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How to revise our consuming love affair with electronics

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A letter to Greta Thunberg: the magnitude of problems with digital technologies
by Katie Singer

Dear Greta,

We could say that we have a consuming love affair with electronics.

Our digital society consumes extraordinary amounts of energy and extracted ores. One smartphone contains more than 1000 different substances, each with its own energy-intensive, toxic waste and greenhouse gas-emitting supply chain. [1] In his 2015 paper, "On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology," Huawei consultant Anders Andrae predicted that by 2030, info-communications-technologies could consume 51% of global electricity and emit 23% of greenhouse gases. Globally, we discard 53.6 million metric tons of electronics every year. [2]

To reduce this love story's destructive parts, to live within our ecological means, we need to respect nature more and decrease our dependence on technology. How on Earth do we do that?

I start with understanding that unless I am aware that I'm part of the problem, I can't be part of the solution.

When I shared this belief with an education professor, she warned me, "Because we all want to believe that we're helping the Earth, some people have started marketing 'solutions.' But most solutions address only the tip of one elephant's tailwhen actually we've got a herd of elephants in trouble."

Given the magnitude of our digital footprint, the solutions I learned all seemed lame. Then, I wondered: What if every Internet user reduces their media consumption by three percent every month for (say) three years? We might not have an exact way to calculate how much we reduce. Still, we could:

Get informed.

  • Recognize that manufacturing anything new requires energy, extracting and refining ores, and emitting toxic and greenhouse gases. Every online activity requires manufacturing, operating and discarding of infrastructureincluding Internet access networks, data storage and factories that make devices.
  • Create a support group with even one friend or neighbor to share ways to reduce your consumption and emissions.
  • Learn the supply chain of one substance in a smartphone.[3]
  • Study how even a computer science department can limit its waste [4]

Put your household on a media diet.

  • Wait at least four years to upgrade equipment and software. New software can require a new computer; a new computer might need a new printer. Remember the energy, extraction, toxic waste and greenhouse gases embodied in manufacturing every new product.
  • Keep your electronics in good repair.
  • Buy new goods only when they are essential. Buy only repairable electronics with replaceable parts.
  • Give yourself a video diet. In remote networks, watching one hour of video per week consumes more electricity than two new refrigerators use in a year; [5] yet not all households have a refrigerator. Sending an email or a text requires energy-consuming data. Voice requires more data than text. A photo takes yet more than voice. One second of video can have 60 photos, and therefore takes the most data. Limit yourself to (say) two hours of video per week.
  • Get wired Internet and phone access. Because of power demanded at every cell site and other factors, mobile access uses at least ten times as much energy as wired access. [6]
  • Keep an electronic Sabbath: For one day each week, go without electronics.
  • Live with the questions: What's essential? What's a luxury? Is this device or service within our ecological means?

Include children in creating your household's media diet.

  • Delay children's use of electronics at least until they have mastered reading, writing and math on paper. Given the way that COVID 19 has increased dependence on electronics, including among students, this simple idea takes creativity and community. Regularly ask yourself and the children in your care: What are signs that someone's had too much screen-time? When we've had too much screen-time, what activities can help us rebalance? What rules can prevent us from getting out of balance?
  • Consider pediatrician Dr. Toril Jelter's protocol for calming behavior in children with autism and ADHD. [7]
  • Consider child psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley's Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades & Boost Social Skills. [8]

Balance dependence on electronics with traditional skills and tools.

  • Grow some of your own food. With raised beds and insulating covers, people can grow vegetables through the winter.
  • Compost kitchen scraps.
  • Build a solar oven, then cook with it. [9]

Start a fixit clinic.

  • Get retirees to teach young people how to repair electronics, cars and appliances; how to repair and upcycle clothes.
  • Press legislators to enact right-to-repair legislation. [10]

Read books.

  • Harrison Brown's The Challenge of Man's Future, Viking, 1954. Links technological "progress" with ravaged wildlife habitats, increased human population, hunger and threats to democracy. Still relevant after 66 years.
  • Stan Cox's The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We still Can, City Lights, 2020. Addresses glaring issues not mentioned in the Green New Deal.
  • Josh Lepawsky's Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste, MIT Press, 2018. Outlines computers' waste from cradle-to-grave.
  • Kyle Devine's Decomposed: the political ecology of music, MIT Press, 2019. Reports on recorded music's ecological and human costs.
  • David Owen's The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, Riverhead, 2011.

Prevent telecoms from installing new infrastructure

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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