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Let’s Hear It for Environmental Citizenship

How to green our digital lifestyle

This is shaping up as an eventful year for digital culture. For the first time, global spending on electronics will reach $1 trillion. Despite the deep recession, that’s a 5% increase over 2011. Americans can be credited for more than a quarter of this growth, most of which is attributable to demand for mobile devices: laptops, tablets, and smartphones—a love affair with high-tech goods that shows no signs of cooling. The problem is that when this market heats up, so does the environment.

With over ten billion devices needing electricity, 15 percent of global residential energy is now spent on powering domestic digital technology. When added to the energy it takes to make and distribute these goods, consumption from digital living translates into carbon emissions that rival aviation. According to the International Energy Agency, if usage continues to grow at this rate, residential electricity needed to power digital culture will rise to 30 percent of global demand by 2022, and 45 percent by 2030.

In addition, our digital life relies on data centers for cloud computing. Data centers are warehouse-sized computer systems. Their energy demand for power and cooling doubled between 2000 and 2005, and grew about 56 percent between 2005 and 2010, a period when industrial energy usage was otherwise flat. Greenpeace estimates that if the computing cloud were a country, it would be the fifth-largest energy consumer in the world. The metaphor of a natural, ephemeral cloud belies the dirty reality of coal-fired energy that feeds most data centers around the world.

And as new gadgets displace old with increased frequency, more electronic and electric waste (e-waste) enters into municipal waste systems—between 20 and 50 million tons annually worldwide. Wealthy high-tech nations dump 80 to 85 percent of their e-waste in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Meanwhile, the high-tech industry insists that what is good for the industry is good for the consumer. Why else would it design fast fashion and short lifespans into digital devices? The industry loves the word “upgrade.” It spawns a cult-like frenzy for marginally new hardware and software.

Yet, such environmental harms can be reversed. A growing number of American consumers are already quietly reevaluating their digital lifestyles. This change began modestly when recycling old electronics became another routine duty of environmental citizenship, which already claimed rights to clean water, breathable air, and trash-free public spaces. This is why we separate plastics, paper, and garbage for recycling; why we refrain from littering; and why we buy energy-efficient appliances and high mileage cars. What’s good for the planet is good for us—that’s common sense for environmental citizenship.

Environmental citizenship now informs broader efforts to protect biophysical health from risks associated with toxic substances and radiation designed into TVs, computers, and cellphones. To reinforce these green habits, many states and municipalities have passed laws that require recycling and other green routines.

Environmental citizenship is also taking root in a growing number of workplaces, schools, residential buildings, and neighborhoods where green is the new normal. These institutional settings provide us with part-time opportunities to foster a full-time culture of sustainability—a way of thinking and acting that is based on the idea that the Earth has limited resources to support human life and limited capabilities to absorb and recycle our excesses.

Citizen groups like Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Greenpeace, and Basel Action Network have tirelessly publicized risks to our planet and advocated for a broader array of biophysical rights and protections.

Together we can stop electronic and electric goods from poisoning ecosystems in their place of manufacture; we can demand energy-efficient electronics; we can seek more extensive and thorough forms of end-of-life management of e-waste; and we can press for ecologically sound design for high-tech goods that also protects biophysical rights of workers who today fall sick from exposure to poisons and deadly manufacturing operations. Environmental citizenship is our best hope of greening our digital life.

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