Time to come clean about something. Like almost any other person affiliated with the hydrocarbon industry, I’ve long been frustrated with the Ottawa-centric, social-science-heavy analyses of industry provided by the CBC. The institution’s output seems geared to the sort of mentality one would not be thrilled to work with – whiny, hand-wringing, dependent, un-calloused, offended urbanites that couldn’t grow a potato or heat a building but have a fantastic understanding of the art of academic inter-departmental warfare, and because of that academic orientation feels quite comfortable speaking down to the masses about what the energy industry needs to do. It’s like you’re out there in the rain on the side of the highway trying to change a flat tire and the lug nuts won’t come loose and your Ph.D. brother-in-law lowers the back-seat window a crack to inform you between sips of green tea that a properly funded government-run mass transportation system is what you really need instead of a longer wrench or whatever it is you’re yammering about out there.
And yet, and yet…CBC Radio has had some gems in the past. Admittedly, most are devoted to comedy; a long list of favourites is etched in my brain; usually Saturday programming, stretching back to The Dead Dog Cafe (wickedly funny satire of how cultures intersect, from a brilliant Indigenous team of writers and performers), Wiretap, This is That, and on and on. All blisteringly funny shows, devoid of needless political commentary.
On the serious side, the “Ideas” series on CBC radio deserves some credit too. It runs the gamut from politics to technology to everything else, and though I often don’t agree with the presenters, it is legitimately dedicated to ideas. That claim can be made in very few other media spaces.
A recent episode (November 13) was a wonderful example of the type of analysis we need to hear more of. It was a podcast called “Burning Data” from U of T professor Ron Diebert, who is described as a “world-renowned communications expert” and Director of something called Citizen Lab.
In the podcast, Diebert examines his fascination with global data capabilities by framing it first in a trip to Delhi, India. He notes the inconceivably large web of power lines connecting everything to everything, and observes from an overpass the longest train he’d ever seen, each car carrying coal. Beyond India, he is clearly an infrastructure fan, having toured global data centers, admits to an obsession with cell towers, etc, all of which he calls the “overlooked underbelly of cyberspace”.
Diebert observes that that underbelly is either hidden from view, or hard to observe – not just the data components like server farms and data centers, but the mining, the manufacturing, the transportation of everything, and the toll it takes on the natural world. For a modern communications fanatic, this all culminates in the cell phones we hold in our hand, and if we think about it we share his amazement – the device that we now live by, that we do everything with, our constant companion and middle-of-the-night entertainer, our viewer of restaurant menus and our personal bank branch, and on and on forever.
As we get ever-more hooked on these devices and social media and data flow, we place an ever-greater strain on the earth’s resources. As noted in the podcast, “The digital world is not immaterial” – that is, data is not purely ethereal bits and bytes; it is open-pit mines, it is endless fuel consumption and incredibly consumptive of fossil fuels.
Each device we have and use, and even more importantly, each device we dump after two years, has a physical cost, an extraction from the earth of natural resources, that would hardly be tolerated in any other industry, but that we do because, well, we just love the new iPhone so much.
Does anyone contemplate how a cell phone is manufactured? We tend not to because we’re discouraged not to – it’s a sealed box of aesthetic perfection, or temporary perfection, which gets displaced by the newest version of perfection. Which we MUST have.
Diebert catalogues some of the consumption involved in the process of getting us our digital lifelines. Hundreds of kilograms of fossil fuels, dozens of kg of chemicals, thousands of kilograms of water, for the manufacture of every phone, not including what’s expended in getting the raw materials. Data centres consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water every day to operate. Semiconductor plants consume millions every day.
Sending a simple text message requires a web of infrastructure so large we can’t imagine it.
Diebert has a great idea; each device should have a list of ingredients – all the metals and minerals, and all the fuel and water used in the creation. About 60 different types of metal are used in a typical cell phone. Where do those all come from? How are they found? How are they extracted? How are they processed? And those are just the metals. Rare earths are hard to process and recover (hence the term rare earth – they are in fact plentiful in minute but extensive quantities).
We are now locked into this world of digital infrastructure. Our requirements for it don’t diminish; they grow by leaps and bounds as new applications are developed (self-driving EV cars, drone technology, IoT, and on and on). Each new device or application is another draw on natural resources, of which hydrocarbons are just one.
In fact, it’s the search for these elements to build the digital world, and finding the power to run and operate them, that is responsible for a lot of the environmental pillaging that goes on, including pollution and habitat destruction. Going green does not necessarily make that pillaging any more palatable; consider a new solar installation planned for Australia that will cover 120 square miles, will include the world’s largest battery, and the world’s longest electrical cable (and it will be some cable; the monstrosity will be capable of 10 gigawatts at midday – that “cable” will be to cables what a Boeing 747 is to a remote-controlled model airplane). What exactly is the environmental impact of scraping clean 120 square miles of bothersome animals, plants, and any other natural vegetation? Does the surely-required environmental impact statement consist of a two-sentence document that maps out little more than “complete environmental obliteration”?
Hey, solar people, not singling you out; just pointing out that the way we live has massive environmental footprints, even the “good stuff”. The hydrocarbon industry has a footprint as well (though it has to be admitted that any new hydrocarbon development that required 120 square miles of habitat destruction for one project would never get anywhere, except maybe in Russia or some other closed society. Consider even oil sands tailings ponds, vilified when created for oil production yet permitted as a toxic necessity in rare-earth processing (as long as they are hidden away in media-unfriendly places like remote China).
As noted in the podcast, the dominant narrative provided by Big Tech focuses only on the convenience and desirability, the genius of Silicon Valley, the constant messaging that this is the future – and that the environmental footprint of their tech output is treated as non-existent. Hey, look at the shiny object. Isn’t it pretty? New big screen! Three cameras! Toss that old one!
The web of activities involved in providing electronics – exploration, mining, smelting, transportation, processing, manufacturing, packaging, etc. – employs hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people, and forms the bedrock of economies. Each strand of the web has an environmental footprint. Another stat from the podcast: In the EU in 2014, 5x more waste (16.2 million tonnes) was produced from electronics manufacturing than the volume of e-waste collected from households (3.1 million tonnes).
Finally, the podcast looks at the vast amount of energy consumed by digital consumption. We think it’s nothing (I’d thought it was inconsequential) because a device in itself uses so little. But considering the entire ecosystem, and how many appliances we have in our houses/businesses, and it adds up. A lot. A study by the American Coal Association estimates that a smartphone streaming video for an hour weekly uses more power annually than a new refrigerator. Sending 65 emails is the environmental equivalent to driving 1 kilometre in a car. The world’s email usage emits as much emissions as 7 million cars on the road. And that’s according to the CBC! (Including references for these stats, which I did not verify independently.) That number will only grow as IoT becomes ever-more pervasive. Staggeringly, consider that half the world’s population is not even getting started on this path – and they fully intend to be.
The podcast winds up with a grim thought: Each time we text, send an email, or stream video, we are contributing to a “planet-wide syndrome that risks our very survival as a species.” While that may be morbid and totally un-Thanksgiving-like, the entire conversation is a welcome one to those in the hydrocarbon industry. Everyone needs to think about these things, that a flick of a finger to swipe to the next TikTok or to swipe right to choose a new “life partner” on Tinder (or left? I don’t get out much) is the tip of a very big and very energy-hungry digital iceberg.
The problem of emissions is huge, complex, hard to solve, and requires us to examine the way we increasingly choose to live, and the fact that the rest of the world wants to join us.
Get ready for the real winter! Which doesn’t officially start for…almost a month… Oh well, pick them up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks for the support!