IT's kill or cure choice for a dirty world

The United Nations has pinpointed IT's role in environmental damage, but there's only one way to see the big picture

The United Nations has looked at the IT industry, and it doesn't like what it sees. To be accurate, it's looked at the way IT interacts with the environment: in a report out this week it says that it takes ten times the weight of a computer in fossil fuels -- and over a tonne of water -- to make one. Recycling isn't popular enough, computers are upgraded too quickly and consumers are unaware of the implications of their purchases. Sobering thoughts.

I'd like to tell you about the solutions the report recommends and some details of the arguments it advances, but it's only available as a book. You may have heard of those -- they're big, physical objects that take at least twenty times their weight in water to produce, let alone transport. They're not recycled often enough, people read them once or twice before buying a new one and who knows what's in those inks?

Here's the heart of the problem. While there's no doubt that our deep love of technology blinds us to the environmental implications, it is impossible to say how that balances against the positive side of adopting these new ideas. Doubtless I saved some energy by not being able to download the report, but much less than I'm going to save by not buying the book.

I talked to one of the report's authors, H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and he appreciated the irony. As he pointed out, there is no environmentalist in the world who can honestly say they know how the good balances the bad: the downsides are easy to identify and quantify, while the benefits are abstruse and fragmented. A computer can model the pattern of water table pollution that its processor fabrication plant produced, and help make things better than before.

It's worth remembering that mankind has always blissfully ravaged the environment until it can be ravaged no more. Small islands like Malta and Easter Island were once densely wooded: in prehistoric times, they were stripped bare by their inhabitants who -- in Easter Island's case, at least -- promptly died out. Bigger islands like Great Britain have been upended by every tribe and people: those beautiful expanses of great natural beauty in the Cambridgeshire Fens are the product of medieval peat extraction, for example. The Industrial Revolution increased the pace, range and complexity of change -- but the dark, satanic mills continued unchecked.

Only in the latter half of the 20th century do we find environmentalism taking hold. For many people, the epiphany came with one picture -- the Earth from space, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as it rose above the bleak hills of the Moon. For the first time, we could step outside the seemingly inexhaustible horizons that had surrounded us since birth and see the planet as a fragile blue ball against infinite space. A very small island indeed, and with nowhere to ship out to when the soil's washed away.

The irony here is that the Apollo programme epitomised the forces that environmentalists see as the biggest enemy to life on Earth. An offshoot of the military machine and America's atomic might, it consumed unthinkable amounts of resources to hurl a thunderbolt of fire, smoke and metal out into space for no logical reason. A more graphic insult to nature is hard to imagine: homo sapiens insolently defying gravity in an entirely artificial environment in order to plant a flag and pick up some token rocks.

Yet it didn't work out that way. As well as those unnervingly beautiful pictures of the Earth, space science is now one of the primary sources of planetary data through which we monitor how the place is changing under our charge. IT itself is without a doubt the primary tool of environmentalists: everything they do depends absolutely on gathering information, collating it, understanding it, presenting the evidence and modelling the alternatives. It can happen no other way.

And there is no rule that says technology must get dirtier and hungrier as it evolves -- quite the opposite. Take displays. Cathode ray tubes are horrors: packed with heavy metals and poisonous compounds, they are energy-guzzling monsters whose dangers continue beyond the grave. The biggest environmental worry about LCDS, on the other hand, is that they'll displace the CRTs so quickly that we can't safely dispose of them fast enough. Next generation organic displays should be even better.

We can't halt the economic and technological symbiosis that drives new technology: perhaps we can moderate it; most certainly we can influence it so that environmental issues are considered at every stage. Yet in a world where smaller, cooler, lighter, easier to build are watchwords, IT contains within itself the seeds of its own redemption.

This is the sanest way to approach the problem. The continued development of IT needs environmental awareness -- what doesn't? -- but it is our single greatest hope for keeping our global island alive, for counting the metaphorical trees as they're cut down and predicting that they'll all be gone by summer. And then spreading the news -- without, UN please note, getting rid of any more of those trees.

A world that has produced a billion PCs -- and is ready to produce a billion more for China alone -- is a world with huge problems laid up for the future: yet only those selfsame PCs can save it. It seems you can't be an effective environmentalist without a little irony in your soul.

For more information on recycling and waste reduction, see the Waste Watch Web site. The Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling can supply information on recycling electronic equipment. Environ and other organisatins refurbish computers for use by others. To recycle mobile phones, contact organisations such as Corporate Mobile Recycling, which works in conjunction with Oxfam.