This post is part of a collection of writing about the climate crisis and the internet’s role in it. Topics will include recommended reading, meaningful action, personal reflections, a maintenance mindset, and the creative potential of a carbon neutral internet.
Rare has it been in my life that I have felt truly unmoored. But last year certainly shook my sense of self and the world.
I gave birth, saw my mother die, got sidelined at work, witnessed my neighborhood battle for its soul, observed political upheaval and environmental destruction around the world, and in general felt like what the hell is happening.
I was grateful for the little creative space granted during my self-hosted residency in motherhood. Fueled by this perceived turmoil, I wanted to revisit my understanding of myself and the world and to think about “small utopias.” I wanted to reimagine what was possible and desirable, and what my role in all of that might be.
As some sort of “new normal” established itself in the year since, I decided to continue this self-learning project and share insights that might resonate with others. I’ve been documenting the raw bits of it in a learning log on Github. Writing here now helps get to some clarity on what those learnings actually are.
The main topic that seems worthy of talking about is the climate crisis. And the internet.
There are some quick, factual things to know. And then there are some slower, deeper questions I have and would love to learn with others about what’s going on and what would be meaningful to do.
A final caveat: I hesitate to suggest that my analysis is thorough. Or that my proposals for action are the most effective. So much of what I’m coming to learn is we are all so limited in what we can really know.
The internet’s climate crimes
So for what it’s worth, here’s snapshot of what I’ve learned about the internet and the climate so far:
- We live in a late-capitalist society. Capitalism is a system of inequality, where wealth outpaces salary, and wealth accumulates over generations.
- We are experiencing a climate emergency and mass extinction, brought about in large part because of capitalism, and this catastrophe’s devastating effects will be felt unequally.
- The internet, once held up as a bearer of utopia, contributes to this crisis. Its emissions account for over 2% of the global carbon emissions. Projections for the internet are at 3.5% of global emissions by 2020—surpassing aviation and shipping—and up to 14% in 2040, around the same proportion as the United States emits today.
- The main culprits are fossil fuel powered data centers. Even providers with commitments to 100% renewables require scrutiny. Amazon Web Service, for example, accounts for roughly half of the world’s data centers, but doesn’t allow independent auditing, and in some cases Amazon even claims its emissions are a trade secret.
- In addition to data centers, the internet contributes to emissions by driving up the demand for hardware infrastructure and connected devices—the production of which is very polluting. The total carbon footprint in manufacture of mobile phones alone each year is at least equal to the Philippines’ annual carbon emissions, a country of over 100 million people.
- And once these devices are online, they require loads of electricity from the grid, which is no where near being all renewable. Nevertheless, there are promising trends: solar and other renewables are getting cheaper and oil is becoming uncompetitive even at low prices.
- In other words, you’re on your couch watching a cat video on YouTube while someone is shoveling coal into a furnace, after thousands of poorly paid people working in precarious conditions mined and manufactured your device, which you’re using to call up a web service that masks thousands more people who moderate content in traumatizing conditions or make a livelihood producing online videos which could go under at the whim of a corporate terms of service. That’s the internet of 2019.
- Increasingly, these internet devices and the services they rely on use artificial intelligence. And the big purveyors of AI are companies who’ve got a ton of data and processing power, and to train a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes.
- There’s also the carbon costs of ad tech, spam, surveillance and a bunch of other stuff that makes the internet heavy and unjust, and, I’m just going to be cheeky, a crappy place to be right now environmentally and also socially and psychologically.
- Lots more empirical research needs to be done to quantify the climate impact of these aspects of the internet. I think this would be really worthy work, so that we even know the true scope of the issue.
- If that wasn’t enough, some of the major players on the internet directly contribute to the politics holding us back from a more sustainable future. Google donates to hardline climate denial organizations while YouTube’s recommendation engine rewards radicalizing content. In this way, the internet is contributing to societal division and misinformation, and more or less perceived as a tool of manipulation and outrage. This is obviously unsafe and undesirable.
A worldwide empathy network
Now, despite all of that, I still hold on to the belief that when humans can genuinely connect with one another, we can tap into an empathy and creative potential that transcends language, nationality, ethnicity, class, and whatever other barrier we’ve erected between us. My friend Renata Avila called it digital internationalism. Yochai Benkler described it as commons-based peer production.
I’d like to suggest that these days we’d benefit from focusing less on production and usefulness and more on some sort of commons-based peer understanding.
This worldwide empathy network is at the kernel of why I still care about the future of the internet. I think we should be doing more to look inwardly and locally. But this work is situated on a planet with many living beings all intertwined with one another. You won’t fight for what you don’t love. And it’s hard to love someone or something you don’t know or feel alienated from. And in this weird way, and kinda despite what it is right now, I love the internet because it helps us expand our circle of care.
We need some sort of caring mentality for the internet itself, not because of what it is today, but what it could be: a true exchange among people for our own understanding and preservation.