Yes, IT has a chance to shine – but not if we close our eyes

Posted on March 9, 2009


Ted Samson says  “IT has a chance to shine” but it’s under the wrong title: IT versus global climate change.  After a promising first paragraph he leaves himself open for moronic comment.   I suggest to those negative commentators that they think about the potential role of computing in a wider consideration of sustainability.  Sustainability is not a one shot issue (that you can dismiss with a bit of pseudo-science).  Perhaps a title of “IT can make a positive difference” would better suit. 

Here’s Ted’s first paragraph: 

Embracing a green-technology strategy not only leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, but signifies a smart business move: It translates to cutting costly waste, from electricity to paper to gasoline, and can result in more efficient business processes. Naturally (no pun intended), the environmental implications of embracing green IT are well worth considering. For example, green tech can help combat global climate change, which, if left unstopped, could have devastating effects on the planet and, in turn, the economy. At the same time, green technology offers opportunities for IT organizations to once again come up with solutions to pressing problems. 

He then goes on to detail business opportunities for IT in a world of climate change:

In this scenario, companies will need to do two things: measure their carbon footprints and reduce their emissions. In both cases, IT will play an integral role…

Measuring CO2 emissions is but the first step. More importantly, companies need to reduce those GHGs. Here, IT organizations have already started delivering solutions in the form of products, both hardware and software, that can help companies cut energy and fuel consumption throughout their organization.

Hooray for Ted.  Did you notice that bit: “throughout their organisation”.  IT is being seen as an enabler of greater change.

Unfortunately,  rather than seeing Climate Change as the example Ted intended (” For example, green tech can help combat global climate change”),  commenters are dismissing the whole story on the basis of (weak understanding) of climate change:

A very funny article. Thanks for making my day a little brighter.

The emperor has no clothes!

It is not my intention here to defend (or otherwise) the evidence for climate change, but to suggest to those negative commentators that they think about the role of computing in a wider consideration of sustainability. 

This paragraph from Rob Gray and Markus Milne is about Accounting, but you can easily transpose Computing:

Sustainability emphasises not just an efficient allocation of resources over time, but also a fair distribution of resources and opportunities between the current generation and between present and future generations, and, a scale of economic activity relative to its ecological life support systems.

It is bound to be contestable whether we are currently at, below, or beyond the point of sustainability. However, our reading of the evidence is that our current systems of economic, financial and social organisation are moving us in the wrong direction —i.e. our current systems are making us more unsustainable. Threats to sustainability are legion —and all of them are contestable. Is it population, land use, pollution, consumption or economic growth that is the principal enemy of sustainability? In all probability, it is a combination of these and other factors. One thing seems clear, however, and that is that current trends of industrialisation, production and consumption are amongst the most likely suspects —and accounting, as a primary mechanism encouraging these patterns, is closely implicated in these apparent moves away from sustainability.

Sustainability suggests broader ecosystem-based approaches that require an understanding of cumulative environmental change, and, most likely, new and alternative decision-making arrangements and institutions. To give effect to sustainability, calls have come for cumulative effects assessments of economic activity, for ecological footprint analyses, for precautionary decision- making principles, and for more just, democratic and participatory decision forums. All of these approaches represent profound challenges to existing capitalist systems, business behaviour, and accounting and reporting.

Such a wider conception is the basis of the proposed sustainability policy for ACM SIGCSE:

Computing and IT underpins every sector of society as a  pervasive and influential discipline with global impact. As a result, computing influences the environment and society either positively or negatively. While we have seen positive benefit from incremental changes such as reductions in energy usage and recycling components, more comprehensive and transformative changes are needed to meet contemporary challenges. Therefore, our vision is that our graduates, practitioners and academics understand the concepts of social, environmental and economic sustainability in order for them to evaluate, question and discuss their role in the world and to enable them to make changes where and when appropriate. Our goal is that every graduate think and act as a “sustainable practitioner”.  This way computing will be a driving influence in the creation of a sustainable future in every sector it touches. 

Keep up the good work Ted.