Why We Should Worry About 'Technotrash'

When we talk about the effect of technology on the environment, it is almost knee jerk to talk about the e-waste, energy depletion and health impacts of digital (ab)use. Statistics offer us compelling evidence - we generate 20-50 million tons of "technotrash" every year, production of a single computer and monitor consumes, on the average, 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water, and there is alarmingly high levels of lead and silica in the bodies of people involved in handling e-waste. There are indirect implications as well. Underage and low-wage labor involved in factories that churn out the next fancy smartphone, and the economy driven digital divide that has the most effect on education are elephants in the digital room. These problems are not trivial and the catastrophic effects are already seen. Climate change is here to stay and the digital revolution has indeed played a role in advancing the damage started by the industrial revolution of yore. There is undoubtedly urgent need for governments and individuals to work towards relative decoupling, wherein economic growth (caused by industrial and technological growth) must be decoupled from adverse environmental degradation.

Despite the widespread belief (bordering paranoia) in the damage caused by the digital age on the environment, it is interesting that the very same era has also led to a rise in globally connected awareness of environmental issues and increasing efforts to contain the damage that is in progress. In the demonification of technology, it is easy to forget how much technology has served to protect the environment. Instant and easy access to information, ease of communication, possibility of globalization of resources and effort and availability of common rostrum for debate, discussion and problem-solving are the often overlooked benefits of the digital era that can help save the environment.

The potential for online environmental activism is staggering considering that in 2007 alone, it engaged 1.2 million people, who directly or indirectly supported environmental organizations and influenced the nature of efforts to respond to environmental and public health challenges. Digital technology enhanced connectivity is being increasingly used to raise consciousness about environmental problems and to lobby for changes towards environmentally sustainable policies and lifestyles. A portion of the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is dedicated to sustainability, and offers state-of-art knowledge on environmental topics. NGO sites such as TreeHugger.com, SaveOurEnvironment.org, Humanityy.com, Environment911.org and such are completely devoted to environmental awareness.

The new digital connection between human beings and environmental issues is one of the ways in which the politics of the physical environment now works is through the "sociospatial" sphere of virtual networks. Despite detractors of online activism ("clicktivism") claiming the uselessness of digital campaigns, there are evidences that suggest otherwise. Greenpeace's 2011 Facebook campaign to 'unfriend' coal, resulted in Facebook introducing a policy giving preference to renewable energy. While not all online activities can lead to tangible outcomes, it is indeed true that the digital tools can take the message to more number of people.

It is not the ease of communication alone that aids the environment. A number of applications that could not have been possible without digital tools are now helping us promote environmental safety. Network-sensors and other digital gadgets are now ubiquitous in monitoring earthly resources and intervening in problems of forest degradation and carbon emission. The first digital mobile communication network that allowed mobile devices to access environmental info such as local air quality measurements for people with asthma, water quality measurements of lakes and rivers for swimmers, and an updated report on current depths of rivers and weather forecasts was set up in the 1990s. Since then, there have been astronomic advancements in devices and tools to monitor and manage the environment. The advent of smartphone has considerably increased the scope of use of the device for environmental purposes, at all levels. Ecorio, for example, is one of the many smartphone apps, that helps one track her carbon footprint and learn ways to reduce it.

Environmental NGOs have been early users of new digital technologies for their objectives. The Jane Goodall Institute, for example, was one of the first organizations to use technological tools and digital telecommunication techniques to map and monitor changes to chimpanzee habitat in real time. Global Forest Watch uses satellite and crowd-sourced data to monitor forests and empower people all over the world with information to better manage and conserve forest landscapes. The EIA Resource and Response Centre monitors environmental impact assessment (EIA) processes in India.

Academic and practical research on ecological issues ranging from conservation of the Coral Reefs to pollution prevention have, in the past decades, involved extensive simulation studies, that have used advanced digital tools and techniques. The Sapelli mobile data collection platform, a low-cost, mobile tool designed to help communities map and report forest activities, was a result of research by Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group at University College London. Advances like these are possible thanks to the explosive development of digital technology.

Technology, beyond providing scope for economic development, can thus foster environmental consciousness and protection/preservation efforts. Such efforts range from the self-serving area of e-trash management to global issues of climate change and deforestation. As with any tool, technology can be used for gain or destruction, it is up to us to use the tools to save and not soil the earth.

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who loves to research and write about the impact of technology on our lives.