Bringing Our Environmental Convictions Into Our Digital Lives

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Data Society
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February 2024
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Doing our part for the environment has been on the rinse-and-repeat cycle for decades: recycling packaging, limiting idle time in our vehicles, and toting around reusable shopping bags. But what can we do for Planet Earth when it comes to our digital habits? While the significant environmental challenges associated with advanced technologies may seem too big for the average consumer, there’s reason to believe that we as individuals can make a difference through our personal use of digital tools.

Do We Disconnect From Eco-Awareness When We Connect to the Digital World?

If you, like most of us, have given less thought to the environmental impact of your digital habits than you have with your other daily practices, there are a few things to keep in mind:


There is a material world that drives our digital world.
We know this. But we are removed from the tremendous network of cables beneath the ocean that connects us through the Internet, from the production demands associated with our digital devices, and from the carbon emissions associated with our email habits. The environmental impact of our digital use isn’t as apparent as the smoke pouring from a factory stack or the plastic bags littering the beach. And as technology advances, our connection to the material infrastructures that drive it tends to become more remote, its ecological demands and consequences less perceptible to the average consumer.

Our seemingly insignificant activities are drops in a vast ocean of digital use.
We are generally familiar with concerns about the energy demands, carbon emissions, and water consumption associated with data centers. These and other hyper-scale forces at work feel beyond our control. By comparison, can the relatively insignificant footprint we leave through our digital use make a difference?

True, the environmental impact of most routine digital tasks, such as sending an email or performing a search, is probably negligible. But when you multiply this impact by the number of times we perform these tasks each day and the vast numbers of people doing the same things across the globe, our digital habits might not seem so inconsequential. According to a BBC article published in 2020, some estimates indicate that the carbon emissions associated with our digital devices could account for as much as 3.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And that percentage might be on the upswing due to increased usage and possibly to the introduction of more generative AI tools into popular applications.

It’s difficult to measure the impact of our digital use and determine what personal practices, if any, can lead to greener outcomes. For example, it appears that video streaming may produce lower carbon emissions than some reports suggested a few years ago. Then there’s social media. According to this Social Carbon Footprint Calculator, which offers a tool for tracking the carbon footprint of your social media use, using TikTok generates 2.63 grams of carbon per minute.

So, Can We Really Make a Difference?

Even in the absence of reliable metrics about the environmental impact of specific activities, you can never go wrong by reducing unnecessary use of resources. Awareness of the fact that each of our digital activities increases our carbon footprint, no matter how small, should help guide us toward more eco-friendly choices about how much is enough when we stream media, send text messages, attach files to our emails, or spend time on social media platforms. 

And there are a few other time-honored practices we as individuals can follow to move in this direction:

  • Curb your appetite for frequent device upgrades. Not only does the production and distribution of our digital gadgets come at an environmental cost, but replacing our devices also contributes to the growing planetary scourge that is e-waste.  
  • Be conscientious about recycling your devices when you do decide their time is up. You can learn more about how and why to do this on the US Environmental Agency’s web page dedicated to electronics donation and recycling.
  • Deny your inner hoarder when it comes to electronic files. Just as our discarded devices and household garbage end up somewhere, our forgotten photos, unwanted videos, old emails, and redundant documents are contributing to another form of pollution. Data storage occupies server space at data centers, further straining the very resources we’re trying to conserve.   
  • Practice good old-fashioned thrift with electronics. If you’re not using it anytime soon, turn it off. You can also maximize your energy conservation by unplugging devices when you don’t need them.

  • Let your wallet do the talking to the companies that deliver your digital experiences. Look into the sustainability practices of providers and let your values steer you. While being selective about your digital activities is probably a good practice, as noted above, using an app that helps you make greener choices as a consumer might have an overall positive impact. 

For many of us, the links between digital technologies and their material impact are imperceptible, and the resulting disconnect might be reflected in much of our digital behavior. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that every digital interaction we have—no matter how small—is born of real resources and has real impact. And it’s empowering to consider the ways that we can make greener use of today’s technologies.

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