cloud enveloping a mountain with another type of cloud overhead
PHOTO: Andrej Chudy

The cloud is on the ground. I used to think that digital was immaterial, that sending an email was an act of climate activism, while sending a physical letter was like climate hooliganism. It’s only in the last couple of years that I have come to realize that digital is an accelerator of many of our most climate-destructive habits. Vineeta and Tom Greenwood, who founded Wholegrain Digital, had begun asking questions about digital many years earlier.

"Gradually over time we started asking what about the digital bit?" Tom said to me. "Surely there must be an impact to that? We had originally naively gone in thinking that there wasn’t an impact to digital — that was part of the attraction. And when we asked people we thought might know about it, they would say not to worry about it, that it’s insignificant, it’s almost nothing."

The most dangerous cost of all is the cost closest to nothing, because that’s the invisible cost, the cost that can build up in the background. That’s the cost that feeds all sorts of bad and wasteful habits. First, digital polluted our minds by whispering sweet nothings:

  • “Buy the latest iPhone.”
  • “Save as many copies as you want.”

The true impact of digital on the environment is not really talked about still, according to Tom. "The impact of digital is really big. And yes, there is a huge role for digital to help us solve environmental problems and reduce impact relative to some things that were previously physical products and services, but it doesn’t mean that digital itself doesn’t have an impact."

"This is the thing," Tom continued. "Digital is really pervasive in our society now and it can be used for very positive things. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it’s an accelerant of consumption. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, both in allowing us to figure out how to do more things, manufacture new technologies, extract more resources. But it’s also an accelerant in enabling people and encouraging people to consume those resources through digital marketing and ecommerce. It just makes it so easy for us to consume ever more and more. And I think that is part of the debate that isn’t talked about much. Digital transformation is this magical term that suggests that we’ll turn everything digital and it will solve all of our problems. And it can solve many problems but not by default. I always say that digital is neutral in whether it is good or bad, and whether it is good or bad depends on what we use it for. The trouble is that we use it for both. We use it to solve real problems, social problems, environmental problems. But we also use it to create new problems. And I think in many ways we use it more for the latter."

"Because digital makes everything faster and easier," Tom said. "And by making things faster and easier, human nature is to consume more of it because it’s easier for us to do so. Anything that makes it easier for us to consume more resources makes us consume more resources."

Related Article: Digital: The Great Accelerator of the Climate Emergency