Digital revolution and acceleration of the ecological debt

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What is the link between digital technology and ecological debt? For years, we have been hearing that digital technology is immaterial, the knowledge economy, it seems. Despite some awareness on the ecological impact of the Internet and more specifically of datacenters, digital technology rarely appears as a whole, polluting, alienating and that we could refuse.

On our side of the hemisphere, everything is fine when you only know the use of the device, the visible part of the digital iceberg. Analyzed as a whole, digital technology as it is currently developing leads to an acceleration of extractivism and an increase in the ecological debt, understood as the debt contracted by industrialized countries towards other countries because of the past and present plundering of their natural resources, to which is added the delocalization of degradation and the free disposal of the planet in order to deposit the waste of industrialization. In a few figures, if the IT sector were a country, it would be3rd in terms of electricity consumption. By 2020, global traffic is expected to have tripled compared to 2017, with 50 billion devices connected to the net. Streaming video accounts for a large part of this recent increase, with nearly 2/3 of Internet traffic(1).

There is nothing virtual or immaterial about digital. It requires a whole infrastructure containing, among other things, terrestrial and submarine copper cables, gigantic datacenters, wifi terminals (3G consumes 15 times more energy than wifi, 23 times more for 4G) … Each technology has its share of environmental disasters. The extraction of a few dozen rare metals requires the use of fossil fuels, the waste of huge quantities of water, the destruction of natural areas and the dumping of chemicals. In Peru, the government is doing everything in its power to favor the multinational copper mining companies, while the population suffers from water shortages and the country is among those, along with Mexico and Chile, with the most mining conflicts. The rise of ICTs explains, according to Apoli Bertrand Kameni(2),  » the outbreak, frequency and continuation of political and armed conflicts in Africa  » over the past thirty years. The extraction of tantalum, germanium and cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not the only reason for the conflicts that are taking place in the former Belgian colony. And the list could go on and on(3).

The myth of the circular economy and total recycling also has a hard life, as Philippe Bihouix explains(4):  » electronic waste is among the most complex to process: the recycling rate of many rare metals is ridiculously low, often less than 1%. E‑waste often ends up in African countries, led by Ghana and Nigeria.

It is now common to read articles that warn about the ecological footprint of servers, the weight of emails, attachments, often with an injunction for consumers to adopt « good practices ». Since servers have historically been powered by fossil fuels, Greenpeace has been campaigning on this issue, with an annual ranking revealing the good and bad performers. Since then, Apple is proud to announce that its servers are powered by renewable energy sources. These marginal adjustments do little to challenge this digital capitalism in progress.

The development of sensors, connected objects, algorithms and artificial intelligence, promoted by the media, politicians and industrialists, only increases the nuisance, extractivism and proliferation of electronic waste, mainly in the South of the planet.

While the environmental impact of ICT is well known, the propaganda of Green by IT, the « responsible » use of digital technology for « ecological » purposes, persists: the optimization by digital tools and services would be factors of efficiency and sobriety. The ecological transition, as seen by the powers that be (state and industry), turns out to be an operation of greenwashing, making a few adjustments here and there, and externalizing more and more the ecological costs of technology made invisible by the relocation of industrial production (extraction, pollution, waste). This technological surge is done with contempt for the people, their health, the commons.

According to Philippe Bihouix, a low-tech approach to the Internet could already reduce its environmental impact by 95%: by working on equipment and its sobriety, lifespan, modularity, obsolescence, and on the infrastructure by lowering performance and mobility levels. The engineer close to the degrowth movement points out that the entire wikipedia site in English fits on 9 gigabytes, the equivalent of two movies in DVD format.(5)

Critical collectives of the digital world have emerged in recent years. In animal husbandry, the collective Faut pas pucer against the chipping and industrialization of their profession, the Appel de Beauchastel against the digitization of education, as well as Technologos which debates the technical system denounced by Jacques Ellul, one of the thinkers of degrowth. « Total Screen » brings together people working in animal husbandry, education, social work, medicine, baking, market gardening, carpentry or the book trade to federate this type of resistance. Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre has been analyzing the digital world and the hypertechnological world that is being prepared for more than 15 years, being at the forefront of the Grenoble technology park. They encourage every technocritic to investigate the misdeeds of the small Silicone Valley near them. Just as a permanent citizen’s audit would make it possible to refuse illegitimate debts, why not go further with an integral audit and a consideration of the ecological debt, in particular that which is incumbent on the digital world?

Beyond knowing if the hyperconnection projects will be materially feasible, let’s not wait to make our voices heard in opposition to the digital world. In the same way that denouncing the NDDL airport and its world is a path under construction, let’s dare to deploy alternatives to the all-digital(6).

Robin Delobel

Notes et références
  1. Socialter, dossier “Internet va-t-il détruire la planète” numéro 24,novembre 2017.
  2. Apoli Bertrand Kameni, « Minerais stratégiques, enjeux africains »,Cairninfo.
  3. « Ruée sur le cobalt : le sous-sol congolais continue à aiguiser lesappétits des multinationales », Jerome Duval,
  4. Philippe Bihouix, Benoît de Guillebon, Quel futur pour les métaux ?,EDP, 2010, et L’âge des low tech , vers une civilisation techniquementsoutenable, Seuil, 2014.
  5. Socialter, novembre 2017, ibid.
  6. C’est dans ce cadre aussi que nous avions fait une lettre ouverte auBourgmestre de Watermael-Boitsfort, du parti écolo. Voir

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