Rethinking a huge (and neglected) toll to our environment

Working online has underappreciated carbon-emissions consequences

NEWFANE — I thought I was so environmentally virtuous by working from home and sending my words out into cyberspace. But a reader who responded to my recent piece about the carbon footprint of road building [“Our roads, at what cost?,” Column, May 10] burst that bubble.

She called my attention “to the huge (and very much neglected) toll that the internet imposes on the environment.” She backed this dire news with a link to a peer-reviewed article published by the MIT Case Studies in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC).

“The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud,” by anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, is an eye-opening read. It includes stories from his five years of ethnographic fieldwork and clear explanations about how the Cloud is an ecological force - and not a benign one.

* * *

Gonzalez Monserrate identifies four ways that creating, maintaining, and using the Cloud pollute: spewing carbon, guzzling water, making noise, and creating radioactive trash.

1. Carbon and the Cloud. Data farms, where the machines that make the Cloud work 24/7, guzzle energy and spew carbon - not just in sending pixels around the globe, but also in the cooling systems that keep the computers functioning. Heat, it turns out, is a significant byproduct of computers at work.

2. Guzzling water during a drought. Vast quantities of water are used to cool these industrial data centers, many of which are in areas where water is an evaporating commodity.

3. A noise worse than an earworm. Data centers hum. The hum isn't necessarily loud, but it's constant - and deleterious. The physiological effects of noise pollution have been known for a long time and include hearing loss, elevated stress hormones, hypertension, and insomnia.

Even before the pandemic locked us all up at home, there were residential areas affected by the constant rumbling from the Cloud.

4. Graveyards of e-waste. Billions of devices have been manufactured, become obsolete, and replaced as the Cloud expands, creating a neverending demand for new devices with more features and faster speed.

The rare metals that make our devices work are mined in parts of the world where miners have few, if any, legal protections. Added to this human cost is the environmental one of e-waste graveyards, where toxic and radioactive particles leach into the ground.

* * *

As my reader said in her email, “You can avoid driving, but staying home and doing everything in cyberspace doesn't fully offset the carbon burden.” She says that we're “addicted to “24/7 instant gratification on the web [and] it's hard to see how to put that genie back in the bottle.”

What can we do?

Maybe we could shut down, the way the television went off at midnight when I was a kid, in the middle of the last century.

Back then, stores were closed on Sunday. When I lived in an English city in the mid-1970s, almost every shop was closed Wednesday afternoons, offset by staying open Saturday mornings.

But that was when shops were run by sole proprietors, people shopped locally, and everyone paused on Sunday - religious observance not required. Just rest.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Meanwhile, the Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. Why does this make me feel better about getting on a plane?

Just as I'm now aware of the carbon footprint of building a road, I'm also aware that I'm probably responsible for the carbon equivalent of an entire jetliner of fuel spewed into the atmosphere during the hours I've spent online arranging my flights, reserving a rental car, and booking places to stay.

I miss travel agents, but I am looking forward to being in the air for several hours - unplugged, reading a book.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates