Worldwatch Paper #115: Global Network: Computers in a Sustainable Society

September 1993
John E. Young
ISBN: 1-878071-17-3
57 pages

Faster, cheaper computers, better programs, and rapidly expanding international computer networks are becoming extraordinary tools for environmental protection and sustainable development, according to the author of Global Network: Computers in a Sustainable Society.

Computers have made it possible to model the effects of air pollution on the global climate, as well as to track changes in global temperature. Biologists now use computerized animal collars to study endangered species, monitoring their every movement. Microchips govern the functions of energy-efficient lights, advanced windmills and solar power installations. And thousands of environmental activists and organizations around the world are using computer networks to exchange news and coordinate campaigns.

There are environmental costs to computerization, however. "Swept up in our visions of the potential power of computers, we have failed to come to grips with their impacts," said author John E. Young. "Few people realize that Silicon Valley, birthplace of the computer industry, is also home to the highest concentration of hazardous-waste sites in the United States. Or that computers now use about as much electricity each year as the entire country of Brazil."

In addition, for computers to realize their potential to promote environmental sustainability, the report stresses, more attention needs to be devoted ensuring public access to computerized information.

Computer modeling now makes it possible to identify environmental problems before they become overwhelming, by manipulating thousands of variables. Scientists had theorized since 1896 that carbon dioxide emissions could warm the global atmosphere, but it was not until the early 1980s--when sufficiently powerful computers became available--that climate simulations were able to project with confidence the effects of increased carbon dioxide on climate.

In British Columbia, the Sierra Club of Western Canada is using computers to create detailed maps of forest cover on Vancouver Island. Their system has revealed that only 23 percent of the island's original low-elevation, temperate rain forests--an increasingly endangered ecosystem--remain uncut. Eighty-two percent of the island's land is currently allocated to logging. This information has proved vital in the fight to gain government protection for ancient rainforests on the island.

Linked together by telecommunications networks, computers are also rapidly becoming an important means of communication for environmentalists and other researchers and activists. The largest collection of computer networks--the Internet--already serves 11 million users; its transmissions are estimated to double every five months.

The 11 interconnected networks of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) make up the world's largest assembly of on-line environmental information and activists. The APC networks--which include Econet/Peacenet in the United States--now link more than 17,000 activists in 94 countries.

The APC's computer conferences convey information that is detailed, global, and breathtakingly up-to-date. Recently, for example, an APC posting on rainforests reported the murder of Yanomami Indians in a remote corner of the Amazon Basin days before major United States newspapers.

The Washington, D.C.-based Right-to-Know Computer Network (RTK Net) offers free, online access to the U.S. government's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI database provides information on industrial releases of toxic chemicals from some 24,000 U.S. industrial facilities. Grassroots groups around the country have used TRI information to produce dozens of reports on pollution, garnering public attention and spurring industry cleanup efforts in a number of states. Agenda 21, accepted by all United Nations members at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, recommends that all nations move to establish such pollution tracking systems.

While computer networks are most extensive in the United States, Europe, and Japan, they also reach into many developing countries, as well as the newly democratic states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Sophisticated communications programs that can run on inexpensive computers are helping link users in remote areas with the rest of the world--often overcoming inadequate telephone systems in the process.

Yet Global Network emphasizes that the computer industry needs to address its own contributions to environmental pollution. There are now 23-- and there have been as many as 29--federal Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup sites in Silicon Valley, most of them attributed to hazardous substances leaking from electronics facilities into groundwater. Many of those substances--such as glycol ethers, linked to high rates of miscarriages among electronics workers--can cause serious human health problems.

The Worldwatch study recommends that governments and computer manufacturers expand their efforts to redesign computers and manufacturing processes to minimize environmental problems.

One such project--the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star Computers program--already promises major benefits. It offers the use of a special advertising logo to firms whose computers, monitors, or printers meet power-saving standards. Nearly 150 makers of computers, components, and software have signed up. EPA officials estimate that if Energy Star products capture two-thirds of the market by the year 2000, their use could prevent carbon dioxide emissions equal to the annual output of 5 million automobiles.

Global Network cautions that computers will not solve all the world's problems, but argues that they can help people "think globally," as Rene Dubos once recommended. If applied appropriately, Young suggests, "Computers can give us global eyes and ears in an age where our actions often have worldwide impacts."

"Made easy to use and accessible to all, computers and computer networks could become a force for reducing the environmental impacts of industrial civilization, ending poverty, and strengthening participatory democracy," Young concludes."