How Well Do Data and Sustainability Go Together?
Recently I asked the question ‘should we debate the future of our cities?’. Topics that come to mind include whether we still need architectural gluttons gobbling our resources: whether they should be electrically self-sustaining, and whether we will have enough water to quench their voracious thirsts in time to come.
I keep coming back to the same thought. Are we acting intelligently by isolating some blocks of land for residential purposes, and reserving others for growing food? The monstrous cost of delivering food to cities should make us think again. We have been pondering about it for long enough, it seems. We need a decision.
Why Did Uncle Sam Say That Then?
‘Uncle Sam’ is the United States collective in times of conflict. Certainly, the figure in the picture is brandishing his hoe, and imperiously ordering us to kneel down and plant. The publishing date is 1917. The Lusitania is at the bottom of the ocean and the war has begun. Ships are for carrying weapons of war, not potatoes, and turnips!
As global villagers we are in a different type of war, perhaps even a battle for survival. The stampede of materialism my baby boomer generation launched has brought us to a decision point. Do we continue with exponential urbanisation? Or do we reverse it, or at the very least slow it down?
Is Digital the X-Factor in the Situation?
When I was growing up a number of my father’s cousins still farmed. I loved holidaying with them although the change from city hygiene to organic farming was sometimes difficult. They had no electricity. They cooked in woodstoves and used candles and storm lanterns at night. We took turns bathing in a tin bath on the floor before the fire. The toilet was a shed at the bottom of the garden. The kids went to boarding school.
Digital technology has closed this gap. Isolated farmers now educate their children through distance learning at home. They can visit the internet to learn how to install solar heating delivered by courier. They can access the latest green farming methods from the glorious beauty of their countryside. Do we not all long to share a piece of this image?
The True Cost of ‘Free’ Digital Information
This rapid growth in knowledge has radicalised the possibility of migrating from the city back to the countryside, and being largely self-sufficient for our daily needs. But there is a catch.
The indispensable internet is also consuming our water resources. After that rather long preamble, this article examines this reality.
Last August, the Imperial College London claimed a download of one gigabyte of data could consume as much as 200 litres of water. They used water footprint technology to come to their startling conclusion, and fingered the following two main culprits for causing it.
• The water cost of cooling data centres
• The water cost of generating electricity
I will add a third one at the cost of causing more controversy. Data downloading from the internet is largely free and uncapped access is cheap. We are like a bunch of kids stuffing ice cream down our throats at a birthday party. Until a beneficiary pays for something, they have no thought of cost. I did say I was going to be radical!
That thought of course is completely unacceptable. We will never democratise the planet until we have equal access to information. We need to challenge the way the World Wide Web fits together though. We need to rejig the way our data travels to us anywhere we are. Can we trim the ‘vast server farm full of heat-producing, power-hungry computers’ Zoe Kleinman bewails.
Perhaps It Is Not As Bad as We Think
The Imperial College researchers provided a caveat, which may be why their report slipped away from the radar soon. They are concerned their calculations may be so inaccurate that the water cost of one gigabyte is actually only one litre. But that is not the end of it. Western European smartphone users download 1.9 gigabytes of data a month. Their U.S. cousins mop up 3.7.
The data industry is trying to clean up its act. Microsoft is planning underwater data centres that will no longer use, pollute, or evaporate water. Facebook opened its Luleå Data Centre near the Arctic Circle is 2013, having chosen the site because of cheap electricity from renewable sources, and low ambient temperatures.
Firms like Amazon are now building their own windfarms. The key, of course, is how we as individuals answer the call to treat data as a scarce resource. Do you think this will happen any time soon on a scale that makes a difference? Or will we collectively leap off a cliff the way they say lemmings do?