Modern gadgets and rapidly evolving technology have revolutionized the world in many ways. Most people can’t live without smartphones, laptops and other day-to-day devices that have flooded the markets. While technology is often seen as an indicator of economic growth and prosperity, it is detrimental to the health and well-being of our planet.
What is the Environmental Cost of Developing New Technology?
The environmental cost of developing new technology is manifold. The number of resources that are utilised, the volume of waste generated, increased greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and land degradation are all results of enthusiastic endeavours by capitalist firms who are in the rat race with each other for developing new technologies.
While revolutionary research for developing new technologies is a goal for many corporations, the environmental impact, efficiency and utility of those technologies is hardly thought of. The stakeholders do not take any responsibility for the harm their research projects and technology cause to the environment.
Where did it all Start?
It was the industrial revolution that occurred in Europe and Great Britain which propelled the technological revolution. While the industrial revolution completely transformed the way of life of ordinary people and bourgeoisie alike, it also brought about noisy streets, soot-covered windowpanes and acid rain. This was where it all began- rapid climate change, global warming with increased carbon emissions and massive industrial and technological pollution which continues unabated.
Technology – a double-edged sword
Technology has many negative environmental effects but recently people have started talking about developing and using eco-friendly and ‘clean and green technologies.’ Hence, we can call technology a double-edged sword.
It has improved the quality of human life and led to the growth of a tech-savvy world but caused immense harm to the environment.
In this article, I will shed light on the negative environmental impact of technology and then also elaborate on how technology can be the saviour of humankind if used ethically and consciously.
How has Technology Harmed the Environment?
Air and Water Pollution
The consequence of developing new technologies is increased pollution. Air pollution occurs when harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide are released into the atmosphere during the manufacture of new devices and gadgets. It is caused by industries, factories, power stations, burning of fossil fuels and so on. It is important to realise the seriousness of this issue as air pollution would lead to an increase in average global temperature.
Air pollution is also a major cause of respiratory diseases, especially in the developing world. It causes asthma and other breathing problems.
Massive water pollution has become the order of the day. Industrial effluents, harmful chemicals and toxins, untreated wastewater and industrial sludge is released into water bodies. It can cause a degradation of marine ecosystems, mutations in the living organisms, eutrophication etc. It is equally dangerous for human beings as it could cause mercury or lead poisoning if that water is consumed and also cancer.
Advances in technology are the root cause of rapid resource depletion. When resources are consumed faster than they are replenished by nature, it leads to ecological imbalance and puts pressure on the natural ecosystems. It is high time that we find ways of tapping the true potential of renewable natural resources instead of mindlessly using non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, oil etc.
There is a rapid aquifer depletion taking place, along with increased deforestation, wastage of fossil fuels, contamination of resources, soil erosion etc. These are caused due to unsustainable manufacturing practices, traditional agricultural techniques, excessive water usage and resource wastage in general.
Technology is Mineral Intensive
The manufacture of new gadgets requires the mining of rare earth elements and minerals. The process of mining is itself very polluting and detrimental to the natural environment. For instance, around 35 different minerals are used for manufacturing smartphones. Plastic is the second material after silicon which is widely used for industrial purposes and is made from fossil fuels.
Technological innovations absorb massive energy during the production process and their transportation also comes with a carbon cost. Not to forget that technological advances are not possible without electricity consumption. Since most of the world’s electricity comes from coal and other non-renewable sources, each time we use a technological device we leave behind a carbon footprint and contribute to climate change.
The use of Massive Data Systems and Web Servers also Drains a lot of Energy.
Generation of Electronic Waste
Once the technological devices are broken, they end up in landfills. It is estimated that globally, $62.5 billion of electronic waste is generated every year and only ⅕ of this waste is recycled.
These landfills are located near poor and vulnerable populations which often depend on garbage-picking and informal waste recycling to sustain themselves. Hence, technology also contributes to economic disparity. While many developed nations can afford to have recycling plants, it is not possible for the developing world.
However, world organizations like the UN could encourage the nations to come together and focus on recycling as it would not only reduce e-waste but also generate economic benefits if the waste is productively recycled into a useful product.
There is an urgent need to move to a circular economy that is geared towards regeneration and minimal waste production. Such an economy would promote the development of sustainable technologies which will be in consonance with environmental well-being.
However, this is a distant dream until the tech companies join hands to support recycling instead of promoting ‘hyper-consumerism. It is a known fact that the life of smartphones, laptops is not more than 4-6 years and most times the tech giants stop making regular updates for old devices in order to encourage people to buy new ones thus contributing to the generation of e-waste.
Role of Governments
Change needs to come from within but it also needs to be pushed when we are standing on the brink of an impending disaster. Governments need to take charge to make their citizens vigilant about the harmful effects of technology on the environment.
Many nations have taken proactive steps in this regard. For instance, the French Government announced fines of up to €300,000 and a two-year jail sentence for companies who planned technological obsolescence. Even Apple had admitted to deliberately slowing down its devices by releasing slower and irregular updates to increase its sales and it was tried under this french law.
In the US, California became the first state that introduced an e-cycling regulation in 2003. New York has established its e-waste collection program and barred its citizens from throwing electric garbage into waste cans.
What can we as consumers do about it?
As environmentally conscious consumers we should always remember the negative effects of technology on our environment. We should purchase second-hand gadgets rather than always buying new ones. While buying, we could look at more sustainable options. Instead of buying from mainstream brands we should also do proper research and find out about companies that manufacture eco-friendly products.
Also instead of following trends and changing our phones every year, we should try to use it as long as possible and send it for recycling when it wears out. All these individual steps would surely go a long way in making our environment clean and green.
Winds of Change- Developing Environment-Friendly Technologies
As more and more people are becoming aware of the catastrophic impact of technology on our environment, there is a gradual move towards a sustainable and low-carbon world economy.
Environment technology is also referred to as clean and green technology as it focuses on mitigating the current ecological crisis and prompts the use of technology for the betterment of the environment rather than harming it.
Technology that is beneficial to the environment includes the use of-
Renewable energy is tapped from resources like sunlight, wind, rain, tides and so on. This energy is abundant and perennial and could be tapped to produce electricity and heat through solar panels, wind and water turbines.
This would be a positive use of technology as it would not harm nature and also results in economic prosperity.
Renewable resources generate around 20% of the UK’s electricity. The infrastructure to tap renewable energy can be put in remote areas and also in developing countries as energy is important for human development as well.
Governments are investing in renewable technology which is good news for all of us. Rooftop solar installations in Australia have increased from 4,600 households to over 1.6 million between 2007 and 2017 with active government intervention and support.
Use of Smart Technology
The use of smart technology increases efficiency and saves energy. This works by linking sensors and other gadgets to the Internet of things. Internet of things is a web of devices connected with each other and the internet. These devices make automatic decisions on the basis of the information provided.
For example, intelligent lighting systems only light up areas that need it and a smart thermostat maintains a certain temperature during the day given the weather, therefore, reducing wastage.
Environment-friendly technology is possible due to the interconnectivity offered by the internet and also globalization. Many researchers have predicted that in the future, every electrical device including vehicles would be interconnected leading to the development of smart cities.
Also, social media is an example of how technology can be used for spreading environmental awareness. The Internet allows people to create chat groups, virtual forums and laboratories to conduct conversations, share research and have discussions. All this reduces the need to meet in person, thus decreasing pollution.
Many countries have already made a move towards using smart technology. One such country is the UK, where electric cars are out on the roads and there is more electric vehicle charging stations than fuel stations.
Technology can have a negative as well as a positive impact on the environment. The choice is for us to make. Technological gadgets that harm nature will continue to be produced as long as there is demand for them. Hence we have to push for change and align our buying practices with our environmental values as the earth is the only home we have and the only home we know.