iSustainability

The luminous glow of a new iPad display. The pleasing tactility of a smartphone cradled in the palm. The understated harmony of a carefully crafted interface. The translucent shimmer of a blinking LED signal. The razor sharpness of a high resolution digital image.

Most of us are addicted to the aesthetics of new technology. Smartphones, tablets and desktops and the software they frame are essential tools for our work and the planning of our day-to-day lives.

Their appeal isn't merely utilitarian. Today's devices are beautiful objects, kept constantly by our side. Many of us are near permanently connected to the web, and spend much of our disposable income purchasing and funding the use of an ever expanding array of communications devices.

It's fair to say that we're obsessed with new technology, and enthralled by the limitless horizons of the online universe to which they grant us access.

I am, I suppose. As a web designer I inhabit and contribute to a tiny corner of the online world, and am keen to acquire the best devices I can afford. Cleverly engineered and designed technology is seriously addictive because humans desire and need beautiful objects just as they do food, water, shelter, relationships and community. We marvel at the latest retina display just as our ancestors admired a well fashioned axe head.

The purpose of this post, though, is to note what we already know, but which is hard to keep in mind in the busy round of our plugged-in, connected lives: our breakneck hi-tech economy is ultimately rooted in the raw materials of the Earth. When we take time to look up from our screens, and consider the sustainability of the environmental and economic framework in which our technology is embedded, it's rather tempting to look straight back down again.

Meltdown

I'm writing this while still digesting a - frightening - report in the New Scientist magazine last week, which summarised the interim findings of research being prepared for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report due in 2014.

I've never been a climate change sceptic. I've always accepted scientists' warnings of possible environmental catastrophe at face value. They are experts, there are lots of them, and they subject their findings to collective scrutiny. While acknowledging the threat of global meltdown I've continued to hope that world leaders might be able to thrash out some deal that will keep CO2 emissions rises to sustainable levels. I've done little things myself, investing in a car deemed to be less polluting than most, and recycling my copies of The Guardian.

But I admit it is only just dawning on me that climate change is already here, it's too late to stop it, things are going to get bad whatever we do, and all we can in fact do now is take urgent measures to limit the damage and set our economic systems on a more sustainable path for the future.

To summarise the aforementioned research:

  • We're emitting more CO2 than ever, and further sharp increases are inevitable. The only international agreement to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, the Kyoto protocol, excluded developing countries and required only minor cuts. The US never signed up and Canada has withdrawn. Most nations continue to subsidise fossil fuels and to build coal or gas-fired power stations, committing themselves to decades of emissions.
  • Even if our emissions stop, which they won't, greenhouse gas levels will still keep rising. Only half of all the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere is retained, the rest is absorbed by the land and oceans. As the world warms they will be able to take up less and will eventually begin to emit CO2. Carbon locked in permafrost and in methane hydrates in the seabed could well be released, creating an unstoppable feedback loop.
  • This means that we're on track for an increase in global temperature of 4C by the 2070s, and the best estimates are for a rise to 5 to 6C by 2100.
  • One consequence is that the Arctic is warming faster than predicted, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking at unforeseen pace. Heat reflecting white ice has given way to heat-absorbing dark water, setting in motion feedback processes: the Arctic has begun to warm twice as fast as any other region on the planet.
  • So sea levels will rise faster than expected. Most glaciologists believe the sea level will rise by at least a metre by 2100, and possibly as much as two metres, enough to flood many low-lying cities.
  • Inland, temperatures of 35C or more will render vast swathes of Africa, Australia, China, Brazil, India and the US uninhabitable for at least part of the year. Food production will suffer, making it difficult to feed people in the developing world.

Apocalyptic reports are being published thick and fast these days. Two recent ones include The Emissions Gap Report 2012 and Turn down the heat by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank respectively.

I'm not going to blame selfish consumers for all this. I understand why people switch off when (some) environmentalists counsel austerity and seek to persuade us to scale down our complex economies for a simple, 'pastoral' way of life. That is a fantasy that is simply not going to happen. Take a walk down any high street: people are fascinated by the new shiny things that technological advance makes possible. Pandora's box was opened some time ago.

Indeed I think that technology is our only hope for coping with the effects of climate change. We need to discover and - more importantly - implement new technologies that will protect us so far as is possible from climatic instability, and hold open the possibility of maintaining the quality of life we desire through sustainable modes of economic production.

Our challenge, I think, is to refocus our capacity for the development and consumption of new technology towards the collective end of environmental sustainability. Is it possible that one day - soon - we might feel the same excitement about taking concrete steps to help save the planet as we do about acquiring the latest iPhone? Can the prospect of channeling innovation into sustainable technologies be made as appealing as the production of a shimmering glass case for a brand new tablet computer?

We need to craft economic frameworks that harness energies currently dedicated to the production of consumer electronics to green technologies that promise sustainability.

iCommunism?

When I read the New Scientist report I was completing Colin Cremin's bold iCommunism (in the ever excellent Zero Book series). Cremin argues, forcefully, that capitalism itself is chronically wasteful and unsustainable, and that our hopes for survival require that we wean ourselves off consumerism altogether, and redirect the energies so released towards the building of a communist society with common ownership of the means of production.

He writes:

Without a change in the social relations of production profit will always trump planet and the technological means to address global warming and end a condition of scarcity will be squandered.

I agree with that up to a point. The free play of market forces won't get us out of this mess. We're going to need government intervention and collective action, at national and international level, to reshape our economic frameworks. But I think we need to channel the energies of the market, not abolish it. Indeed much of western Europe operated such a hybrid system with success through the 1950s, 60s and 70s: it was called social democracy, and it's still functioning well where given a chance, notably in Scandinavia and - to a degree - Germany.

But I think Cremin regularly hits the nail on the head:

People will always want to live in beautiful homes and dress in ways that others find aesthetically pleasing. But there is a difference between this desire and an ego whose sense of self is secure only when accumulating stuff; whose aesthetic judgements are determined by fashion alone.

And I love this passage:

Today, though, it is hard to see through the fog of so-called consumer society and the myth that humans are merely selfish, wasteful, shallow, and destructively excessive. It is no wonder that the utopian imagination is so destitute when human nature is made to look so grubby. But a species that can design a rocket ship to fly to the moon is no more of an animal than a fish is a reptile. If a species can imagine flight and then build airplanes, it can imagine a better world and become the historical agent in the making of that world. It can overcome hardship and inequality, and it can create a sustainable environment in which all of us - Americans, Indians, Chinese - can thrive. Systems can be overturned when people confront their alienated condition, but cynicism prevails in the absence of a more benign notion of human nature.

I think that's right. The challenge is one of imagination, of openness to the possibility that we can design an economy which allows us to create, to innovate, to dream our technological dreams: sustainably. Appeals for austerity and the donning of hair shirts won't work. We need to fashion and employ technological solutions to the challenges presented by climate change with the same fanatical dedication Apple devotes to the design of a new iDevice, or Google to its search algorithms.

Cremin writes:

The i has become the symbol of freshness, cool, individuality, information, that little bit of extra something, the mystery - objet petit a - that drives our desire.

We need to associate the magnetic appeal of that 'i' to the taking of urgent political action. Cremin talks of iCommunism, I prefer iSustainability. I sense that the energy we need to build a sustainable world is there, right in front of me, whenever I enter a busy Apple Store, observe commuters enthralled by their smartphones, or see groups of people gathered round a video games console. It's the love of technology, of the new, of the exciting: we need to find a way of directing it to sustainable ends.

Thanks to Rendrart for a helpful iCloud logo tutorial.

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