The claim that the use of digital technologies is a solution for the problems of “climate change” and environmental sustainability is fundamentally flawed.[i] The creation of such technologies, and the interests that underlie their design and sale, are part of the problem rather than the solution. An independent, comprehensive and holistic review of the environmental impact of such technologies therefore urgently needs to be undertaken.
This reflection brings together some of my previous comments on digital technologies and environmental change that have been scattered across different publications.[ii] It focuses on three main arguments, each addressed in a separate post:
- Part I suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned
- Part II argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.
- Part III proposes that there is consequently an urgent need for a comprehensive and holistic audit of the impact of digital technologies on the environment.
Lest I be misunderstood in the arguments that follow, I believe passionately in the need for wise human guardianship of the environment in which we live. Some of my previous research as a geographer[iii] has explicitly addressed issues commonly associated with “climate change”, and I have no doubt that humans are indeed influencing weather patterns across the globe. However, “climate change” per se is not the problem. Instead the problem is the behaviour of humans, and especially those in the richer countries of the world who wish to maintain their opulent lifestyles, not least through using the latest digital technologies. “Climate change” is but a subset of wider and more fundamental issues concerned with the interactions between people and the environment.[iv] Focusing simply on “climate change” takes our eyes off the most important problems.
[i] Typical of such claims is Ekholm, B. and Rockström, J. (2019) Digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%. Here’s how, World Economic Forum.
[ii] See Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman; Owen, L. and Unwin, T. (eds) (1997) Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, Oxford: Blackwell; Unwin, T. (ed.) (2009) ICT4D: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Cambridge: CUP; Unwin, T. (2010) Problems with the climate change mantra, 27 Jan 2010; Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71; Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming information and communication technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.
[iii] See references above in footnote 2.
[iv] The interactions between people and the environment have long been part of the domain of Geography, and this reflection is thus largely constructed through a geographer’s lens (see footnote 2: Unwin, 1992)