The scientist, sustainability expert and author Tilman Santarius advocates a gentle, decelerated digitalization thatreconciles economy, ecology and social issues. What exactly does he mean by that and how realistic is that?
How can digitalization make our society more socially and ecologically sustainable? One very general answer is: We must see to forming digitalization more smoothly and decelerate it. There is no fast, disruptive solution for the differentiated and complex challenges of the modern world. There is also no “killer-application” through which humanity’s problems can be solved all at once. That is wishful thinking – or in certain cases, even propaganda. We should be curbing the aspects of digitalization that are harming us, and foster those that are creating actual added value in terms of equality, ecology and social affairs.
Nobody wants a kind of digitalization, that thoughtlessly uses up more and more energy and resources and thus furthers one-sided consumption. One that radicalizes political discourse instead of catering for fair competition of ideas and arguments. One that keeps our social gradient up. One that makes sure huge accumulations of market shares, profit and power happen less whilst instead elsewhere workplaces are vanishing at a large scale, and the welfare state is crumbling.
Sustainable digitalization: Taming the hunger for energy
Let us start off with ecology. Roughly three billion people are online and counting. All around the world, the internet and the operation of smartphones, tablets, laptops and server clusters uses roundabout 10 percent of the electricity generated, in Germany it is about 8 percent. The energy, which was used for the production of the almost seven billion smartphones sold from 2007 to 2017, equals the yearly demand for electricity of Poland and Sweden together. And the
energy intensity of our hardware is constantly rising because the performance of our smartphones increases which requires more electricity.
Building on more efficiency and hoping the market will recuperate on its own is, simply put, beyond naïve. We already know that a blind, unbridled market involves massive ecological and social distortion. And we have also heard of the so-called
The efficiency progress of smart technology will not make up for the continuously growing energy consumption which comes from more hardware and users. Since we as a society should be turning off fossil energy bases rather quickly and completely switch to renewable energies, any excess consumption, especially in rich industrial countries, is counterproductive. They make it more difficult to achieve climate targets.
We have to actively curb power consumption related to the internet and, for example, obligate hardware manufacturers by means of guidelines and laws to make their own ecological contribution. A small ray of hope: Google is the first major tech company to attempt to supply 100 percent of its data centers with renewable electricity since 2017, according to its own figures.
Europe has to lead when it comes to sustainability
Sometimes I get asked what good it shall do if we in Germany and the EU lead the way, while countries such as the United States or China do nothing or a lot less. If it is not counterproductive, since it disadvantages our companies. I have been hearing this question and corresponding spurious arguments for 30 years. The Americans have been using them for the past two decades and in order to avoid the implementation of international climate accords into national law. At the same time, we have long known how productive guidelines on the one hand and targeted subsidies on the other can be. How else could solar energy have established itself so quickly and successfully as cheapest energy source?
Secondly, we should not underestimate the political weight of the European Union. Setting standards for server clusters, energy labeling for hardware or design guidelines for communication and information technology will have global significance. Let us be self-confident: The European Union’s market power is great, and corresponding resolutions and measures are also heard in North America and Asia, whereby – this just as a sideline – especially the political leadership in Bejing has long understood how fundamental climate protection is.
I know all of this needs time. But I am registering a growing sensitivity and dynamic, triggered especially by the climate debate and the Fridays-for-Future movement. Now, material and resource consumption are in the context of digitalization
on the agenda. An example: In cooperation with the General Directorate for the Environment and the General Directorate of Networks in Brussels, Germany has started a process to put the subject “digitalization and environment” on the agenda of the new EU commission. It’s finally no longer a niche issue. Not everything that is feasible makes sense and is sustainable
Digitalization itself is blind. If we do not steer it in a meaningful direction at neuralgic points, it will steer us. Keyword mobility: In principal, digitalization offers us the great possibility to manage traffic in a smarter way, with less emissions, so it can be quieter and more relaxed. A negative example: “
Free Floating Electric Scooters”, as one can see them in a quite a few German cities at the moment. I can not see any transformative potential here. They do not contribute to a transformation in urban transportation since they do not replace road kilometers driven by car and the CO2 emissions and other negative factors of traffic are not reduced either. They are just not integrated into the entire strategy for a smooth change of the face of traffic, rather working as an unnecessary add-on.
I am also skeptical when it comes to self-driving cars (if it ever becomes reality). A plethora of hardware is necessary, the streams of data are incredibly large – a single car could generate 4.000 gigabyte per day, all of which have to be calculated and transmitted over the network. In short: It uses up a lot of resources and power.
Within a certain niche – in thinly populated, rural regions – – for example in very sparsely populated rural regions – it may possibly have a positive function in bringing people from A to B. Instead, Digitalization is supposed to help us instead by making public transport more appealing and cleverly link various modes of transport intelligently. Suburban trains, rental bikes and at night for the last mile also here and there an electric scooter. But in a coordinated manner, planned and with sense and purpose. A degrowth society is possible
I would like to see a digitalization policy, which bodes on decentralization and dematerialization. For this purpose, a
degrowth agenda is needed. To make it clear: degrowth is and may not be tantamount to recession. That would be the entirely wrong path. During a recession period, emissions decrease, but the economic and social collateral damage are enormous and everything but desirable, see also the banking crisis.
Degrowth means to me, that we are designing a transition from a consumption-oriented to a knowledge-based and sharing-centralized economy. Therefore, we need new, sustainable business models, which can do without constant pressure to expand or overconsume. New models and instruments which do not lead to a unilateral concentration of market power and profit. There are good approaches, for example in the energy or food sector or also in in the area of open source software. Digitalization can help operating decentral, neighborly energy systems, so called micro-grids, which take recourse to renewable energies. An exhaustive expansion of “Food Sharing” is imaginable, where supermarkets donate their expired, but still consumable foods to “Food Savers”, who then distribute them. Communal networking- and swap platforms on the other hand can promote a re-regionalization of parts of the economy. All these peculiarities, which are based on collaboration, are reasonable.
At the latest here it becomes clear to what extent the social question and digitalization are interrelated. Who profits from it, who gets taken along? How democratic is the production side? How do we secure a healthy competition? And what do we do with those that are losing their job because of AI and the increasing automatization or cannot keep up due to their lack in knowledge or skill? Do we need an unconditional basic income or a reduction of working hours to 32 or 26 hours, to rescue them, so that large parts of society still have the chance of gainful employment? This debate must at last be more open and determined, because the fruits of digital progress must be distributed fairly and equitably.
Header image: istock/serts