PRINT vs SCREENS: Writing Technologies & Environmental Justice
Hi folks. I’m Stephen. I’m speaking to you from the University of Arizona, in Tucson. I’m here to talk about my research project, which is still in progress, and which is about some of the links between writing technologies and environmental justice, and particularly the links between digital, multimodal composing practices and climate change. First, a quick definition of one of my key terms. My working definition of environmental justice is from Giovanna Di Chiro.
She defines it as “a global network of social movements fiercely critical of the disparities and depredations caused by the unchecked expansion and neocolonial logic of fossil fuel-driven modern industrial development.” These social movements aim to “challenge the disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, waste dumping, and ecological devastation borne by low-income communities, communities of color, and colonized territories.” Environmental justice is an unabashedly human-centric project that’s concerned less with wilderness, sparsely populated areas, or “nature,” per se, as it is with the often mundane, everyday environments where people live, work, and play — especially cities. And it tries to recognize and figure out how to respond to the stark global inequalities and unevenly distributed vulnerabilities that are not only produced by but are also necessary to sustain what Andreas Malm calls “fossil capitalism.” Now, a little more about my own project.
I could trace my curiosity about some of the links between the biosphere and the “technosphere” to a certain skepticism about the inherent “greenness” or “Earth-friendliness” of screen-based media over print- or paper-based media. Many or most of you, I’m sure, have been the targets of paperless billing and banking advertising campaigns, which are one common example of this type of eco-oriented rhetorical appeal. This is the envelope my power company has me use to pay my bill each month. Meanwhile, my health insurance company tries to convince me to go digital by appealing to the medium’s supposedly self-evident “Earth-friendliness.” Now, of course we have to acknowledge that, for many, this is simply an example of the marketing ploy known as “greenwashing” — making something seem more eco-friendly than it actually is as a way to endear one’s company or product to consumers. But why, exactly, is it still often so tempting to think that the ecological superiority of digital media over print media really is self-evident? Why is the greenwashing ploy even potentially persuasive or viable in the first place? There are some obvious and not-so-obvious possible answers. Let’s start with a couple of the obvious ones.
First, it’s more or less common knowledge that paper comes from trees. So the eco-friendly argument for using less paper goes something like this: Using less paper saves trees, and saving trees is an environmentally conscious thing to do because, well, trees are part of the environment. Okay, fine. That argument entails some dubious unstated premises, but I’ll leave it here for now. Second, we often think and behave as if digital media are part of some alternative universe — the so-called “meta-verse” — that’s characterized primarily by its lack of materiality: a virtual world of code and pixels that’s parallel to — but also more or less untethered to — the physical world of atoms and bodies (and trees). Of course, if we stop and think about it, we’d all readily acknowledge the enabling material infrastructures that make so-called “virtual” spaces and interactions possible — the fiber optic cables, the electricity grids and power plants, the server farms, the circuit boards, the copper mines, the phone factories, as well as our own bodies. But these infrastructures,
the whole system of production and distribution and energy generation for digital devices and software services, still tends to be a lot more opaque and hidden and distributed, and so it can be easier to ignore it or discount it. So, not only are we “literally and metaphorically screened off from the inner workings of the computer, where everything . . . is reduced to binary digits.” We’re screened off, too, from the various conditions and relations and processes that have to exist (and have to persist) to make these inner workings possible in the first place, including the power plants, the conflict minerals, the hazardous e-waste — much of which is distant to us not only in time, but in space. For example, according to the Times of India: “A study by an industry body has found that there are about [450,000] child workers in the 10-14 age group engaged in e-waste activities, without adequate protection and safeguards in various yards and recycling workshops.” This spatial distribution — the fact that there isn’t the same number of kids in the US doing the same thing — is not an accident. Modern economic growth and prosperity are made possible by the extraction of surplus value in a process David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” the ongoing appropriation of public assets by the private interests of capital, which is always in desperate need of new, untapped reserves of free or cheap labor, raw materials, and natural resources, with little to no regard for any of the negative externalities, like waste and pollution, and which can’t be factored directly into profit-driven equations.
Actually, sometimes these can be factored in, only to be written off, which is what California’s Pacific Gas & Electric did when they decided the cost of adequately maintaining their power lines was greater than the costs they’d endure if poorly maintained equipment happened to start wildfires — which it did. The company then avoided criminal prosecution by paying a $55 million settlement, “essentially [buying] its way out of culpability,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Anyway, this appropriative process of “accumulation by dispossession” creates what Andrew Ross calls a “green gap,” which is the chasm that has “opened up between the eco-oases of affluent carbon-conscious communities and the human and natural sacrifice zones on the other side of the tracks, where populations have to fight to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water.” Indeed, the spatial division of labor in the global economy is such that, as Jacob Silverman writes, “the West’s futuristic creature comforts depend on the exploitation of people in the Global South” (formerly known as the Third World, the developing world, the underdeveloped world, etc.). For example, the mineral coltan, whose refined byproducts are used in various gadgets, “is frequently mined in brutal camps in the Congo and on the Venezuela-Colombia border, its profits flowing to paramilitary groups.”
My argument today, then, is that it’s both inaccurate and ecologically irresponsible to say that there’s something innately or inherently “green” (or “environmentally friendly”) about screen-based digital media. As the Scientific American puts it, “the word ‘cloud’ evokes images of a clean, simple and environmentally friendly process, [but] the systems that support it are massive industrial facilities, densely packed with processors and hard drives, that devour energy by the megawatt. Data centers use between 1 and 2 percent of the world's electricity and, with dead trees that make paper giving way to magnetic disks, energy use and consequently emissions from the Internet is poised to surge further.” Ignoring these growing environmental impacts, and especially the climate effects, of computer-based information and communication technology has disproportionately negative consequences for poor, non-white, and indigenous communities, and especially for the residents of the Global South who, despite being responsible for only a small fraction of total GHG emissions, are the most vulnerable to drought, flooding, famine, extreme heat, and other climate disasters, as well as the least prepared to adapt to these threats.
“There is one thing I almost never hear leaders talk about, and that is loss and damage. For many of us, reducing and avoiding is no longer enough. You cannot adapt to lost cultures. You cannot adapt to lost traditions. You cannot adapt to lost history. You cannot adapt to starvation. And you cannot adapt to extinction. The climate crisis is pushing many communities beyond their ability to adapt.” An obliviousness, willful or accidental, to technology’s ecological dimension is therefore one way that digital media users and consumers in the Global North (including me) are implicated in the ongoing perpetration and maintenance of what Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain call “environmental colonialism,” what Sudanese diplomat Lumumbua Di-Aping calls “climate fascism,” or what David Wallace-Wells calls “climate apartheid.”
Luckily, if also ironically, digital tech can itself be used to shed light on its own imbrication in these kinds of eco-fascist regimes and neo-colonial logics. The default setting of much digital media is to efface its own materiality, but there’s nothing necessary or inevitable about this default setting. We can use the technology to critique the technology — which is what I’m trying to do right now.
When I started this project, this is how I posed my research question: How might the short- and long-term environmental costs of the paper and printing industries, on one hand, and digital infrastructures, on the other hand, be more accurately understood, quantified, and ultimately compared? I basically framed it as an empirical question that I didn’t have an answer to yet only because I lacked sufficient data to do the math and determine once and for all which medium is “better” (or “less harmful”) for the environment, or which one is more “sustainable.” That term, by the way — sustainability — is one of those buzzwords that can be mobilized to mean almost anything these days. I highly recommend Derek Owens chapter about that, in his book Composition & Sustainability. So, initially I was intent on collecting a bunch of data on energy consumption, cost-efficiency, and carbon emissions, interviewing experts like the manager of a paper mill or the president of a utility company, and doing studies with students about their media habits and preferences. I still plan to do some of that stuff. But one thing I quickly realized when I started to dig into some of the relevant secondary research was that I first needed to seriously question some of the assumptions built into my initial research question.
For instance, the assumption that a quantitative, cost-benefit analysis really is possible or desirable. Couldn’t it tacitly reinforce the idea that thinking in terms of profit maximization and return-on-investment are the best ways to make major life decisions, determine personal or shared values, and make moral judgments? Plus, quantitative language is built into phrases like “reducing environmental impact” or “leaving a lighter footprint,” phrases which tend to reinforce a counter-productive, dualistic framing, where humans do measurable things to nature, as opposed to there being a mutually constitutive relationship between the human and nonhuman, between nature and artifice (which is the perspective of post-Cartesian thinkers like Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, or Jason Moore). So, the quantitative angle soon struck me as misguided, and I started to align myself more with the perspective of someone like Sarthak Shukla, who writes that “if climate justice is the yardstick, [then] every action on the sustainability front should go beyond merely mitigating the carbon emissions to actually addressing the adverse socio-economic and ecological impacts of their operations . . . And it is not an easy task to gauge such impacts holistically because of the qualitative nature of such impacts . . . However, it has become a norm to quantify socio-economic impact through financial metrics, and ecological impact through emission-based metrics. This has almost reached a point where it is becoming propaganda to shadow the importance of people’s quality of life by covering it up with some percentages or numbers.”
Indeed, just because the GHG emissions of Big Tech are far, far less than emissions from other sectors, like transportation or energy, doesn’t mean those emissions don’t matter. At this point, no amount of additional GHG emissions is a safe amount. Plus, Big Tech’s pro-climate action lobbying expenditures pale in comparison to the counter-efforts of the fossil fuel lobby. Take a company like Adobe, for example — whose video
editing software, Premiere Pro, I used to make this video, by the way. You can see some of the gears and wheels turning down there. Adobe goes out of its way to tout its green credentials with a snazzy webpage, like this one . . . And a hefty 106-page CDP Climate Change Questionnaire, in which they proudly proclaim their business model’s reliance on non-physical products. This is from the report: “All three of Adobe's Cloud offerings are low-carbon products. Specifically, products such as Adobe Document Cloud, Experience Cloud, Adobe Connect, and LeanPrint allow users to operate more sustainably — virtually — using ICT in place of paper, ink and other resources.
Again, notice that we’re being asked to automatically equate “virtual” and “sustainable.” But it turns out that Adobe and other Big Tech companies (like Alphabet, Meta, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) aren’t really doing much at all to influence public policy or to offset the lobbying and the disinformation campaigns of fossil fuel interests, which are aggressively responsible for making the public far less receptive than it might otherwise be to Big Tech’s own pro-climate appeals. Which raises the question: If you have an ethical responsibility to make a certain kind of argument in favor of climate action, do you not also have a responsibility to do what you can to create a rhetorical climate in which audiences are inclined toward adherence or identification with your argument or your values. Now, I don’t want to imply that we should rely entirely on market mechanisms or lobbyists to save us from climate catastrophe. But they do have a role to play. As Wallace-Wells reminds us:
“If the project of averting catastrophe must be completed this decade, one is forced to work with the power structures and institutions one has today.” Putting the onus on industries, corporations, and governments is also preferable to overestimating the power of individual consumer choice or lifestyle tweaks. Indeed, one major way that large industrial polluters “evade direct climate debt repayment is to transfer accountability onto the consciences of individuals. This is an ongoing ideological shift, whereby individuals are encouraged to assess the carbon footprint of every personal act or material that they consume.
The guilt and sense of responsibility is thereby reassigned, or outsourced, away from the large polluters who have the most effective power to lower emissions” by, among other things, transitioning to renewable sources. Still, we’d do well to keep in mind that “green” and “just” are not necessarily synonyms. A green economy is perfectly compatible with an exploitative, unequal one. “While renewable technologies are gradually displacing fossil fuels from electricity generation, . . . the grid itself as a social form is wired for the accumulation of value . . . The grid’s relation to the energy market, for instance, conceals the origin and source of the electricity, allowing for mixed modes of generation.” It is possible, in other words, for clean energy to replace dirty energy while leaving the original power grids, in both senses, intact.
This is why, to quote Ross again, “advocates of climate justice, who draw attention to the uneven geographic distribution of environmental risks, argue that sustainable technologies need to be developed as remedies for social inequalities. Otherwise, affluent communities in the Global North and in the global cities of the South will turn into eco-enclaves, hoarding resources and knowledge about resilience from others. If resources tighten rapidly, a more ominous future beckons in the form of triage crisis management, where populations are selected for protection inside these eco-enclaves, while those outside or across the borders are abandoned. In the ‘climate wars’ to come, the threat of global warming will increasingly be used to shape immigration policies around a vision of affluent nations or regions as heavily fortified resource islands.” To summarize some of the problems with my initial research question, then: To pit two products — print media and digital media — against each other is to risk missing the forest for the literal trees we think we’re saving by going digital. Trees, first of all, are a renewable resource, after all, and it is possible, if also difficult, to implement sustainable, green, just forest management practices. See, for instance,
the tenets of sustainable forestry outlined by the Rainforest Alliance’s Forest Stewardship Council. What’s really needed is an honest reckoning with the complex web of political and infrastructural arrangements that make the continued existence and availability of either one of those technologies possible in the first place. As John Durham Peters reminds us, it’s not actually possible to opt out of technology entirely: “Technical infrastructures,” he writes, “are not limits on our humanity, but its conditions. We can debunk silicon salvation without resorting to deluded conceptions of original purity . . . The promised cure of being free of technology is usually just another technology that isn’t recognized as such. The choice is always the much more difficult one of which technologies and techniques to engage, not whether to abandon them altogether.”
But perhaps the most egregious miscalculation I made in framing the question the way that I did was that I implied that question was far from settled. In fact, there’s already an app that could settle the question more or less instantaneously! Here it is. As you can see, all I have to do is toggle, left to right, back and forth, to see in very stark, seemingly precise mathematical terms just how ecologically minded we all can be by using less paper . . . As I’ve tried to argue in this presentation, however, it’s a mistake to think it’s possible to accurately quantify, or even to know or predict, all the relevant variables.
A tool like this conceals more than it reveals. It’s a clever, rhetorically sophisticated offensive volley against the paper industry, no doubt. But it’s ultimately a tool of misdirection, asking us to focus only on paper. Conveniently absent is the
tally of costs for whatever replaces paper — which in this case would, presumably, be Adobe products. One has to wonder: How many gallons of water, pounds of wood, pounds of waste, pounds of GHGs, or kW hours of energy makes it possible for me to view this Resource Saver Calculator on my Apple MacBook? Imagine, instead, a slightly different calculator — a map of the world, say, where you could toggle, left to right, back and forth, to increase the number of smartphone and laptop users in the Global North, and see how, the more fun we’re having, and the more productive we’re being, and the more money we’re making and energy we’re using and waste we’re producing, and all the rest of it, the more people there are in the Global South who lose their lives and livelihoods to hurricanes, droughts, famines, and heat waves. It’d be a crudely reductive, tasteless algorithm, for sure. And it might make whoever designs
it guilty of what David Harvey calls “moral masturbation . . . of the sort that accompanies the masochistic assemblage of some huge dossier [of] daily injustices . . . over which we can beat our breasts and commiserate with each other before retiring to our fireside comforts,” a gesture which is, he says, ultimately “counterrevolutionary, for it merely serves to expiate guilt without ever forcing us to face the fundamental issues, let alone do anything about them.” But it might, at least, have the effect of pricking consciences and maybe even spurring action, rather than doing what this current tool does, which is to reassure us that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, and no paper is involved, then we should sleep soundly at night, swaddled in the fiction that the ecological effects of our screen-based technologies are as ephemeral and intangible as a meteorite streaking across the night sky. We don’t seem to care where that meteorite lands, as long as it doesn’t land on us.