Is Web Development Bad For The Environment?

April 20, 2014

No, right?

I’ve read enough speculative fiction to know that eventually machines will occupy all the arable land on earth and humans will starve to death in their underground resistance pods, but what about, like, my lifetime?

As I’ve been explaining my reasons for attending HackerYou, I’ve found myself talking about the apparent low environmental impact of web development. About how there is great satisfaction in making something that produces no physical waste. I make a file, I delete it. No scraps of wood or acrylic paint tubes to throw away; no promotional materials to replace. Obviously, once more people/clients/companies get involved, there are emails to print out, wireframes to draw and redraw, Kleenexes to cry into, but until then, it’s just invisible numbers in the air.

Okay, but what else is invisible up there?

In this Time Magazine article from Aug. 14, 2013, Bryan Walsh, schools the reader on the hidden energy costs of our increasingly wired world. He concludes that since no one’s going to stop making advancements in wired technology, the task is to find alternative energy sources to power our devices and to make consumers more aware of their energy consumption.

One of Walsh’s lines stood out to me:

Mills calculates that it takes more electricity to stream a high-definition movie over a wireless network than it would have taken to manufacture and ship a DVD of that same movie.”

Lots of energy consumption != green living, right? Yeah, but hold on.

Consider the lifetime of that DVD vs. the impact of multiple streamings. Say you streamed a movie 6 times a year (probably because it was The Rundown and that movie is pure entertainment). That means that streaming a movie costs 6 times more (energy-wise) than buying the DVD. The DVD’s looking like the better choice for the eco-conscious action-adventure fan.

But what happens when your roommates get rid of your The Rundown DVD because they are sick of watching The Rock smile charmingly (dude, dump your no-taste roommates)? That piece of plastic gets hucked into the street and there is no coming back. You can’t solar power plastic trash. There are only so many colored pencils to hold. The cheapness is of its production is now a burden; it makes the DVD disposable. Trash. No eco-conscious action-adventure fan wants that.

I’m aware that the problem is larger than DVD manufacturing or number of bytes consumed and can hardly be addressed properly in this blog post. However, I contend that while it may take more energy to stream a movie 6 times than buy the DVD once, we should still be streaming because it creates less trash. The problem of the impact of high energy consumption has a wide frontier crisscrossed with avenues of mitigation (wind, solar, hardware innovation, etc.) while the problem of disposing of archaic media does not.

While this all has less to do with web development than the tech industry in its entirety, it supports my formerly ill-informed (now slightly more-informed) belief that creating websites impacts the environment less negatively  than creating things, particularly things with scraps that must be thrown away.

I’m happy to be moving towards the dystopian future of (potentially sustainable) high energy consumption rather than the one where we’re living on floating trash islands, because we are definitely going to do at least one and my arms are not prepared for the latter.

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