Today’s post is written by Jake Pollack, program manager for the UO Sustainability Leadership Certificate Program.
Over the past few years I have carefully followed not only the colors that are affiliated with sustainability, and their implications, but how sustainability is paired (or not) with technology. So, while it may seem elementary (or primary in the case of blue, and secondary in the case of green—apologies for the educator jokes) the colors point to deeper implications of culture and the blending of different approaches to sustainability and technology. Back in 2009, when I read Andrew Kirk’s Counterculture Green, I started thinking about the historical aspects of the traditional rift between the environmental movement and the world of technology. Having grown up as a nature lover and digital native, I understood the tension between appreciating ecological systems and playing video games, but this, of course, is a much deeper discussion that can’t be covered in one blog entry.
However, what I can chart are some of the recent trends that are promising and point out a few challenges that I see in the future as we move ever deeper into virtual realms where machine-to-machine conversation is the norm, and our dependency on technology is assumed as “natural.” The first of these is the realization that cloud computing has an enormous environmental impact, whether you measure it in terms of water, e-waste, energy consumption, or any other concrete service that is required for large server centers. A recent webinar on Sustainable Industries describes this infrastructure and examples of the continuous improvement and innovation required to make these ventures efficient. A GreenBiz article describes a Stanford study which found that one-tenth of all electricity consumed in the US goes towards the Internet, and reports on the Future of Internet Power group, which is a response by Adobe, eBay, Facebook, HP, salesforce.com, and Symantec to “identify and publicize best practices around low-carbon power-sourcing for data centers in the United States.” Finally, Apple recently announced it will build a giant solar farm to power its Nevada datacenter.
This aspect of greening the cloud is important as big data seems to be on course to grow continuously, and it shows that the major players in both hardware and cloud-based software recognize this as an opportunity in the midst of an unpredictable and volatile energy market. The main challenge actually goes back to the deeper implications of culture and thinking about what all this computing power is actually used for and who is using it. In other words, the question remains whether to put this incredible computing power to use for further preservation and maintenance of the living systems of our planet, or to continue disseminating kitten videos across the Internet. At this time, that seems an oversimplification, but my guess is that in the future, we’ll be paying much more careful attention to the end uses of data and have to make some difficult decisions about these results. In light of cities moving to models of resilience and the recent release of President Obama’s climate commitments, there will be major implications for technology resources as well as the information that is passed through those networks.
Jake has worked in sustainability leadership settings internationally for the last six years in higher education and is currently the program manager for the UO Sustainability Leadership Certificate Program. He has mentored and trained students and professionals in aspects of sustainability ranging from cross-cultural communication to organizational transformation. His PhD research examined interdisciplinary and collaborative models of sustainability and a new triple bottom line of resilience, integrity, and commitment. Though his work in the field began in ecovillages and grassroots centers of innovation, he is now interested in the scale of cities and cultivating a cross-sector platform for professionals who wish to accelerate and incubate projects that address our most significant sustainability challenges.