Often lost in the discussion about the Internet’s ability to protect the environment is a point about the power of the open-source movement. A few weeks back, I read about an innovative technology that might actually take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. (Yes, I know that trees already do this, but this technology might potentially to do it on a larger and quicker timescale.) The technology is still in an early stage of development, but there is a way the Internet could help it along.
There is a universe of bright, intelligent people who are accessible via the Internet. If given access to the right information, they might be able to build upon the technology and facilitate its entry into the commercial marketplace.
To opponents who question why anyone with such a potentially valuable technology would share it, I would answer that the Internet is already being successfully exploited by innovative companies that solicit online talent to do everything from searching for new gold deposits to developing new blockbuster drugs. There is no reason why this technology or other new clean technologies can’t be developed in a similar fashion.
Economist John Maynard Keynes once said that it is more efficient to “ship recipes than biscuits.” His point was that shipping information and knowledge -- and not physical products -- is the key to an efficient economic system. The farsighted economist was absolutely right, and the Internet provides society a grand opportunity to rethink this maxim anew -- and in an environmental context.
Consider the case of Amazon’s new electronic book-reader, Kindle. If we truly want to protect the environment and reduce our impact on the environment, does it really make sense to cut down trees to produce the paper for books; use tons of coal-power electricity to manufacture the books; and then transport those books across the country with gas-guzzling, fossil fuel-powered trucks -- all for the privilege of then storing the books in rooms and libraries that must be heated? How much better would it be to digitally transmit books to electronic devices in a way that leaves only a fraction of the book publishing industry’s carbon footprint?
This, however, is just the beginning. As advances in digital, computer-aided design are coupled with advances in rapid prototype manufacturing (e.g., printing physical objects) and nanotechnology, the list of future products that might also be shipped in the form of information could grow exponentially.
What’s really needed: a change in behavior
These modest proposals only hint at the Internet’s potential to enhance the environment. The one common element is that they also require a change in human behavior. And that, perhaps, is where those of us interested in protecting the environment might want to continue to leverage the Internet. We must continually educate people on how their current behaviors are adversely impacting the environment, and then convince them to act out their lives in new, different, and more sustainable ways.
It has been widely reported that the Internet can reduce greenhouse emissions by 1 billion tons over the next decade as a result of companies such as EnerNoc and Verdiem developing better methods to monitor and control residential and business energy usage. This is undoubtedly true, but people need to begin thinking even more broadly about the Internet’s ability to protect the environment.
— Jack Uldrich, Author, futurist