To begin, I offer thanks for what sustains me: I thank the electric grid that allows me to publish this essay. I thank the natural gas, coal, hydro and nuclear power that fuel our electricity. I thank the engineers who design and operate utilities’ voltage control and load balancing systems. I thank the people who made and installed the generators, transformers, power lines and breaker boxes that deliver electricity safely and reliably.
I thank the 1000+ substances embodied in my computer and yours. I thank every living creature who contributes to or is affected by their supply chains1.
I thank the water used while doping silicon to increase transistors’ electrical conductivity2. I thank the people who sterilize our circuit boards with n-hexane, which causes leukemia and neural diseases. I thank the water that runs through the swamp coolers and air conditioners in the data centers that store my work.
I thank the access networks that connect our computers to the Internet.
I acknowledge that I spent more than six decades expecting safe, reliable, inexpensive power 24/7 without ever saying thanks for it. Until recently, I expected that my use of electricity and the Internet would not harm the Earth. And I never really defined “sustainability.”
Say that a product or service has “sustainability” if it’s ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane. Say that a society or a system is “sustainable” if it can continue indefinitely. Is the Internet sustainable? Do solar photovoltaics (PVs), industrial wind facilities and e-vehicles offer sustainability?
The United Nations’ take on sustainability: two versions
In 2015, the United Nations initiated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all people. The SDGs include eliminating poverty and hunger; creating good health, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, responsible consumption and production; climate action; industry, innovation and infrastructure; and peace, justice and strong institutions.
In 2016, a year later, the UN’s very own Environmental Program issued a report showing that countries that rank high on the SDG index—countries like Sweden, Germany, Finland and the U.S., where people buy plenty of “green” technologies—are actually among the world’s most environmentally unsustainable3.
Countries where ores are mined and smelted (for computers, solar panels, industrial wind turbines and e-vehicles, etc.); where silicon (for transistors and solar panels) is smelted; where manufacturers take water from farmers to dope silicon for transistors and solar panels; where chemicals for devices and vehicles and batteries and infrastructure parts are manufactured; where our e-waste is discarded… these countries generate lots of CO2 and toxic waste and worker hazards—and they score low on the SDG Index. Countries like China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and India.
FYI, a sustainable level of consumption of natural resources runs about 7 tons per person per year. In the whole world, the average citizen annually consumes about 12 metric tons of natural resources. The average Swede consumes 32 metric tons of natural resources.
In 1970, worldwide, we humans extracted 22 billion tons of primary, raw material from the Earth. In 2010, we extracted 70 billion tons. Increased population and consumption drive this extraordinary increase in extraction. It’s not sustainable.
The shadow sides of computers and “green” energy
I vote that before anyone calls the Internet, solar PVs, industrial wind turbines or any vehicle “green,” “zero-emitting” or “carbon neutral” they learn about the extractions, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste and worker hazards from its design, to mining and smelting, chemical manufacturing, assembly, shipping of raw materials, infrastructure requirements for operating and what happens during its recycling and/or discard.
As long as these things keep invisible to consumers, policymakers, designers and engineers, we can’t make real solutions to our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis, our dependence on an electronic interface for almost everything. We perpetuate gross imbalances between people who consume these goods and people who live and work near mines, smelters, refineries, assembly plants, power plants, data centers, industrial wind facilities and Amazon warehouses.
Here’s another way to say all of this. We’ve become dependent on fossil-fuel-based electric grids, telecommunication infrastructure and international supply chains that keep invisible to most of us. We’ve noticed that these supply chains are crashing. They’re not sustainable.
Here’s another way to say this: modern life and the Earth’s finite resources are not compatible. As a recent group of scientists explains, "...today’s political economy has been designed to value short-term financial wealth over the real treasure of Earth’s functioning ecosystems, to discount the future at the expense of the present, and to demand infinite exponential growth…which is simply impossible on a finite planet. Given all this, humanity should view its present overshoot-prone trajectory with tremendous suspicion, humility, and concern."4
Un-sustainability is personal
My husband (a tree pruner) and I rent a four-room house with single-pane windows, galvanized pipes and a backyard we’ve turned into a vegetable garden. We live within walking distance of two grocery stores that sell organic produce. Compared to the vast majority of people on Earth, we live in extraordinary privilege: we have clean water, electricity, food, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a hot water heater, a telephone, Internet access and two cars. We do not have money to buy this house—or any house. I’m in my 60s; my husband is in his 70s. We do not have any assets of value. We do not have anywhere to go to talk about this.
Our lives are not sustainable. I actually welcome acknowledging this reality—because now we can move forward realistically.
To increase awareness of every product’s impacts from cradle-to-grave, decrease reliance on international supply chains, reduce overall extractions and emissions and worker hazards, could the UN (and other agencies) create an indicator that measures the true material footprint of consumption—and its impacts?5 (if not, why not?).
At least until reading, writing and math are mastered on paper, could we teach children without an electronic interface?
Could everyone compost kitchen scraps with worms or a biodigester?6 A biodigester turns vegan kitchen scraps into liquid fertilizer and methane gas that 20 million Chinese families (and some American schools) use for cooking fuel and/or to power generators.
Could we walk to the grocery store? Get raised beds with insulating covers and nutrient-dense, lead-free compost? Get lead-free garden hoses? Make solar ovens? At least, grow cilantro or parsley in a pot on our windowsills?
Create a small group that commits to reducing consumption, exploring questions like “What’s a luxury?” “What’s essential?” “Who defines what’s sustainable?” “Who decides what’s sustainable?” “How can I reduce my consumption by three percent this month?” …and gets informed about what our technologies entail from cradle-to-grave.
Films about making computers, solar panels, industrial wind, e-vehicles and other “green” technologies:
- The Semiconductor Industry’s Water Problem.
- Headwind 21, by Marijn Poels, about former London banker Alexander Pohl’s experience with industrial wind facilities in Sweden.
- Dark Waters, about attorney Robert Bilott’s suit against DuPont’s manufacturing of PFOAs. Solar panels have PFOA coating.
- Planet of the Humans, Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s film about “renewables” ecological impacts.
- Bright Green Lies, Julia Barnes’ documentary based on Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert’s book about “green” tech’s ecological impacts.
- Complicit, Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s documentary about Chinese youth who swipe circuit boards with n-hexane, a toxic solvent.
- Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene by Edward Burtynsky.
- Profit and Loss: Standing on Sacred Ground, directed by Christopher McLeod, about two indigenous groups’ resistance to mining on their land.
- MisLead by Tamara Rubin. This is about lead poisoning and an industry that harms in the name of profit.
Films about restoration projects:
- John Liu’s Ecosystem Restoration Camps, To survive as a species, humanity must shift from commodifying nature to ‘naturalizing’ our economy.
- Woody Harrelson’s Kiss the Ground.
- The Power of Community about Cuba’s response to losing its oil supply, overnight, in 1989.
- Learn about myco-restoration.
1 Needhidasan, S., et al., Electronic waste--an emerging threat to the environment of urban India, J. Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014.
2 The Semiconductor Water Problem, September 2, 2021, Asianometry.
3 Jason Hickel, The World’s Sustainable Development Goals Aren’t Sustainable, Sept. 30, 2020. Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity: Assessment Report for the UNEP International Resource Panel, 2016.
4 T. W. Murphy, Jr., D.J. Murphy, et al., Modernity is incompatible with planetary limits: Developing a PLAN for the future, Energy Research & Social Science, Vol. 81, Nov., 2021.
5 Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity: Assessment Report for the UNEP International Resource Panel, 2016.
6 Videos about Dr. T.H. Culhane and biodigesters at the University of Florida.