As the predictable series of crisis starts to bite (climate change, peak energy, deforestation, soil degradation & water scarcity to start with), what will be the first large element of the modern society to buckle? One of the most visionary longer-term futurists is John Michael Greer, and he lays out his vision for the next generations in the great book “The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a post-peak world“. I am largely in agreement of his vision and believe the world is already on its way moving from the era of industrialism to what he calls scarcity industrialism, the decades where we will exploit the last remaining supplies of fossil fuels – and the smarter countries focus on building capacity for renewable energy generation and efficient resource usage.
There is one element, however, where I am in fundamental disagreement with Greer; the future of the Internet and modern telecommunications in general. Greer argues that the Internet will be unsustainable even in the short term:
The internet, the crown jewel of modern communications, depends on a huge, energy-intensive infrastructure that will become impossible to keep running as energy and other resources become scarce. The Internet depends on thousands of server farms, many of which use as much electricity as a small city, and the technology that makes the Internet possible in the first place requires abundant energy, exotic raw materials, costly and energy-intensive fabrication plans, hundreds of thousands of well-trained technicians and a social consensus that supports investing all these resources there and not elsewhere. Counting on all of these to remain available during the decades to come is a gamble against long odds.
As energy prices rise and technologies dependent on high energy inputs become less and less common, the Internet as it exists today is likely to be an early casualty.
I think he’s wrong there. There are five key reasons why I disagree with this:
1) The Internet is key to dematerialization. Dematerialization – replacing physical goods with digital – is an important trend that improves sustainability. While it has been shown to actually be detrimental to the overall size of the business and jobs associated with it, there is no doubt that having your music, books, movies etc in digital form as opposed to physical media is environmentally friendlier (provided, of course, that the devices we consume them on are long-lasting). The Internet is the distribution channel for digital content, and taking that away would necessitate a return to printed books, magazines and newspapers, CDs, DVDs and what not – in an era where saving trees is critically important and rising production and shipping costs, I don’t see this as a very likely outcome.
2) The Internet is our best substitute for commuting and other traveling, which is a far more energy-intensive activity. Many, if not most, knowledge workers could just as easily work from home or community office hubs than commute to work. Again, the Internet is a crucial enabler in this and as commuting costs rise, increasing working remotely will help everyone involved; businesses will have lower costs due to needing less office space in expensive locations and employees will save money and time by telecommuting. By keeping people in the communities they live in during the days, too, would even help in re-localizing the economy.
3) The Internet runs on electricity, not fossil fuels which makes it inherently easier to operate on renewable energy than, for example, transportation. While much of that electricity is still produced with coal, Internet companies from Google to Apple are at the forefront of powering their data centers with renewable energy, making them more resilient to rises in electricity prices. By comparison the transition to using renewable energy is much, much more difficult for things that currently require liquid fuels to run.
4) Rapid distribution of knowledge is crucial in the far-reaching re-skilling that is soon necessary. Millions and millions of people need to learn new skills over the following decades. This starts from the very basics, like food production: where industrial food production is energy-intensive, organic farming is knowledge-intensive – and connected services and instant delivery of information helps new and old farmers to adopt organic techniques at the speed required in a distributed fashion.
5) The Internet forms the basis of many important partial solutions; from apps in western countries that tell consumers which fish or food is environmentally most friendly to SMS services in developing countries that inform farmers of the market prizes and help increase their income, the Internet – and, increasingly, mobile access to it – forms the backbone of many services that are beneficial to their users and the environment alike. Many existing and potential online services can help make society more resilient in a number of ways.
Granted, producing the devices the Internet relies on are energy-intensive activities. There’s still a lot of work and adaptation to do in terms of powering the Internet with renewable energy, making all the supporting devices longer-lasting and better-quality and, probably, trying to limit the data growth. Biased as I might be, I still think the Internet has potential to reduce consumption and emissions more than increases them – in other words, have a net positive impact in the world. It’s obviously not a panacea, but neither do I think it’s very high on the list of things society would first give up in crunch time.
Professor Rod Tucker from the University of Melbourne is doing some very interesting work in the field of quantifying energy use and emissions from the Internet; check out his presentation “A Green Internet” [PDF] for some fascinating details – including a nice telecommute calculator and even energy-efficiency calculations of teleportation 🙂