Sorry, computers are not “green”

by Rob Wipond, July 2010

Is the world becoming greener, or does it just seem that way?

You’ve heard of “green-washing,” where companies make their products sound more ecologically friendly than they are. Well, I keep seeing something more insidious: green-tinted glasses.

Green-washing is propaganda; it’s easy to spot and dispel. Like ads BP runs about its commitment to environmental responsibility, while the largest, most unprepared-for oil spill in North American history spreads from their Gulf of Mexico well. 

But green-coloured glasses are a personal choice. And once you’ve put them on, you don’t see anything’s true colours anymore.

I got thinking about this when I received emails from a government employee and a university administrator with similar signatures: “Think about the environment before printing this email.” 

It reminded me of several companies who’ve been bothering me to switch to electronic billing because it’s “green.”

And I thought, ‘Seriously?’

Yes, pulp and paper mills are notorious polluters. But cleaner processing techniques are available, trees are a renewable resource, and paper is mostly biodegradable. It wouldn’t take a lot to create an environmentally sustainable, all-natural paper industry.

Sure, snail mail depends on transport systems, but email depends on a vast electronic infrastructure of non-biodegradable and highly toxic hardware, cables, satellites and more, devouring energy. Since when did all that become “green”?

You could argue that, when we have computers already for other uses, then using them instead of printing is a net eco-saving over a couple of decades. And that might be true, if most of us weren’t also throwing away and upgrading computer systems on average every two years along with our expanding plethora of peripheral iPods, iPads, DVDs, flashdrives, webcams and cell phones. 

Heck, according to some researchers, a typical Google search requires more energy than boiling a kettle of water, and the carbon footprint alone of digital communications technologies has surpassed that of the global aviation industry. So how did this conviction that computers are greener become so widespread? I don’t recall seeing any advertising or propaganda campaigns. It’s some bizarre sort of grass-roots, self-delusional movement. 

The same thing hit me when I was at my credit union searching for “ethical funds.” 

The representative and I looked at a clean energy mutual fund and, in the top 15 firms this fund was invested in, one-third were Chinese.

“Does this fund consider human rights issues?” I asked.

“If human rights are your concern,” the financial rep responded, “we’ll have to try a different one.” 

So we looked at an ethical fund with a human rights focus. Most of its investments were in North American companies, including Canada’s big banks. 

“I realize they treat their Canadian employees relatively well,” I commented. “But these banks and their investment arms are funnelling dollars to companies and regimes around the world with abysmal human rights records.” 

“You’d be hard pressed to find any ethical funds that don’t invest in our banks,” the rep said.

Evidently, most ethical funds just create another degree of separation between us and the exploitation and devastation. Like hiring people to hire people to do our dirty work. Like placing a thin green veil over our eyes to buffer our self-respect from harsh reality.

The rep pulled up another human rights-focused fund. Beside our banks, I spotted Canada’s Barrick Gold. 

“How could they possibly justify investing in Barrick Gold?” I asked, providing additional commentary that will go unrepeated here, since Barrick is infamous for its threats against writers and publishers. (For example, an exposé on Canada’s multinational mining companies from Vancouver’s Talonbooks has been indefinitely delayed.)

“I imagine some people would argue that, through becoming shareholders, perhaps they can positively influence Barrick’s decisions,” said the rep. 

“Yes,” I thought. “I’ll influence Barrick to stop its horrendous exploitations, or else I’ll pocket a tidy profit from those exploitations—either way, a win-win for me!”

After an hour, I just left my meager assets in a savings account where, the rep promised, the worst thing that would happen was that it would be loaned to someone locally. (Please, dear borrowers, be good with my money.)

Walking home, I was shaking my head, thrusting my arms about the air, and protesting nearly aloud to the people I passed. It seemed so absurd, and so aggravating. 

I understood that if you want to save some money, you have to put it somewhere. And if you want to work in freelance writing, government, or education these days, you really can’t do it without computers and email.

But why lie to ourselves? Can’t we simply acknowledge we aren’t living green-ly or righteously, and really begin to grapple with the depth and complexity of the problems facing our society? Why are we instead inventing bogus ethical funds and uncritically advocating email over paper? Why does anyone think hybrid cars, bottles with 20 percent less plastic, and recycling cell phones in China are serious “steps in the right direction”? 

Do we like wearing green-coloured glasses because they make anything we do appear green to us, and consequently little serious change in our behaviour is required? If so, what’s the attraction of that, really; what do we hope to achieve?

I arrive home from my journey through my angst about planetary catastrophe, and have a dinner of mostly organic, local food with a friend I adore. Then we snuggle, and she affectionately assures me that, even if she sometimes treats me with terrible disrespect, that’s not reflective of how she truly feels, or who she truly is. 

“Yes,” I murmur, smiling as I doze off, “I know.”

Rob Wipond has been a freelance writer of magazine features, news articles, political commentaries, social satires, theatre and performance art for over two decades.