Going digital does not equate to going green. Technology has long been viewed as a sustainable industry, but the dark anti-environmental side of the digital world is finally being exposed. Our guest today explains all of the ways technology is contributing to the climate crisis.
Gerry McGovern has been described by the Irish Times as one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web. His latest book, World Wide Waste, examines the impact the digital world is having on the environment.
In today’s episode, Gerry gives specific ideas for us to take action as individuals in the climate crisis. We discuss the environmental implications of Bitcoin, webpage size, technological obsolescence, photo storage, and more. It is clear that we need to transform our marketing strategies in order to fight climate change. Gerry also provides helpful resources, including a tool you can use to determine the environmental impact of your website. This episode will challenge you to consider the long-term effects of your personal relationship with technology.
In this Episode
- [00:30] – Stephan introduces Gerry McGovern, a visionary against climate change and author, with his latest book, World Wide Waste. He developed Top Tasks, a research method that identifies what matters to people.
- [05:01] – Stephan and Gerry elaborate on the environmental impacts of the digital world.
- [10:20] – Gerry discusses why being accountable for climate change can make a difference.
- [15:13] – Stephan and Gerry talk about why upgrading instead of replacing is more beneficial for the environment.
- [22:39] – The energy consumption and pollution impacts of a data center.
- [27:10] – Stephan shares the framework behind being response-able and how it changes the way you act.
- [32:21] – Gerry shares details about his current project, analyzing web pages and their respective carbon dioxide emission.
- [37:38] – SMS and why it consumes the least energy and leaves the least footprint.
- [42:49] – Stephan talks about the concept of externalities and modeling for others.
- [47:13] – Gerry shares how the environmental impact of technology is getting worse, not better, over the years.
- [51:17] – Visit Gerry McGovern’s website and read the book World Wide Waste. You can also follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay updated about his upcoming activities.
Gerry, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Great to be here, Stephan.
Let’s talk about first of all your impetus for writing a book, not about technology and leveraging it and so forth from the perspective of more productivity, more reach, more value and so forth, but from an environmental impact standpoint and from a more awareness standpoint. I think that’s really, really cool. What drove you to do that?
Well, a number of years ago the youth movement was starting, like Greta Thunberg and millions of young people were basically getting out and marching for the environment to save the planet, so to speak. That’s an idealistic thing to do. That’s a positive thing to do. I looked at my own career and I thought I’m lucky. I work in digital and it’s inherently green. I thought I’m lucky I’m not working in another area. It’s all really positive over here.
I wrote my first major report back in 1996 for the Irish government, called Ireland: The Digital Lady to the Internet, all about how the country shouldn’t embrace the possibilities. I very much felt that, for most of my career, digital wasn’t inherently ‘don’t print this email’ type, don’t print it this out. Email is vastly better than sending a print or a brochure, stuff like that.
But instead, maybe I’ll have a look and see if there is anything about digital that isn’t so green, that maybe has some darker, more negative sides. That became the impetus for research and that evolved into the book. The more I looked at digital or the more I dug into digital and modern technology, the more I began to realize that digital is actually the accelerant of the climate crisis. We couldn’t have the climate crisis without technology.
Back in 1750, the first CO2 analysis for a country was in the UK. It was essentially the first industrial nation. It was the industrialized age. If we had no mechanical, digital tools, or technological tools, we wouldn’t be polluting to the extent that we’re polluting.
In the last 50 years, humans have done more damage to the planet than in the previous three million. It’s not like we’ve been gradually doing damage over millions of years. We hardly had a major impact before the 1800s opened up, but since 50% of our CO2 has been admitted human-based CO2 since 1995, so all of the CO2 that we’re responsible for. I began to wonder, doesn’t that map with the growth of the Internet and the growth of computers?We need this new model of thinking. It begins with individuals, organizations, and governments, but we all need to be in a dance together. We can do this, but when will we do it? Click To Tweet
What I began to realize is that digital accelerates a great number of waste, phone-type of behaviors, that we never created more waste. It has really created a very disposable culture under a very disposable mentality and way of living. This was a huge shock for me because this is not what I was expecting to find. I was expecting maybe there are a few little changes here and there in our beautiful digital world because digital is better, but I began to see that digital is a tool that often drives some of the worst human behaviors.
One of the examples of environmental impact from digital is the energy consumption required by Bitcoin. In fact, that was one of the reasons that Elon Musk gave for no longer taking Bitcoin as payment for Tesla automobiles, and yet he’s still a proponent of Dogecoin so he’s not completely pulling all crypto currencies, but Bitcoin, in particular, is quite egregious, apparently, in terms of its energy consumption.
Absolutely. The model of Bitcoin is for it to become more valuable it must consume more energy. A blockchain transaction is 500,000 times more energy-intensive than a Visa transaction. What I realized as I dealt with technologists is that the vast majority of technologists have no care or concern of the energy that they’re responsible for consuming or the pollution that they’re involved in creating.
The bigger background discovery was that most of the pollution occurs in the device, not in the use of the device. An ordinary server—forget about a Bitcoin server which would be massively more processing-intensive—a typical bog standard server from Dell or whatever will be responsible for at least one ton of CO2 in its manufacture. That server will probably be kept—if it’s bought by a data center, which a lot of them are bought by now big cloud data center—will probably be kept for three years, and after three years many of those servers will be trashed. They won’t be traded in. They’ll be trashed for security and data protection reasons.
In digital, we’re creating 50 million tons of e-waste a year. Much less than 20% of it is recycled. We have that branding marketing culture of changing our technology every two or three years. We deliberately planned obsolescence. It’s not planned obsolescence was like building castles in the fifties. Planned obsolescence in the fifties is nothing to what planned obsolescence is today. When we were doing planned obsolescence in the fifties and sixties, we were expecting products to last 10, 15, or 20 years or so. Now, we expect them to last two or three years.
A blockchain transaction is 500,000 times more energy-intensive than a Visa transaction.
When you combine a very intense pollution, like there’s a thousand materials in the particular smartphone. Electronics are very material-intensive and very energy-intensive to manufacture, so a lot of the pollution is manufactured. When you combine that with a very short life cycle and then very low recycling, you get this waste mountain. You get 50 million tons a year at the moment. The entire commercial aircraft ever built is 40 million tons.
Why don’t we see this? You’re saying, well I don’t see it around. Well we dump most of it back in global south countries. We dump it in Ghana. We ship it to places where there’s something like 80 million children and 10 million women, children as young as 5 years old trying to pull out little pieces of copper and gold out of circuits because their fingers are small, it being burned in open pits.
This is the so-called recycling that is going for most of our electronic products. We’ve got products that we designed deliberately to fail, that cannot be repaired, and that cannot be recycled. And we wonder why we’re destroying life on earth?
So somebody who’s listening to this thinking, well this sounds really dire and terrible, and I like listening to good news only, so I’m about ready to hit next on my podcast listening. What do you tell that person? Because I think you were unaware of this until recently, until you worked on the book. You didn’t have a passion to save the planet in that way. You were just adding value and coming up with really great frameworks and models for things like workflow.
Absolutely. It was not my area at all, but at a certain point maybe we have to get a bit older. You begin to wonder why are we here? Is it just to make money? Is that it? Is that what our life amounts to, just to make as much money as we can? You’ve got children, I’ve got children. You might begin to think, am I tied to something that will result in them not having a life? Or certainly their children not having a planet that’s livable?
It’s impossible to ignore the climate crisis at the moment. Maybe there are a bunch of people who want to still think that humans are not responsible or humans don’t really accept it. But the evidence is building in a very substantive way. You’re thinking, what can I do that can actually make some difference?
It is this huge kind of sense of individual irresponsibility, that I have no response, that I’m only one person. That’s the classic cop-out that nothing I do matters. Well, that’s why we’re in the state that we’re in because too many people just want good news stories and just want happy-clappy stuff. When there is a crisis, the future for our children and certainly their children is seriously in doubt.
I read an article yesterday. I remember 20 years ago, I never paid it any attention, but hearing about the Club of Rome. Have you ever heard of them?
There was a famous, good book. It was famous in the seventies. It sold millions of copies, called The Limits to Growth. It was brought up by a bunch of economists and ecologists called the Club of Rome. It was published in 1972 and it was huge—debates and issues. But they lost the debate even though the book became really popular.
They predicted that by the middle of this century, we would have a civilizational collapse because of the way we were consuming raw material. If we kept consuming raw materials at the pace we were consuming raw materials and other materials, we would have a civilizational collapse by 2050. This was predicted in 1972.
I just read an article yesterday by KPMG. Not exactly radicals but the accounting firm KPMG. One of the seniors announced in KPMG that they decided to do an analysis of their figures and see how they track between 1972 and 2020 where they’re predicting the numbers of the actual extraction of materials, et cetera around the world. They said that they’re pretty much spot on—the figures—give or take a little bit.
We consume too much and we create so much waste, like 40% of food is not used, 75% of insects are extinct in most countries, 67% of Irish birds have disappeared in the last 25 years. We are doing something really bad to this planet and we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to do it.
That’s why the book is called World Wide Waste. If we reduce the waste, if we really focus on where there’s waste, we could live a great life. We could have lots of nice things, et cetera. Even better things as well. We’re beginning to notice slow food movement, et cetera. We’re lazy. We drive quite a distance to an organic market every two or three weeks. It’s a fair distance. And in between, we get produce from the nearest supermarket.
I was never into this in a big way. I’m not a great person to taste, but let me tell you. I don’t know if you found it yourself. If you get really fresh organic vegetables or greens, they taste better than the stuff you get in the supermarket. You actually enjoy your food more. We can have a good life but consume far less. I think we need a massive change.
I studied marketing. Marketing has been the spare point of all this consumption. I say that if there are two people left listening, maybe they’re the two that will say we need a new way of thinking about the world, of thinking about how do we make it cool to repair, how do we market reuse, how do we make it fashionable to hold on to things, to have something that is 20 years old.
Imagine, Stephan, if you’ve got a child that’s four or five years old, you’re walking down the road and a neighbor stops you and says, “Oh how old is your child?” “Five.” “Do you not think of replacing her? It doesn’t exist. Yet we’ve gone into this frenzy of consumption and replacement, and it’s breaking the planet.
One of my clients is Other World Computing. They are all about improving the environment, low impact, and upgrading older computers instead of dumping them and buying a new one. So you can get memory from them for a good price. You can get larger hard drives and take a three-, four-, five-, six-year-old MacBook and make it run almost as fast as a brand new one.
We need to do this. We need to scale this. There’s a big wave going around the world now, right to repair. You saw President Biden, the FTC, and there are laws coming in from Australia, in the UK, and the European Union, so there is awareness. Let’s hope the momentum builds. We can get the job done without being nearly as wasteful or as destructive as we have been.
We’ve gone into this frenzy of consumption and replacement, and it’s breaking the planet.
So let’s talk about some of the things we can do as a marketer, to impact not just our own personal sphere of influence in our family but also impact others’ ability and desire to make a difference in terms of reducing their footprint as well, because as marketers we have a great deal of reach.
Absolutely, and it’s making people conscious. Let’s say if we are dealing initially in organizational behavior. I was just looking at a discussion today with somebody because I’ve become really obsessed. My core area really has been website and page design over the years and stuff like that.
We were making a decision today when one developer was looking. There were two fonts. They looked slightly but one was wider than the other. Essentially, one of them was 50 KB heavier than the other. I was showing them to see, does anybody notice any difference there? Is there any…? Well, why would we choose the heavier one?
A typical, average web page now is about 4 megabytes. That page can easily be absolutely brilliant and do everything it needs to do with 400 kilobytes. It can be at least 90% smaller. There’s so much waste. The first thing you look at is how you’re optimizing your images; poor image optimization. We looked inside and I thought I was doing a decent job until I got this real focus. We looked at some pages that I was running and did 300 kilobytes of CSS. When we really looked into it, the CSS—which is the layout structure, helps you layout text on the page—once we had figured out the CSS, we needed only 10KB. We went from 300KB to 10KB.
Often you’re on analytics. A lot of times you don’t need the analytics. I’ve said in so many meetings over the years, of pointlessly talking about analytics. In a lot of environments, analytics is just a pointless conversation. Analytics is very intensive in weight and dump. Everything that weighs something creates pollution. Everything that weighs has a certain amount of pollution as it’s transferred over to pipes or et cetera.
Analytics is very intensive in weight and dump.
I came across a site a couple of days ago which has a piece of code to change the year once a year. It is written a piece of code to go from 2021 to 2022. Every time that page is downloaded it’s downloading that code. Every other minute of every other day throughout the year. It’s only used for two seconds in a year. That piece of code in every download takes up ⅓ of the second.
I used to think user experience. I think if we can frame the earth experience, what’s the cost? We’ve begun to think so narrowly as people. We only see our world. We got to see the impact it has. When you buy a plastic bottle, you’re making a thousand-year decision for the earth.
My wife says to me, “We’re energy savers.” I tell her, “That’s an interesting phrase. ‘We humans are energy savers.’” We’re always trying to save ourselves energy. Still, plastic bottles. A glass bottle you have to bring back. We’re always making decisions to make life easier in the short term, but a lot of those decisions of convenience and decisions that save us energy have a major cost to the planet. The planet cannot take the way we’re living right now.
Countries like the US are responsible for about 40% of the CO2. Imagine if the rest of the world actually lived like the US. The world would just blow up. The vast majority of the pollution is not by the billions of poor people. The richest 10% create 50% of the CO2 on the planet by massive abuse of overconsumption.
We, humans, are energy savers.
I saw a study there recently that was published on the conversation, that said in online selling, they track something like a total 20,000 online selling where somebody is selling a product online on a pitch. They found that people smiling so less that the serious people actually sold more. We’re brought up with all these things that you must have this and you must have that, as you ramp up in the post, you must have big images, you must have et cetera. We’re almost looking, what is the least impactful way we can do this?
As you know as well in search engine optimization, that’s all fun. Good and better for faster downloading. In a lot of situations, that’s what the customer wants as well. So bringing into our consciousness waste, whether we’ve taken 200 photos. How many photos do we take every year? Would you have an…
I have no idea.
1.4 trillion. We took more photos last year than in the entire twentieth century. And you know what? The vast majority, 90% of data that goes into the cloud is non-accessed three months after. Cloud, great marketing. Isn’t it great? The cloud’s on the ground.
It’s not all fluffy, isn’t it?
It’s not all fluffy. They all go and say in the data center, oh our electricity would become much more efficient. And they have. There’s no doubt about it. But electricity use is less than 10% of the carbon and pollution impact of a data center. Most of the impact is in their materials, their servers. In a typical data center, the electromechanical infrastructure which is the air conditioning systems, cooling systems, et cetera, are changed every 15 years. That exact same equipment in a factory will last 40 years.Countries can change. Cultures can change. If we can constantly be thinking about the waste we are creating, we can change the cultural focus on consumption. Click To Tweet
Data centers are an incredible abuse of raw materials, yet they have this beautiful picture of it at no cost. Of course, they have a big water footprint. They use huge amounts of water and that water cannot be reused because it gets all sorts of materials in it as it goes through the cooling systems.
We can make decisions about cleaning up our database. We got 15,000 people standing up. Maybe 8000 are just never going to get that signed off or whatever, so why are we sending out that extra? Because we don’t do that stuff. Every time we do that, we do something positive. Every time we clean up, every time we reduce waste, there is as much waste in digital or more.
There’s actually a job function now for photographic mentors, people who hire people to go through their photos because they’re overwhelmed by them. Most appointed taking photos when you get overwhelmed by the quantity of taken. What is the point of this? Don’t we want good memories? Not 25,000 photos. You can’t have good memories if you’ve got 25,000 photos.
My wife loves taking photos and we have lots of conversations around it. She’s a pretty good photographer. But now she’s got into a discipline. We’ve been driving around for the last couple of weeks. She’s Brazilian, so we’re driving around Ireland, old castles and lots about. She’s taking all the photos. But in the car on the way back she was deleting. She didn’t do that before. Maybe every year or two she goes, oh my God I better clean up all this stuff. Deleting as close to the point of taking as possible or deciding what not to take or what not to do in the process.
But cleaning up after ourselves has a real impact, and encouraging products in ways of creating less waste. If we could turn the undoubted abilities of communication away from consumption. I know I probably have one person left listening now. My God, you can’t get rid of consumption, but we can’t keep consuming, Stephan. This model is not working. We cannot scale this into the future.
Cleaning up after ourselves has a real impact and encourages products in ways of creating less waste.
Just look around. Look at the economics of it. The quantity of what we’re extracting, et cetera. The collapse in the biosystems. Everything is collapsing. The only thing that’s growing is data and junk. We need a radical, societal, cultural, really rethinking of what it is to live a good life.
The concept of growth. Why do we always have to grow? Loads of people got in touch with gardening since the lockdown and stuff like that. There’s a lot of positive things occurring with maintaining and helping stuff, cleaning up stuff, repairing and fixing, making do with stuff.
How can we change the marketing model? I really don’t know. Oftentimes, I’m cynical because it’s so much easier to get people to consume than to get people to really care. It’s going to be a real challenge, but if marketing changes we have a chance. If marketing doesn’t change, it’s going to be a real struggle.
I do think there is a mass consciousness shift happening right now, so I’m very hopeful. Let me just give a framework or an idea that I learned from Ephraim Olschewski who was a guest on this podcast and on my other show in Get Yourself Optimized. This made such an impact on me. He explained in a workshop I attended what it was to be a cause in the matter, to be responsible, response-able, and to not do it out of duty or obligation, or because you don’t want to be blamed, or because you want credit, but to do it because if not you then who, and if not now then when.
That epiphany happened for me at this workshop which was in a hotel. I went to the restroom during a break and the soap dispenser was out. There is no more soap. A previous version of me would have been like, okay that’s really annoying, and I would have figured out a way to wash my hands some other way.
I did manage to squeeze out a tiny bit of soap out of it to wash my hands and that would have been the end of it, but because I had just heard this in the workshop, for me I’m like, well I should find the house phone, call housekeeping and let them know that the soap is out in this particular restroom. And I did. That was a behavior change, one that I decided to take on as not just a one-off but part of my identity that I’m going to be the cause in the matter from now on.
We need a radical, societal, cultural rethinking of what it is to live a good life.
An example of that, I was at a holy site in Israel a few months ago. It’s up a mountain, so it’s a bit of a hike to get up there. There is a famous holy person’s grave there. There is trash everywhere, and I found that quite appalling. But rather than just leave in a huff, all disgusted at humanity for its lack of accountability and awareness, I found a trash bag that was there, a big one, and I filled it. I went and picked up a ton of trash, took me 20 minutes, filled that garbage bag, and then I left.
That’s a great behavior. We were in this ancient ruin, an old abbey in Ireland last week, and the exact same scene. It wasn’t covered in trash but there were a lot of plastic bottles and stuff like that. But it wasn’t me. It was my wife. She just says, “Hold on. This is terrible.”
When we were leaving she just went around. There was a bin. It was across the field. You have to go across. It was on a farm. This ancient ruin in the middle of the farm with cows and everything around. At the gate where we came in there was a bin. She’s got big hands, brought it in, and put it into the actual bin.
We need organizational change. We need government policy. We got things like right to repair. But we also need individual responsibility. It’s a triumvirate. We can’t wait and say we have to wait for the government to bring in the law or whatever. Yeah, that needs to happen. Organizations need to design products that are recyclable.
It’s all a dance in a way because I’ve known a lot of politicians over the years in Ireland, in particular, and they’re constantly watching the public. If the public is not talking about the issues, the politician will be very wary about pushing. They’re not leaders. Most people are followers. They just don’t let you know they’re followers in the process.
We need organizational change.
We know the theories of 3% or 5% can change a society or world, theories of how movements, how societies change. It doesn’t require 50%. A dedicated 3% in society is extremely powerful. This sense of us making these decisions to pick up the trash, to not allow the trash to fall in the first place. When other people come to that holy site, they’ll be less likely to throw the trash down because it won’t be trash.
That’s psychological studies about that as well. If they’re seeing a totally clean site, I don’t want to be the first to throw a bottle of Coke. But if there are loads of bottles of Cokes on the ground, what’s another? So it’s all of these decisions and this consciousness that we begin to conserve. We need this new model of thinking. It begins with individuals, organizations, and with governments, but we all need to be in a dance together. We can do this, but when will we do it?
I’m certainly going to do everything possible I can do. I’m designing this thing at the moment to analyze a web page and its CO2. What’s the biggest thing? Is it the images? Is it the CSS? What’s the hierarchy? What’s the code on the page that’s not being used so that you could look at the page and say, well here’s all the components on the page from the text to the fonts. Here’s how much weight they are. Here’s the estimated CO2 emissions if they’re downloaded blah-blah times, so that you can get a sense of what’s the element of the page that’s causing the most weight, and do we need it? The date that you can make an evaluation.
If we are to bring that down to a one-second download, we have to get rid of these seven things. Look at—at least in digital mapping—waste every year because we can take out the waste. We can really do a lot. We won’t solve everything, but getting rid of food waste. South Korea was a significant creator of food waste 20 years ago. Today, they create practically the least food waste country in the world.
Countries can change. Cultures can change. Having stuff grown locally creates less waste, but it’s not necessarily true. If you have beef, even if your beef is local, beef creates so much energy and CO2 in its production. It’s not necessarily bad. We need to be clever. It’s not always local is better. It depends on what you’re eating, et cetera. But if we can constantly be thinking about these things about the waste we are creating, I think we can change the cultural focus on consumption.
It made me think about how there are these different kinds of validators on websites. There’s the W3C-validated check mark thing, there’s a Trustee-verified or whatever, there’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance logo, and so forth. I think there should be an environmentally conscious, or low-impact, or small-footprint sort of icon or logo that people can put on their websites, too, after they’ve done this process of reducing some of the unnecessary weight in their pages.
That’s a great idea and I’m sure someone is thinking about that. Hopefully, some larger NGO-type organization. To reward those behaviors with that would be great. All these things that I’ve learned and taught are new stuff, but every font has a weight. There are modern fonts now which you can build from. I forget what they’re called; there’s a name for them. But in most classical font environments, bold is 50 kilobytes, unbold is 18 kilobytes, so if you’re using a lot of font sizes and you’re using a lot of weight.
I saw a designer once say, here’s how you layout a page. I can lay it out like this. I know you use two fonts by having a good style and design sensibility. Or I could lay it out like this and I’ve used six fonts. This page is 65KB or whatever. This image, this little section is 65KB, this one is 20KB. Then it’s a stylistic discussion of which you prefer. He used more spacing instead of bolding. You could argue and say, I prefer that one, I prefer that one. But one of them is 40KB lighter.
Imagine if we did that at scale. Imagine if we talk about all our decisions. In a lot of cases, the cost of fonts has increased by 900%. Most times we can’t even see the difference. We can’t even see the difference in the cost, so making decisions that matter and being conscious because we’re conscious in our physical world. Most of us now don’t want to waste food. We don’t want to waste plastic. Most of us do not get the thrill of throwing rubbish on the streets. Of course, there’s always a small percentage that’ll do it, but there’s consciousness. We don’t have that consciousness in digital. We think digital is a free-for-all and has no consequences. Every photograph, every video, you scale up.We can use technology in clever ways to create less overall energy consumption if we do it wisely. So how do we create the lowest possible energy footprint but also the lowest possible waste? Click To Tweet
I did this analysis. You want to be the most environmentally friendly in communication. What do you think is the most environmentally friendly way to communicate technologically, Stephan? What would you say is the most technologically, the least footprint, the least energy consumption. What communication?
It’s not email but you’re close.
SMS. SMS (I think) is something like 100 times less energy-intensive because when they designed SMS, it was 2G or 1G. They’ve very little bandwidth. SMS is extraordinarily efficient, extremely efficient in the process. Then it goes to email, then it goes to images. I know we haven’t met in a number of years but when I would have my standard calls now with people I’m working with all the time, it’s either 100% audio or it’s video for two minutes.
Let’s say that this lasts an hour. We’re on standard definition video, about 300 megabytes. If we did this call just with audio, it would be 30 megabytes. There are actually a number of studies that show, for a lot of people it’s less stressful, better communication. Bigger bandwidth is not always better in getting better results. If we did this call with one of those old phone systems, the old analog phone system, it would be about 3½ megabytes.
So it’s actually 8–9 times more inefficient to call over the Internet by audio than it is with analog. Is that progress? How is that progress? Because basically, we don’t care about energy in digital. Artificial intelligence, the amount of consumption whether it’s Bitcoin, blockchain, or whatever.
When digital systems are being designed—when I read about it—a few people think about it, basically, the massive consumption, and it’s not good for us either. We’re getting AI to do things first, that would be better and healthier doing it for ourselves. Like switching off the light a bit of exercise. Instead, we get Alexa to do it.
The amount of energy required is quite significant. It has to go to a server across thousands of miles, a lot of stuff happening to get that. It is about 25 steps. Now, at a scale it’s only a tiny bit, but with 20 million people and when the set-top boxes are going to be rid of after three or four years, this sort of stuff. Spend your own energy. Get out on a bicycle. It’s not the e-cars we need. Its bicycles. It’s walking. Good for the city.
Great concepts are coming up now like the 15-Minute City. Huge debates about when we didn’t have so many cars. Our children could play again in the city. The life and conversation we have designed.
Somebody (I think) in the 17th or 18th century said, I can’t remember their name at the moment, one of the first developers of computers. He said, first we make the tool. Then the tool remakes us. That is so much of human history. We actually design cities for cars not for people. We design people out of the cities.
Now, we see so many cities trying to come back and create walkable areas, and the concept of the 15-Minute City that all of the key shops for food and vegetables should be 15 minutes away. Urban gardening, using technology to grow stuff in parking, what used to be car parks or whatever. We can use kevlar technology with infrared lights and stuff like that, so we can use technology in clever ways to actually create less overall energy consumption if we do it wisely.It’s impossible to ignore the climate crisis at the moment. Some people still want to think that humans are not responsible, but the evidence is building in a very substantive way. So what can we do that can make a difference? Click To Tweet
These are the decisions to be constantly thinking about. How do we create the lowest possible energy footprint but also the lowest possible waste? Whatever waste we are creating, can it go back into the earth? Can it help other things grow? Or when it goes back into the earth, does it kill other things?
We’ll have as much plastic in the seas by 2050 as we’ll have a fish. In fact, in studies they show up to a quarter of fish are full of plastic. Plastic never goes away. It just continuously gets smaller and smaller. It’s going to be diseases being smart. The fish are drinking it, it’s getting into their glands, and what’s happening? We’re eating it.
This world, we’ve got to change it. We can change it, but it’s a radical rethink in marketing because marketing feeds on that energy saver in us, feeds on our convenience. We will go to hell on the road paved by convenience.
So true. Two concepts that come to mind that we should leave our listener with. One is this concept of externalities and how externalities are not figured into the equation because someone else is paying for that or mother nature. That’s wrong. It’s very broken and it’s very destructive.
The second is that we’re modeling for others. Every time we change a behavior, it’s not just the impact of that behavior change directly. It’s other people seeing us, like our kids, our family members who watch and perhaps change their behaviors, too, because they see that. It’s so much more about the actions we take than it is the words we say. We can tell them all day, well do this, and then we’re not doing it. We’re modeling perhaps something completely opposite. Of course, they’re not going to take on board what we’re saying. They’re going to take on board what they see us doing.
We need to be clever. It’s not always local is better.
I remember not long ago, maybe a few weeks ago, we were walking along the beach—my wife, toddler, and I—and there was a guy who was picking up trash. He didn’t have a job to do that. But when he saw a plastic bottle on the path, he picked it up and threw it into the next bin. He did that a number of times. In retrospect, I wish I would have said something to him, like that’s great. I really appreciate you doing that. But I didn’t and just kept walking.
If we’re modeling behavior such as picking up trash for our kids to see like what my little toddler, that’s great. But at a minimum, if somebody else is doing it and we don’t even acknowledge that person, that’s modeling a different kind of behavior, which is not one that I want to show my kids.
Another great example. Sometimes you just don’t think of it to say it but you picked up the trash and you know the next time to say. Not be embarrassed to say it as well. I want to say it but often wouldn’t say it in the process. But maybe a few practical things as well that we could do in our lives.
Remember I was talking about e-waste. E-waste is a really big headache. The biggest thing we could do personally that I’ve changed my behavior since is hold on to things. Eighty percent of a smartphone’s pollution occurs during its manufacture, so about 60 kilograms of CO2 during manufacture. Typically, somewhere around 5 kgs per year of use. If you keep that phone for five years instead of two years, you’re halving its water impact and you’re halving its CO2 impact.
Whenever most of the pollution is in the manufacture, then life becomes extremely important. Whenever there’s a huge intensity in the creation of something, then stretching its life becomes very important. Looking like that client of yours, ask him, is this modular? Is this repairable? Can I get this fixed? If enough of us ask these questions, they’ll start going back to the manufacturer’s brands.
Apple has done a lot of great things, but the new Apple computers are essentially a brick. They’re all soldered, essentially. If it breaks it breaks. Totally designed to. The idea of our phones, that it’s a huge issue to change the battery. It shouldn’t be.
E-waste is a really big headache.
Somebody did a study that said how long should we keep various products for them to have as close to a neutral impact to material-wise. A washing machine was about 17 years. Washing machines 10 years ago we were keeping for about 10 years instead of 17 years. Bring on the new electronics with a digital interface, now it’s 6½ years. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. A laptop, about 20 years. A typical laptop has about 300 kg of CO2 during manufacture. If we can really hold on to our electronics and buy electronics from the point of view of longevity, pay that little bit more for something.
Also modularity. I bought a solid state drive because I thought it was faster. But somebody explained to me, yeah but you can’t take it out. You can’t replace it if you buy it. Maybe that’s wrong, maybe it’s not wrong, but I never even thought of that idea when I was making the decision. The other drive is replaceable, whereas the solid state is embedded. It’s soldered into the actual system. You got a bit of extra speed which I don’t need, really.
I almost bought the fastest computer, and I thought, why do I need the fastest computer? I don’t do rocket science. It really shocked me a lot about all the decisions I made. But we can really think differently, make decisions, get the exact same outcome, and have a computer that’s 10 years old. So what? We’re doing word processing. So what? Do we really need it? Most times, we don’t. If we could change that thinking. I know the marketers are going crazy. No, no. I’m going to lose my job if I can’t sell computers every two years.
There’s got to be a change. We need to create a different sort of economy. I don’t have the answers to it, but I know that the one that we have is not one that we can sustain. Certainly not one that life on this planet can sustain.
It’s like a monster that can never be satiated.We’re always trying to save ourselves energy. We’re always making decisions to make life easier in the short term, but many convenient and energy-saving decisions have a major cost to the planet. Click To Tweet
It is and it grows more hungry. It’s like a hockey stick in the use of materials since 1970. As China modernizes, as India… I was talking to somebody there recently. She was saying a typical Bangladeshi consumes about 300 kg of our equivalency here, energy in the equivalent of. In India, it’s 600. So Bangladesh about 300, in India it’s 600. The United States 6000, and Europe probably 6000 as well.
Here’s another crazy thing I learned as well. I used to spend lots of time in Scandinavia, really admired societies. But their energy consumption is huge and e-waste production is huge because they’ve created this fantastic technological economy, but their actual impact on the earth’s resources are massive. We need to think of a lot of these things, about our broad energy impact, and as you said, externalities in the process. It’s a big mind shift. Is it doable at scale? We have to try.
We do. This is definitely food for thought, and not just to then continue with our same behavior patterns but to actually make some behavior changes. Not just ruminate on this and then move on to do our same old same old. Where do we send our listener or viewer to, in order to start down this path? They’ve gotten some inspiration and some difficulty coping with information, what do they do next? Where do we send them to? What website, book, or resource?
I’ve been writing a lot about these things and the book, World Wide Waste, is free to read on my website. If anyone wants to read, it’s at gerrymcgovern.com for that. There’s an excellent tool called the Website Carbon Calculator where it essentially tells you how much CO2 that page is emitting and how it compares to other websites out there. There’s a lot of stuff. If you’re in the general webspace about sustainable web principles, you just go searching for those. There are a lot of standards. Wholegrain Digital is the company behind the Website Calculator.
There’s another guy, Tim Frick, in the US, Mightybytes. They’ve done a lot of really good work over the years. There are a lot of people. You just need to do a bit of searching for this. Of course, in your other areas of sustainable material, sustainable farming, produce, et cetera, there’s a ton of stuff.
There’s an interesting organization there called World Cleanup Day. You’re talking about waste that now is in at least 150 countries, where they have an annual clean-up of waste and rubbish, and they’re organized in different communities. Because of the pandemic, people couldn’t gather, so they started the digital cleanup day where they’re getting together over chat or whatever, to clean up the hard drive or to clean up their images together in groups of people.
There are a lot of interesting stuff happening in France about sustainable IT and all the technology area of that. There is a consciousness rising around these things. If you’re in the Website Carbon Calculator, well worth checking out. Wholegrain Digital, Mightybytes, and a bunch of other really good people if you search around a bit. If you want to read up on the World Wide Waste, you go to gerrymcgovern.com.
Fabulous. Thank you, Gerry. This was great. Thank you for making this a mission for you to help educate people on their impact and what we can do individually and collectively to make a difference and help save this planet.
Thank you, Stephan. Great speaking with you.
Awesome. Listeners, please think of something that you can do that has an impact, and get out there and do it right away because if not you, then who? And if not now, then when? We’ll catch you in the next episode. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.
Your Checklist of Actions to Take
Be accountable for my actions. Recognize that I contribute to the climate change crisis and find ways to shrink my carbon footprint. I can still make a difference by doing my part.
Walk more often. If possible, walk instead of driving. Not only will it boost my physical health, but it will also lessen my gasoline consumption and carbon emissions.
Avoid buying new gadgets. Instead, replace old parts to keep old ones good as new. It’s unnecessary to purchase the latest items if I can still use older ones.
Use Website Carbon Calculator. Know how much carbon dioxide is being emitted by the websites I use. Optimize images and CSS to lower the number of kilobytes I’m using.
Clean up my database. I should constantly reduce my digital waste. Therefore, set a schedule to delete unnecessary items and free up my storage.
Do not litter. Look for designated trash bins and pick up trash along the way. I’m responsible for my waste and should do my part in reducing pollution.
Opt for texts instead of emails. SMS is less energy-intensive and more efficient compared to emails.
Reduce plastic use. Plastics pollute and don’t easily break down. I should also encourage others to do the same.
Support eco-friendly initiatives. Acknowledge the efforts and encourage this behavior, especially in young people. Setting a good example goes a long way.
Visit Gerry McGovern’s website and read his thoughts about relevant issues. Then, follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn to get updates on his upcoming events.
About Gerry McGovern
Gerry has published eight books. His latest, World Wide Waste, examines the impact digital is having on the environment. He developed Top Tasks, a research method which helps identify what truly matters to people. The Irish Times has described Gerry as one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web.