Is Technology Destroying Our Planet— or Saving It?
Each day we use or learn of new technologies that are designed to make our lives easier – but our devices require consistent energy, which can be a negative impact on the planet. But is technology to blame for climate change?
By merely living and breathing, we humans are taking a toll on the Earth. As we consume more resources, science recognizes a significant link between population growth and global warming. When used smartly, technology could be one of the tools that might help us fight against the advancement of climate change and even help reduce or reverse the effect.
Technology through the ages
Human beings have evolved and thrived with innovative technology, not only adapting and incorporating it into our lives but also shaping and improving society, starting with stone tools and racing up to the steam engine, electricity, sanitation, and refrigeration. The invention of the printing press is considered the most impactful invention on shaping modern life, according to a panel of scientists, engineers, and innovators assembled by The Atlantic. The 15th-century invention allowed significant distribution and sharing of knowledge, paralleled only by the advent of the Internet, now used by billions of people worldwide.
This widespread use of the Internet allows not only for the greater exchange of information but also the potential to decrease the impact of carbon emissions through air travel. While flight is also one of the most critical technological advancements in history, it does carry significant impacts on global warming through the combustion of fossil fuel. The counteracting impact of the Internet has the potential to keep more global business meetings online, eliminating the need to travel and meet in person. More companies, organizations, and campuses are recognizing the impact of travel on their carbon footprints, and they’re taking action by committing to less travel in their professional lives.
Better standards of living
Continuing to improve Internet connections globally not only will help reduce the impact of travel on global warming, but it can help improve local economies as well. It can help increase access to education, training, employment opportunities, political activity, and community connections. It also increases productivity, transparency in government as well as costs and pricing, and opens up consumer choice.
While improved incomes can lead to greater consumerism, a better standard of living can also lead to choices that are easier on natural resources – a person may choose to get an education and a job in the city instead of cutting down forest land to farm, for example. It can open up information about the importance of resource conservation and opportunities for jobs that protect the environment rather than harm it. Closing the digital divide – ensuring Internet access to underserved communities and regions – can help build those opportunities.
Changes to consumerism
We’ve seen retail stores and malls closing in droves, partially because of the increase in e-commerce. While the loss of these brick-and-mortar shops can mean unemployment for their workers, e-commerce has positive benefits for the environment. E-commerce consumes a third less energy than traditional retail shopping as the largest environmental impact is consumers driving to the store, says the Carnegie Mellon Green Design Institute. A delivery driver making several stops contributes less toward greenhouse gases, consuming fewer fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
Additionally, fewer new retail sites needed means less of an impact on the land. Former mall sites can be developed into other uses that benefit communities, including medical facilities, affordable housing, fitness centers, places of worship, indoor farmer’s markets, pop-up art galleries, and more.
Smart tech in the home
The increased production of smart items, including our devices and smart-home items such as thermostats, undoubtedly contributes overall to the impact on the environment, starting with mining for key elemental components, manufacturing the goods, the consumption of electricity, and the impact of items that fail to make it into the recycling stream. However, used wisely, smart items can save a lot of energy by regulating and better implementing the use of heat, light, water, and even food.
Smart refrigerators can keep track of oft-used staples such as milk and yogurt, preventing loss and keeping trips to the store at a minimum. Smart light bulbs can automatically turn on and off, depending on room usage, and they can help us to sleep better by changing the type of light emitted at different times, making us healthier and more productive. Smart thermostats can adjust automatically by sensing people in the room. Sensors can detect water leakage before it becomes a disaster, and security systems can help prevent loss and damage to property. Overall, smart technology can be a win.
Smarter forestry and agriculture
The Internet of Things is being used wisely to help protect our natural resources, including forests, water supplies, and the way we grow food. New remote sensing and geographic information systems technology can help foresters and large-scale farmers to carefully target pesticides on areas that need it, or can pinpoint trees that are old enough to remove for harvest or are causing a potential hazard. These systems can also monitor soil quality and irrigation, allowing smarter fertilizer and water use. They can increase both the quantity of output and the quality of food and products.
Technology, if used in the smartest ways, can benefit both people and the environment – as long as people continue to innovate ways to use it to change the ways we use resources and the impact we all have on climate change.