and is not designed to be recycled. We have fooled the world so many times with this “efficiency” fake news and misinformation.
Can we design digital technologies and processes that genuinely reduce the total quantity of energy required and waste produced? Can we design digital technologies that clean more water in total than the water that has been used and dirtied by all our digital infrastructure? Can digital help create a net improvement in world soil quality? Can digital help reduce the need for mining and thus help regenerate biodiversity? Can digital heal more people than its e-waste and energy demands poison? Can data be used to reduce the overconsumption epidemic that is the underlying feeder of so many of the crises we face?
Let us start by accepting who we are. We are toxic. Our digital tools damage the environment when they’re made, when they’re used, and when they’re discarded. We must look at the true and total cost to the environment of what we do. Only then can we begin to talk about the true value we can deliver.