Is there room for computers in the environmental movement?

If you were to look at my computer desktop, you would certainly say that it is unnecessarily cluttered, extremely inefficient, and an obvious display of information overload fueled in part by constant stimuli on the internet. In our readings on simplicity, I feared that the authors would claim that computers (and my livelihood, as a Computer Science major) are somehow sinful or superfluous. In many ways, modern, digital technology is the antithesis of environmental protection. Computers are made from metals mined in developing nations or impoverished communities under dangerous working conditions, sometimes by children – a social injustice. The mining damages both human and environmental health – environmental injustice. Computers and smart phones typically only last a few years before being thrown away – planned obsolescence and pollution. And though I can’t think of a name for it, something is to be said about the amount of time and attention we (millennials, at the least, or U.S. Americans, or Westernized folks) give to our devices.

I remember freshman year going on a field trip with my Human Ecology class to the Urban Eden Farm. While we helped weed a garden bed, a man working there talked to us and bemoaned how the development of technology is in opposition to environmental movements, essentially calling us to give up our smart phones in favor of something more like Duane Elgin’s vision of bartering communities centered on services over goods described in the first chapter of Voluntary Simplicity. Then the farmer asked about our majors, to which I awkwardly responded Computer Science and Environmental Studies. This interaction highlights a feeling I’ve always kind of had that these two fields are not necessarily compatible.

My motivation for going into computer science was initially that computers are not going any where, so better to work with them than to reject them and hope others do the same. I have a friend majoring in Supply Chain Management who would probably say something similar – that by understanding business operations she can change them from the inside. Perhaps this is why we are both involved with the Real Food Challenge—a national organization that helps university dining services to buy more local, ecologically-sound, humane and fair foods—even though neither of us has a meal plan to directly benefit from this. We both recognize that there is value in working within the systems that have great influence over our society. In a similar way, technology can be leveraged in promotion of environmental protections, even though it itself contributes to some of the harm.

I appreciate that Joshua Colt Gambrel and Philip Cafaro write in their paper entitled “The Virtue of Simplicity” that “simplicity is not opposed to technology […] It just asks that we consciously develop and appropriately incorporate” it into our lives (92-93). This sentence feels like it warrants an entire course on how we can pare down technology and ensure that what we put into the world does not waste resources or attention; how do we negotiate between simplicity and technological solutions? In addition, admitting that the “old ways can be wasteful, or harmful” (92) seems revolutionary to me, having been so frequently told that the keys to sustainable ecosystems could all be found in how past peoples treated the Earth. Technological solutions for the sake of growth may not be as effective at combating environmental degradation as a compassionate worldview, but technology inspired by a compassionate worldview should not yet be discounted.

I look forward to further exploring the intersection between computers and environmental studies in my last year at Gonzaga – now with greater confidence that these are not opposing forces. Computers are not purely electricity sucking, garbage waiting to happen, they also represent progress, and can help us towards simplicity in our usually overcomplicated lives.

Me and my baby Hedy (named after Ms. Lamarr, of course. Other people name their computers too, right?)


  1. I love you connection between computer science and environmental studies and even though people may at first assume that they “don’t go together” I think thats even more of a reason to study both! Your discussion of “old ways can be wasteful and harmful” is really interesting to hear and to think about in regards to sustainable solutions to our planets environmental issues today. I agree that computers and technology in general can represent progress and help us live the most efficient life as possible. I hope to see more melding together of these topics in the future!

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  2. One line that really stuck out to me in this article was when you’re discussing the work you and your friend do with Real Food Challenge: “We both recognize that there is value in working within the systems that have great influence over our society.” I think so often as an Environmental Studies student I am told that the “system” is broken and the only way to fix it is by working outside of it or against it. As you said, certain systems, such as the technological sphere, have a huge impact on our modern day lives and it doesn’t seem that they are going to stop having this influence any time soon. Fighting against a monolithic system can seem like impossible and grinding work, so why not try to do more to alter the system from within? Working within these systems might allow greater change because there is more understanding of how the system works if you are a part of it then if you are viewing it from the outside. Your ideas are making me think about my future career and which direction I want to take my passion for science and the environment.

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  3. As a Computer Science major myself, I was immediately drawn to your post. At first, it may seem to be the case that computers are incompatible with environmental protection. However, I believe that computers will be essential to solving our environmental problems. It is only through the use of data collection and computer modeling that we have been able to identify many of the problems facing the planet and devise methods of correcting them.

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  4. It’s interesting to see the questions that come up when we try to find ways to incorporate into technology into environmental protection issues. I’m in total agreement that we can use technology to assist us in our environmental protection. Data collection, processing, and modeling have already given us advantages in our protection efforts. My only concern for the future, however, is finding an environmentally and socially just way of sourcing these technologies so we don’t have to pay for the costs our tech can create.

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  5. I couldn’t agree more with you Angela. Just like computers, a lot of negative environmental impacts in the world can also be used to better the environment. How humans manage technology is a major problem because people would rather choose an easier path that benefits themselves more than it benefits the world (very egoistic). One of my concentrations is Supply Chain and E-Waste is a huge problem for the environment because many companies don’t know how to manage their products after consumers are done with them. Technology only lasts a couple years because a new product will take its place. It isn’t necessarily technologies fault, it is how humans manage technology. Our agricultural system in the US wastes a lot of water each year, especially in California, and efficient computer software programs can help farmers manage their farms better to reduce the amount of anthropogenic effects on our environment.

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  6. I find it interesting when people, especially the older generation, complain about technology. Before smartphones and computers took up all of our time, newspapers took up our time. There are numerous pictures of historical times where everyone is reading a newspaper. Is this really so much different than looking at a smartphone? I do agree that creating computers is harmful to the environment, but computers allow us to do so many good things for the environment. Computers allow us to connect with other environmentalists, organize events, and create change. The fact of the matter is that now that we have them, computers will not go away. Instead, we should figure out ways to use them to further environmental causes.


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