GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb

Trees: 181,000 of them to be exact. That’s the number of leafy green lives we will save if we pay our bills online, writes Vicki Kriz, author of GreenSmart: Save trees, pay bills online in a July 5, 2009 USA WEEKEND Magazine column. A wise idea, right? “To find out the impact your household could make, use the ‘Green Calculator’ at payitgreen.org,” the article concludes. 

That’s all well and good, but who’s asking the even bigger question: How many trees are we trading for coal-burning smokestacks vis-à-vis the increasing load our proliferating gadgets place on the electric grid?

Consider the carbon footprint of the Internet itself. The electrical requirements are astounding, yet as long as the public perceives all things Internet and electronic as a “free Green lunch”, no end to this grand, green e-lusion lies in sight.

“A typical server farm uses 10 to 20 megawatts of power per hour — roughly the equivalent of 10,000 to 20,000 homes with every light and appliance turned on, says Jeff Monroe, VP of design and construction for Metro-media Fiber Network. “On a watts-per-square-foot perspective, data centers are one of the highest energy users in any industry,” Monroe told writer Elinor Abreu of The Industry Standard in 2001.

Today, the demand for new server farm territory has grown more than ever, Microsoft, Google and others admit. Undoubtedly, these football-field size data facilities, some larger still, compete for woodlands and prime agricultural growing areas, too. The green side to digital would appear, in fact, gray.

Who, for that matter, is factoring in the reality that trees are a fully recyclable, renewable resource — excluding old growth and endangered rainforest habitats — whereas the pursuit and production of petro-chemicals in plastics and the electronic circuitry used in everything from desktop PCs to electronic reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle contain heavy metals and a host of other toxins?

“On average, the production of one eight-inch wafer [chip] requires 3,787 gallons of waste water, 27 pounds of chemicals, 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases and nine pounds of hazardous waste. These chemicals and gases include glycol ethers, which have been identified as ‘serious reproductive toxins’ by the EPA; and arsine, one cylinder of which if leaked could be lethal to an entire semi-conductor production staff,” the Earth Action Network, Inc. published in 1997.

To feed the world’s growing obsession with all things tech and geek, workers in Third World high-tech manufacturing plants are exposed, potentially, not merely to paper dust, bleaching agents or printing inks, but to far worse. And it is the Third World nations, again, who accept thousands of tons of electronic scrap the First World discards — with impoverished children in Africa, India and Asia on the front lines of exposure!

All things considered, does the notion of a “carbon footprint” tell the whole story — or has it perversely enticed us to embrace another form of harm entirely?

In pursuit of our electronic love affair, it would appear that even the most eco-conscious among us have all but forgotten that few of the devices we depend on offer biodegradability and/or minimally toxic manufacturing processes. Lest we forget, those are fair considerations too — more so than a carbon footprint alone can hope to quantify.

The mythologies of going Green are frightfully deep and pervasive. If only it were so simple: Trade this evil for thus-and-such eco-friendly solution! Yet for every action, an equal but opposite reaction. And from the looks of things, a more insidious one at that.

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Resources:

I Screen, You Screen, We All Screen | The Boston Globe

Digital Fallacies

Carbon Myths | The Guardian

Internet Struggles to Contain Carbon Footprint

Alarming Trends: The Internet’s Carbon Footprint

Experts Urge Limited Internet Consumption | UPI

Soaring Internet Usage ‘is threatening the future of Google and YouTube’

Internet Power Usage A Trade Secret | Lawrence Berkeley Lab California

Why is E-Waste Dangerous?

Much Toxic Computer Waste Lands in Third World

Recycling Gone Bad: Where Does Our High Tech Waste Go?

Toxic Technology: Electronics and the Silicon Valley

Are Electronic Gadgets Really Energy Vampires?

Part 1: The Electric Grid—Now and in the Future

Part 2: The Electric Grid—Now and in the Future

Waste Not, Want Not: Energy via the Smart Grid

Energy Hogs on the Server Farm

Behold The Server Farm

Down on the Server Farm (PDF)

More Trees in the Arctic Could Mean…Worsening Climate Change

Trees to Offset the Carbon Footprint?

If You Hug the Trees, Can You Have More Renewable Energy? | NYT

NRDC: Trees vs. Books

Save Trees and Read Green with a Kindle

Toilet Paper and Other Moral Choices | NYT

How Many People Are Using the ‘Net?

Make Your Website GreenCO2Stats

2 thoughts on “GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb

  1. I agree whole heatedly with your argument against electronics, and I appreciate your comment on my Amazon Kindle article, however, I do believe that both sides should be investigated.

    The creation of a book is far from a ‘green’ process in itself:
    “over 28,000 gallons of water are used (mostly in bleaching) to produce one ton of paper. When this water is released, it can only be treated so well, and many contaminants are released into the environment” –epa report on paper mills

    It begins with logging, some which is less damaging than others (managed vs. clearcut), but both require tremendous amounts of energy (usually in the form of diesel fuel) to cut and transport the logs.

    Then there are Paper mills, which have devastating effects on aquatic life, flooding rivers and streams with toxins such as Dioxide, Chlorine, Sulfuric/Sulfurous Acid, Ammonia, Lead, Cyanide and more (ask anyone who has lived near a paper mill, its quite noxious).

    Then it moves to printing, where the majority of printers use petrochemical solvents as a base to the ink. The books undergo a binding process (more chemicals, toxic glues, etc).

    Next its distribution. All of these incredibly heavy materials must be shipped all over the world, and in the case of newspapers and some periodicals, this happens on a daily basis.

    That being said, it’s really a lose-lose situation, but in some cases electronic items, such as the kindle, are more green than it’s hard copy cousin the book.

    Like

  2. The Social Critic

    Your local Library is not as hip as a large bookstore or coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, but when you really give it some thought the Library is the single-most overlooked Green Solution currently available to us as “information consumers”. By checking out books, DVDs and the like from a community library, thousands of people share a finite number of resources at a lower cost when compared to individually purchasing or downloading entertainment and reading material in print, online or in e-book form.

    This speaks to a larger point as well: If you go back to the proverbial cave-man days or to societies today that are largely non-industrialized you see very little waste. Affluence creates demand for more and more widgets, digital and physical. With every technological advance, we seem to think we’re improving upon our wastefulness when, in fact, it may amount to little more than a new window dressing. When it comes to environmental friendliness, the implicit assumption that New = Cleaner/Better/Improved doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny. Here’s an example: While a horse was a messy, costly and time-consuming mode of transport, so too became automobiles but in a decidedly less biodegradable form. The messy byproducts of a horse could be “recycled” into fertilizer, whereas the byproducts of the internal combustion engine could only pollute our atmosphere, and later landfills and junkyards. Because of the novelty of the automobile, however, it took decades for people to appreciate the downsides, and to enact pollution controls. Similarly, I’m making the argument that it is going to take years before the population at large appreciates that the e-Universe wasn’t the free “Green” lunch we at first assumed.

    There simply hasn’t been enough study to confirm or deny the widespread assumption that Digital is greener. My own intuition suggests that the debate between (old) print vs. (new) digital may boil down to different but equal hazards. Here’s the sticking point, however: When we assume Digital content is somehow environmentally cost free, we consume more of it in greater numbers. That consumption trend is only hastened by the reality that most news and entertainment sites are offering a great deal of content for free. It’s the increased consumption of all things digital that may offset any slight environmental advantage it may have offered initially. The irony is that we consume more here on the web precisely because we conceive of it as a Zero Calorie Medium — when at best it may represent a step sideways, or worse a step backwards.

    The jury is still out.

    Like

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