Pablo Gámez, researcher: “The weight of the current technological waste exceeds that of the Great Wall of China”

Pablo Gámez, researcher: “The weight of the current technological waste exceeds that of the Great Wall of China”

Pablo Gámez Cersosimo, Founder and Director of Naturally Digital.Pablo Gámez Cersosimo, Founder and Head of Naturally Digital.Bttn80 Photography

“Today’s technological junk outweighs that of the Great Wall of China.” “The digital industry already generates 6% of greenhouse gas emissions (like sea and air navigation combined) and it is possible that it will reach 30% by the end of this decade.” This explains the researcher Pablo Gámez Cersosimo, who 50 years ago in San José , Costa Rica, but lives in the Netherlands and from where he is the leader of Naturally Digital, an organization specializing in sustainability, human behavior, ethics and digital well-being. After five years of research, he published Digital Predators (Círculo Rojo, 2021), one of the most complete works on the footprint of the new era. He assures that we are at a crucial moment that requires urgent and immediate action to prevent this industrial revolution from being the last for humanity.

Questions. Can digital activities become the most polluting in the world?

Answer. Indeed, if the course we are taking is not corrected. Recently, the World Economic Forum calculated that digital activity will be responsible for an additional 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions by the end of the decade, equivalent to that of a country like Russia. This gives a clear and real idea of ​​the urgency.

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P Which services are the most polluting?

R There are five very important elements: the carbon footprint due to the energy consumption of the entire digital infrastructure, linked to the circular phase of technological products, that comes from the attention economy, that of the mineral extraction to operate our devices and that of e-waste. The digital waste generated by planned obsolescence makes it virtually impossible to reclaim the components used in the manufacture of our devices. It’s a problem we inherited at the gates of Web 3.0 and will only grow. For example, metaverse and augmented reality gadgets are designed to dominate the market, but they don’t respond to the circular economy. We are at the gates of an exponential increase in waste. And on metals, a report by the International Energy Agency speaks of the need to open 50 more lithium and nickel mines and 17 cobalt mines. The world needs to increase production of metals and minerals by at least 12 times by 2050. Every year we need a Mount Everest. In a very short time, we depend on every element of the periodic table for our technology, and open pit mining is one of the most polluting activities.

Every year we need the equivalent of Mount Everest in minerals

P That’s why we’re committed to clean energy, but digital technologies aren’t going the same way in the end.

R There is a divorce, a contradiction, but I prefer to call it the paradox of development. There is a precise, very elaborate and extremely strong narrative that digitization and clean energy are synonymous with green development, but we forget their carbon basis. It’s a discourse created by big technology

P Google ensures that all of the energy sources it draws from are renewable.

R It has to be admitted that the big tech companies have made a gigantic effort to decarbonize their infrastructures, but here we will open the cantaloupe. They say they use 100% renewable energy, and that means they’ve hijacked the energy produced by hundreds of wind and photovoltaic farms that work exclusively for them. They have effectively managed to create this swarm of infrastructure on their foundation to be able to say that they have a sustainable operating scheme. From this point of view it is true. Again, the problem is that the amount of metals and minerals they require and the impact that this has on, for example, the production of all those hundreds of thousands of wind farms and solar panels, is not measured, but left out. It depends on how the discourse is housed, how far it is counted. These tech companies literally own the platforms we use for our relationships and our communications, and they manage all the techniques and all the ways to create extremely attractive speeches that lead us to these formulations that they say are sustainable . However, a generally accepted methodology is needed to monitor this sustainability discourse. We’ve already seen that the big platforms don’t tell us the whole truth.

Tech companies create extremely compelling speeches that lead us to phrases they say are sustainable. But we’ve already seen that the big platforms don’t tell us the whole truth

P But there is also a part of individual responsibility, of the use that each of us makes of technology.

R The user is increasingly informed about the effect of his digital behavior, although this has not yet been achieved in all societies on earth due to the different speeds of digitization. However, the generations of digital natives, although they have a clear commitment to the environment and nature, are quite decoupled from the effects of their digital dependency; They do not fully understand the impact they are making through their digitization. There is an individual responsibility, a clear need to understand the impact we are creating through digital critical thinking. For example, the Metaverse is the great spearhead of the Web 3.0 ecosystem. But it is completely decoupled from the environmental impacts it will or could have. This reflection is very necessary.

The Metaverse is the great spearhead of the Web 3.0 ecosystem. But it is completely decoupled from the environmental impacts it will or could have.

P Would the metaverse be a duplication of the world and therefore its effects?

R It’s not so much the doubling of the world. We could better understand it as a leap into three-dimensionality. They are different virtual worlds in which we can interact and communicate, not by clicking but by immersion. The problem is that the Metaverse’s graphical engine has a significant impact due to the software and hardware techniques it takes to operate. Is this being considered? On the other hand, there is a deep belief that the metaverse will offer us the possibility to carry out activities without having to move and that this will generate compensation in terms of a reduced carbon footprint. It may be true, but it must be made clear that the metaverse is digital and connected to the physical limits of natural resources. The more infinite you are, the more physical infrastructure you need. I’m not against the metaverse or technological development, but analyze them from a critical thinking perspective. In order to guarantee their disruptive development right from the start, the large technology groups used the strategy of ignoring the CO2 footprint, for example. Technology companies have been given virtually free rein to develop without environmental scrutiny. In recent years we have seen some governments with greater concern.

Technological waste at a junkyard in Manila, Philippines, in July 2020.Technological waste at a junkyard in Manila, Philippines, July 2020. ELOISA LOPEZ (Portal)

P He speaks of technological feudalism in Digital Predators.

R We are platform dependent. Our economy will not function without them. The paradox is that we are talking about a maximum of seven major global tech companies that control this digital scaffolding based on data and that dependency has increased during the pandemic period. We have a system of submission to the new feudal lords of our modernity who are more powerful than countries. An example is Meta’s rudeness towards European legislation.

P Are there any solutions?

R From the generated digital swarm, I don’t see how we can create an alternative that avoids being dependent on companies like Microsoft or Apple or Meta. We were taught to interact with our technologies, but not to understand how they are structured or how much power we have given them. This has allowed them to create the fiction of development and prosperity, but their entire structure depends on the will of the platforms.

Technology is indeed a great ally of our development and well-being, but we must understand it and use it ethically in order to understand the energy impacts we generate and also the dependence and submission to which we submit

P Is the technological sobriety you claim in your book necessary?

R It relates to digital sustainability from critical thinking, that is, understanding that technology is indeed a great ally of our development and well-being, but that we must understand it and apply it ethically to reduce the energy impact we generate and also the To understand dependency and submission to which we submit.

P But there is a reluctance on the part of users to take on this responsibility

R Socially, in advanced societies, there is more acute and marked exhaustion. It’s swimming against the tide, but global warming and climate change are cornering us. And then there’s the pandemic, the war in Ukraine… These are slaps in the face, but we have an ethical duty to insist. In France, they have agreed to put the environmental impact on the table and create the first impact control legislation. For example, since January this year, every French citizen will be charged the amount of emissions caused by the use of their mobile phone on their phone bill. In this way, French society is enlightened, being among those that best understand the implications of its digitization. In schools, too, care must be taken to ensure that the generations of digital natives think critically. The EU is discussing concrete measures on the ecological footprint to use the full potential of technologies, to turn them into an environmental lever and to monitor their impact. In London, Naturally Digital works with the Eco-friendly Web Alliance to create guidelines for green websites and digital infrastructure. We reduce CO2 emissions directly from websites for sustainable digital transformation and raise awareness for companies and individuals. We are also examining how these measures can be integrated into Costa Rica’s sustainable development policy. Internet decarbonization is one of the great challenges of the next decade, a race against time. Temperatures on the planet are rising rapidly. We live a violent summer. Dizzying global warming is forcing us to take action at the same pace.

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