Pablo Gámez, researcher: “The weight of today’s technological waste exceeds that of the Great Wall of China” | Technology
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“Today’s technological junk outweighs that of the Great Wall of China.” “The digital industry already generates 6% of greenhouse gas emissions (like maritime and air navigation combined) and it is possible that, by the end of this decade, it will reach 30%.” This is stated by researcher Pablo Gámez Cersosimo, born in San José, Costa Rica 50 years ago, but based in the Netherlands, from where he is the head of Naturally Digital, an organization specialized in sustainability, human behavior, ethics and digital well-being. After five years of research, he published digital predators (Círculo Rojo, 2021), one of the most complete works on the imprint of the new era. He assures that we are at a key moment that requires urgent, immediate action to prevent this industrial revolution from being the last for humanity.
Ask. Can digital activity become the most polluting in the world?
Response. Indeed, if the course we are taking is not corrected. Recently, the World Economic Forum calculated that digital activity will be responsible for an additional 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions by the end of the decade, equivalent to those of a country like Russia. That gives a clear and real idea of urgency.
P. What services are the most polluting?
R. There are five very important elements: the carbon footprint due to energy consumption of the entire digital infrastructure, that associated with the circulation phase of technological products, that derived from the attention economy, that of mineral extraction for operation of our devices and that generated by electronic waste. The digital waste accumulated by planned obsolescence makes it practically impossible to recover the components used in the manufacture of our equipment. It is a problem that we have inherited at the gates of web 3.0 and that is going to grow. For example, gadgets for the metaverse and augmented reality are precisely designed to dominate the market, but they do not respond to the circular economy. We are at the gates of an exponential increase in waste. And regarding metals, a report from the International Energy Agency speaks of a need to open 50 more lithium and nickel mines, as well as 17 cobalt mines. The world will need to increase the production of metals and minerals by at least 12 times by 2050. Every year we need a Mount Everest. We have come to depend in a very short time on all the elements of the periodic table for our technology and open pit mining is one of the most polluting activities.
Every year we need the equivalent of one Mount Everest in minerals
P. Therefore, we are committed to clean energy, but digital technologies do not end up going the same way.
R. There is a divorce, a contradiction, but I prefer to call it the paradox of development. There is a precise, very elaborate and extremely powerful narrative that digitization and clean energy are synonymous with green development, but we forget its carbon base. It is a discourse created by the big technology
P. Google ensures that all the energy sources from which it draws are renewable.
R. It must be admitted that the big technology companies have made a gigantic effort to decarbonize their infrastructures, but here we are going to open the melon. They say that they are using 100% renewable energy and it means that they have hijacked the energy that is produced and by hundreds of wind and photovoltaic parks that work exclusively for them. They have effectively managed to create this swarm of infrastructure based on them, to be able to say that they have a sustainable operating scheme. From this point of view, it is true. The problem is again that the amount of metals and minerals that they need and the impact that it has, for example, the production of all these hundreds of thousands of wind farms and solar panels is not being measured, it is being left out. It depends on how the discourse is accommodated, on how far it is counted. These technological companies are the owners, literally, of the platforms that we use for our interrelation and our communication and they manage all the techniques and all the possibilities to create extremely attractive speeches that lead us to these formulations that they say are sustainable. But a universal agreed methodology is needed to monitor this sustainability discourse. We have already seen that the big platforms do not tell us the whole truth.
Technological companies create extremely attractive speeches that lead us to formulations that they say are sustainable. But we have already seen that the big platforms do not tell us the whole truth
P. But there is also part of individual responsibility, of the use that each one of us makes of the technology.
R. The user is increasingly informed about the impact generated by their digital behavior, although this has not been achieved in all societies on the planet due to the different speeds of digitization. However, the digital native generations, although they have a clear commitment to the environment and nature, are quite decoupled from the effect generated by their digital dependence; they do not fully understand the impact they are generating through their digitization. There is an individual responsibility, a clear need to understand from digital critical thinking the impact we are generating. For example, the metaverse is the great spearhead of the web 3.0 ecosystem. But it is completely decoupled from the environmental impact that it is going to have or that it may have. This reflection is very necessary.
The metaverse is the great spearhead of the web 3.0 ecosystem. But it is completely decoupled from the environmental impact that it is going to have or that it may have.
P. Would the metaverse be like doubling the world and thus its effects?
R. It is not so much the duplication of the world. We could better understand it as the jump to three-dimensionality. They are different virtual worlds in which we can interact, communicate, not through clicks, but through immersion. The problem is that the graphic engine of the metaverse has a considerable impact due to the techniques of software and of hardware they need to be operational. Is this being considered? On the other hand, there is a deep conviction that the metaverse will offer us the possibility of carrying out activities without the need to move and that will generate compensation in terms of a lower carbon footprint. It may be true, but it must be made clear that the metaverse is digital and is linked to the physical limits of natural resources. The more infinite you are, the more physical infrastructure you need. I am not against the metaverse or technological development, what I do is analyze it from critical thinking. The big technology companies, to guarantee their disruptive development from the beginning, used the strategy of leaving out, for example, the carbon footprint. Virtually, technology companies were given free rein to develop without environmental control. In recent years, we have seen some governments with more concern.
P. Speak in digital predators of technological feudalism.
R. We are platform dependent. Our economy doesn’t work without them. The paradox is that we are talking about a maximum of seven large global technology companies that control this digital scaffolding based on data, and that dependency, during the period of the pandemic, has been reinforced. We have a scheme of submission to the new feudal lords of our modernity, who are powerful, even more than countries. An example is Meta’s rudeness to European legislation.
P. Are there solutions?
R. From the digital swarm generated, I don’t see how we can create an alternative that avoids dependence on companies like Microsoft or Apple or Meta. We have been taught to interact with our technologies, but not to understand how they are structured or the degree of power we have given them. This has allowed them to create the fiction of development and well-being, but its entire structure is dependent on the will of the platforms.
Technology is, indeed, a great ally of our development and well-being, but we have to understand it and apply it ethically to understand the energy impact we generate and also the dependence and submission to which we submit
P. Is the technological sobriety that you claim in your book necessary?
R. It refers to digital sustainability from critical thinking, that is, understanding that technology is indeed a great ally of our development and well-being, but that we have to understand it and apply it ethically to understand the energy impact we generate and also the dependence and submission to which we submit.
P. But there is a reluctance of users to assume that responsibility
R. Socially, there is a more acute and pronounced exhaustion in advanced societies. It is swimming against the current, but global warming, climate change, corners us. And the pandemic has joined, the war in Ukraine… They are slaps, but we have an ethical duty to insist. In France, they have agreed to put the environmental impact on the table and create the first legislation to control the impact. For example, since January of this year, each French citizen receives on his telephone bill the amount of emissions that he has generated by the use of his mobile. In this way, French society is being educated, which is one of those that best understands the impact of its digitization. Also in schools it is important to ensure that digital native generations have critical thinking. The EU is discussing concrete actions on the environmental footprint to use the full potential of technologies to transform them into an environmental lever and monitor their impact. In London, Naturally Digital, together with the Eco-friendly Web Alliance, are creating guidelines for websites and digital infrastructure to be green. We reduce carbon emissions directly from websites for a sustainable digital transformation and raise awareness in business and individuals. We are also studying how to introduce these measures into Costa Rica’s sustainable development policies. The decarbonization of the internet is one of the great challenges of the next decade, a race against time. The temperatures on the planet are increasing rapidly. We are living a fierce summer. The vertiginous global warming forces us to adopt measures at the same speed.
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