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.