The Environmental Impact of Our Tech (And What We Can Do About It)

Knowing the impacts of our buying habits—like getting our hands on the newest, fastest, shiniest smartphone—is the first step to becoming a more mindful consumer.

Adobe Stock/ sb peshkova

When it comes to our tech-immersed world, there are some pretty big questions we don’t often stop to ask.

Like, where do our tablets, smartphones, desktops, laptops, and game consoles come from? The box? The phone store?

Sigh. It’s not good, y’all. For one thing, our tech is made up of different kinds of metals that must be extracted from the earth: iron, aluminum, magnesium, copper, silver, gold, graphite, and lithium, to name just a few. That mining destroys the ecosystem of the mined area and the area around the mining area, not to mention the communities living in those areas. It also requires tremendous amounts of energy to dig up and transport these metals, which releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

And then we dump our precious phones into a landfill two years later to get the newest model. (While we’d like to think we recycle them, overall, we don’t.) There’s an endless market for the newest, fastest, shiniest phone, so there’s an endless need for new precious metals, mining, and environmental destruction. (Side note: this is called planned obsolescence, in which companies intentionally make things to be quickly thrown away rather than fixed and used for a long time.)

Another question we could ask:  Where are all our photos actually stored?

Errrr . . . up in the sky?

Our uploaded photos live in data centers (warehouses full of servers), along with our tweets, YouTube videos, Google Docs, and anything else in the cloud. These data centers require, yet again, a tremendous amount of energy to run. And much of that energy is produced by burning fossil fuels.

How Can We Be Mindful of the Environmental Impact of Our Tech?

Part of living mindfully means bringing awareness to what we buy, and this awareness feeds the desire to minimize the damage caused by our society’s unsustainable patterns of consumption. Here are a few things to consider and ways to take action:  

  1. Embrace the discomfort of knowing where your tech comes from. It’s really easy to not think about where our technology comes from. And you know that squirmy uncomfortable feeling that comes from knowing? That’s good! You’re noticing that you don’t want to contribute to environmental destruction. Instead, you want to make a choice at a personal, and possibly societal, level that protects where we live. Don’t be afraid to sit with these emotions
  2. Ask yourself what actions make sense for you. If we stopped and thought about it, we might think twice about immediately getting the best, fastest, prettiest, and newest gadget. On an individual level, you can recycle most electronics (please do!) and wait a little longer before buying new items. 
  3. Seek our sustainable alternatives. Some small start-up companies are trying to improve on “business as usual,” like Fairphone in the Netherlands, which is working on better sourcing, replaceable parts, and longevity of their smartphones.
  4. Be vocal about what you know and what you’re doing with that knowledge.  If you really want to see impactful change, lending your voice to a collective movement is the way to go. In 2018, Greenpeace used civil disobedience and crowd support to encourage Samsung to move to 100% renewable energy sources and accountability around their supply chain. In response, Samsung made a commitment to work toward those goals. Greenpeace is also calling out Amazon for not living up to their commitment to get their data centers running on 100% renewables, and to implement more transparency around energy consumption. If you want to be involved with this work, consider signing up to be part of an environmental group’s volunteer corps. 

Attention Hijacked: Using Mindfulness to Reclaim Your Brain from Tech by Erica B. Marcus. Text copyright © 2022 by Erica B. Marcus. Reprinted with the permission of Zest Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this text excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.

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  • Ava Whitney-Coulter
  • August 16, 2022