PRINT vs SCREENS: Writing Technologies & Environmental Justice

PRINT vs SCREENS: Writing Technologies & Environmental Justice

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Hi folks. I’m Stephen. I’m speaking to you  from the University of Arizona, in Tucson.   I’m here to talk about my research  project, which is still in progress,   and which is about some of the links between  writing technologies and environmental justice,   and particularly the links between digital,  multimodal composing practices and climate change. First, a quick definition of one of my key terms. My working definition of environmental  justice is from Giovanna Di Chiro.  

She defines it as “a global network of social  movements fiercely critical of the disparities   and depredations caused by the unchecked expansion  and neocolonial logic of fossil fuel-driven modern   industrial development.” These social movements  aim to “challenge the disproportionate burden of   toxic contamination, waste dumping, and ecological  devastation borne by low-income communities,   communities of color, and colonized territories.” Environmental justice is an unabashedly  human-centric project that’s concerned   less with wilderness, sparsely  populated areas, or “nature,” per se,   as it is with the often mundane, everyday  environments where people live, work,   and play — especially cities. And it tries  to recognize and figure out how to respond   to the stark global inequalities and unevenly  distributed vulnerabilities that are not only   produced by but are also necessary to sustain  what Andreas Malm calls “fossil capitalism.” Now, a little more about my own project.

I could trace my curiosity about some of the  links between the biosphere and the “technosphere”   to a certain skepticism about  the inherent “greenness” or   “Earth-friendliness” of screen-based  media over print- or paper-based media. Many or most of you, I’m sure, have been the   targets of paperless billing and  banking advertising campaigns,   which are one common example of this  type of eco-oriented rhetorical appeal. This is the envelope my power company  has me use to pay my bill each month. Meanwhile, my health insurance company  tries to convince me to go digital by   appealing to the medium’s supposedly  self-evident “Earth-friendliness.” Now, of course we have to acknowledge that,  for many, this is simply an example of the   marketing ploy known as “greenwashing” —  making something seem more eco-friendly   than it actually is as a way to endear  one’s company or product to consumers. But why, exactly, is it still often so  tempting to think that the ecological   superiority of digital media over print  media really is self-evident? Why is   the greenwashing ploy even potentially  persuasive or viable in the first place? There are some obvious and not-so-obvious possible   answers. Let’s start with a  couple of the obvious ones.

First, it’s more or less common knowledge that  paper comes from trees. So the eco-friendly   argument for using less paper goes something like  this: Using less paper saves trees, and saving   trees is an environmentally conscious thing to do  because, well, trees are part of the environment.   Okay, fine. That argument entails some dubious  unstated premises, but I’ll leave it here for now. Second, we often think and behave as if digital  media are part of some alternative universe — the   so-called “meta-verse” — that’s characterized  primarily by its lack of materiality:   a virtual world of code and pixels  that’s parallel to — but also more   or less untethered to — the physical  world of atoms and bodies (and trees). Of course, if we stop and think about it, we’d  all readily acknowledge the enabling material   infrastructures that make so-called “virtual”  spaces and interactions possible — the fiber   optic cables, the electricity grids and power  plants, the server farms, the circuit boards,   the copper mines, the phone factories, as well  as our own bodies. But these infrastructures,  

the whole system of production and distribution  and energy generation for digital devices and   software services, still tends to be a lot  more opaque and hidden and distributed,   and so it can be easier to  ignore it or discount it. So, not only are we “literally and metaphorically  screened off from the inner workings of the   computer, where everything . . . is reduced  to binary digits.” We’re screened off, too,   from the various conditions and relations and  processes that have to exist (and have to persist)   to make these inner workings possible in the first  place, including the power plants, the conflict   minerals, the hazardous e-waste — much of which  is distant to us not only in time, but in space. For example, according to the Times of India:  “A study by an industry body has found that   there are about [450,000] child workers in the  10-14 age group engaged in e-waste activities,   without adequate protection and safeguards  in various yards and recycling workshops.” This spatial distribution — the fact that there  isn’t the same number of kids in the US doing the   same thing — is not an accident. Modern economic  growth and prosperity are made possible by the   extraction of surplus value in a process David  Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,”   the ongoing appropriation of public assets  by the private interests of capital,   which is always in desperate need of new, untapped  reserves of free or cheap labor, raw materials,   and natural resources, with little to no  regard for any of the negative externalities,   like waste and pollution, and which can’t be  factored directly into profit-driven equations.

Actually, sometimes these can be factored in,  only to be written off, which is what California’s   Pacific Gas & Electric did when they decided the  cost of adequately maintaining their power lines   was greater than the costs they’d endure if  poorly maintained equipment happened to start   wildfires — which it did. The company then avoided  criminal prosecution by paying a $55 million   settlement, “essentially [buying] its way out of  culpability,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Anyway, this appropriative process  of “accumulation by dispossession”   creates what Andrew Ross calls a “green gap,”   which is the chasm that has “opened up between the  eco-oases of affluent carbon-conscious communities   and the human and natural sacrifice  zones on the other side of the tracks,   where populations have to fight to breathe  clean air and drink uncontaminated water.” Indeed, the spatial division of labor in the  global economy is such that, as Jacob Silverman   writes, “the West’s futuristic creature comforts  depend on the exploitation of people in the Global   South” (formerly known as the Third World, the  developing world, the underdeveloped world, etc.).   For example, the mineral coltan, whose refined  byproducts are used in various gadgets,   “is frequently mined in brutal camps in the Congo   and on the Venezuela-Colombia border, its  profits flowing to paramilitary groups.”

My argument today, then, is that it’s both  inaccurate and ecologically irresponsible   to say that there’s something  innately or inherently “green”   (or “environmentally friendly”)  about screen-based digital media. As the Scientific American puts it, “the  word ‘cloud’ evokes images of a clean,   simple and environmentally friendly process, [but]  the systems that support it are massive industrial   facilities, densely packed with processors and  hard drives, that devour energy by the megawatt.   Data centers use between 1 and 2  percent of the world's electricity   and, with dead trees that make  paper giving way to magnetic disks,   energy use and consequently emissions from  the Internet is poised to surge further.” Ignoring these growing environmental impacts, and  especially the climate effects, of computer-based   information and communication technology has  disproportionately negative consequences for poor,   non-white, and indigenous communities,  and especially for the residents of the   Global South who, despite being responsible for  only a small fraction of total GHG emissions,   are the most vulnerable to  drought, flooding, famine,   extreme heat, and other climate disasters, as well  as the least prepared to adapt to these threats.

“There is one thing I almost  never hear leaders talk about,   and that is loss and damage. For many of us,  reducing and avoiding is no longer enough.   You cannot adapt to lost cultures.  You cannot adapt to lost traditions.   You cannot adapt to lost history. You cannot adapt  to starvation. And you cannot adapt to extinction.   The climate crisis is pushing many  communities beyond their ability to adapt.”   An obliviousness, willful or accidental,  to technology’s ecological dimension is   therefore one way that digital media  users and consumers in the Global North   (including me) are implicated in the ongoing  perpetration and maintenance of what Anil   Agarwal and Sunita Narain call “environmental  colonialism,” what Sudanese diplomat Lumumbua   Di-Aping calls “climate fascism,” or what  David Wallace-Wells calls “climate apartheid.”

Luckily, if also ironically, digital  tech can itself be used to shed light   on its own imbrication in these kinds of  eco-fascist regimes and neo-colonial logics.   The default setting of much digital  media is to efface its own materiality,   but there’s nothing necessary or inevitable  about this default setting. We can use the   technology to critique the technology —  which is what I’m trying to do right now.

When I started this project, this  is how I posed my research question: How might the short- and long-term environmental  costs of the paper and printing industries,   on one hand, and digital infrastructures, on  the other hand, be more accurately understood,   quantified, and ultimately compared? I basically framed it as an empirical  question that I didn’t have an answer to yet   only because I lacked sufficient data to do  the math and determine once and for all which   medium is “better” (or “less harmful”) for the  environment, or which one is more “sustainable.” That term, by the way — sustainability — is one of   those buzzwords that can be mobilized  to mean almost anything these days.   I highly recommend Derek Owens chapter about  that, in his book Composition & Sustainability. So, initially I was intent on collecting a bunch  of data on energy consumption, cost-efficiency,   and carbon emissions, interviewing experts like  the manager of a paper mill or the president   of a utility company, and doing studies with  students about their media habits and preferences. I still plan to do some of that stuff. But one  thing I quickly realized when I started to dig   into some of the relevant secondary  research was that I first needed to   seriously question some of the assumptions  built into my initial research question.

For instance, the assumption that a quantitative,  cost-benefit analysis really is possible or   desirable. Couldn’t it tacitly reinforce  the idea that thinking in terms of profit   maximization and return-on-investment are  the best ways to make major life decisions,   determine personal or shared  values, and make moral judgments? Plus, quantitative language is built into  phrases like “reducing environmental impact”   or “leaving a lighter footprint,” phrases which  tend to reinforce a counter-productive, dualistic   framing, where humans do measurable things to  nature, as opposed to there being a mutually   constitutive relationship between the human and  nonhuman, between nature and artifice (which is   the perspective of post-Cartesian thinkers like  Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, or Jason Moore). So, the quantitative angle soon struck me as  misguided, and I started to align myself more   with the perspective of someone like Sarthak  Shukla, who writes that “if climate justice   is the yardstick, [then] every action on  the sustainability front should go beyond   merely mitigating the carbon emissions to  actually addressing the adverse socio-economic   and ecological impacts of their operations . . .  And it is not an easy task to gauge such impacts   holistically because of the qualitative nature  of such impacts . . . However, it has become a   norm to quantify socio-economic impact through  financial metrics, and ecological impact through   emission-based metrics. This has almost reached  a point where it is becoming propaganda to shadow   the importance of people’s quality of life by  covering it up with some percentages or numbers.”

Indeed, just because the GHG emissions of Big  Tech are far, far less than emissions from other   sectors, like transportation or energy, doesn’t  mean those emissions don’t matter. At this point,   no amount of additional GHG  emissions is a safe amount. Plus, Big Tech’s pro-climate action lobbying  expenditures pale in comparison to the   counter-efforts of the fossil fuel lobby. Take  a company like Adobe, for example — whose video  

editing software, Premiere Pro, I used to make  this video, by the way. You can see some of the   gears and wheels turning down  there. Adobe goes out of its   way to tout its green credentials with  a snazzy webpage, like this one . . . And a hefty 106-page CDP  Climate Change Questionnaire,   in which they proudly proclaim their business  model’s reliance on non-physical products. This is from the report: “All  three of Adobe's Cloud offerings   are low-carbon products. Specifically,  products such as Adobe Document Cloud,   Experience Cloud, Adobe Connect, and  LeanPrint allow users to operate more   sustainably — virtually — using ICT in  place of paper, ink and other resources.

Again, notice that we’re being asked to  automatically equate “virtual” and “sustainable.” But it turns out that Adobe and other  Big Tech companies (like Alphabet,   Meta, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) aren’t  really doing much at all to influence   public policy or to offset the lobbying and the  disinformation campaigns of fossil fuel interests,   which are aggressively responsible for  making the public far less receptive   than it might otherwise be to Big Tech’s own  pro-climate appeals. Which raises the question:   If you have an ethical responsibility to make  a certain kind of argument in favor of climate   action, do you not also have a responsibility to  do what you can to create a rhetorical climate in   which audiences are inclined toward adherence or  identification with your argument or your values. Now, I don’t want to imply that we should rely  entirely on market mechanisms or lobbyists to   save us from climate catastrophe. But they do  have a role to play. As Wallace-Wells reminds us:  

“If the project of averting catastrophe  must be completed this decade,   one is forced to work with the power  structures and institutions one has today.” Putting the onus on industries, corporations, and  governments is also preferable to overestimating   the power of individual consumer choice or  lifestyle tweaks. Indeed, one major way that   large industrial polluters “evade direct climate  debt repayment is to transfer accountability   onto the consciences of individuals. This is an  ongoing ideological shift, whereby individuals   are encouraged to assess the carbon footprint of  every personal act or material that they consume.  

The guilt and sense of responsibility  is thereby reassigned, or outsourced,   away from the large polluters who  have the most effective power to   lower emissions” by, among other things,  transitioning to renewable sources.   Still, we’d do well to keep in mind that  “green” and “just” are not necessarily   synonyms. A green economy is perfectly  compatible with an exploitative, unequal one. “While renewable technologies are  gradually displacing fossil fuels   from electricity generation, . . . the  grid itself as a social form is wired   for the accumulation of value . . . The grid’s  relation to the energy market, for instance,   conceals the origin and source of the electricity,  allowing for mixed modes of generation.” It is possible, in other words, for  clean energy to replace dirty energy   while leaving the original power  grids, in both senses, intact.

This is why, to quote Ross again, “advocates of  climate justice, who draw attention to the uneven   geographic distribution of environmental risks,  argue that sustainable technologies need to be   developed as remedies for social inequalities.  Otherwise, affluent communities in the Global   North and in the global cities of the South  will turn into eco-enclaves, hoarding resources   and knowledge about resilience from others. If  resources tighten rapidly, a more ominous future   beckons in the form of triage crisis management,  where populations are selected for protection   inside these eco-enclaves, while those outside or  across the borders are abandoned. In the ‘climate   wars’ to come, the threat of global warming  will increasingly be used to shape immigration   policies around a vision of affluent nations or  regions as heavily fortified resource islands.” To summarize some of the problems with  my initial research question, then: To pit two products — print media and  digital media — against each other   is to risk missing the forest for the literal  trees we think we’re saving by going digital.   Trees, first of all, are a renewable resource,  after all, and it is possible, if also difficult,   to implement sustainable, green, just forest  management practices. See, for instance,  

the tenets of sustainable forestry outlined by the  Rainforest Alliance’s Forest Stewardship Council. What’s really needed is an  honest reckoning with the   complex web of political and infrastructural  arrangements that make the continued existence   and availability of either one of those  technologies possible in the first place. As John Durham Peters reminds us,   it’s not actually possible to  opt out of technology entirely: “Technical infrastructures,” he writes, “are  not limits on our humanity, but its conditions.   We can debunk silicon salvation without  resorting to deluded conceptions of original   purity . . . The promised cure of being free of  technology is usually just another technology   that isn’t recognized as such. The choice is  always the much more difficult one of which   technologies and techniques to engage,  not whether to abandon them altogether.”

But perhaps the most egregious  miscalculation I made in framing   the question the way that I did was that I  implied that question was far from settled.   In fact, there’s already an app that could  settle the question more or less instantaneously! Here it is. As you can see,  all I have to do is toggle,   left to right, back and forth, to see in  very stark, seemingly precise mathematical   terms just how ecologically minded we  all can be by using less paper . . . As I’ve tried to argue in this presentation,  however, it’s a mistake to think it’s possible   to accurately quantify, or even to know  or predict, all the relevant variables.  

A tool like this conceals more  than it reveals. It’s a clever,   rhetorically sophisticated offensive volley  against the paper industry, no doubt. But it’s   ultimately a tool of misdirection, asking us to  focus only on paper. Conveniently absent is the  

tally of costs for whatever replaces paper — which  in this case would, presumably, be Adobe products. One has to wonder: How many  gallons of water, pounds of wood,   pounds of waste, pounds of GHGs,  or kW hours of energy makes it   possible for me to view this Resource  Saver Calculator on my Apple MacBook? Imagine, instead, a slightly different calculator  — a map of the world, say, where you could toggle,   left to right, back and forth, to increase the  number of smartphone and laptop users in the   Global North, and see how, the more fun we’re  having, and the more productive we’re being,   and the more money we’re making and energy  we’re using and waste we’re producing,   and all the rest of it, the more people  there are in the Global South who lose their   lives and livelihoods to hurricanes,  droughts, famines, and heat waves. It’d be a crudely reductive, tasteless algorithm,  for sure. And it might make whoever designs  

it guilty of what David Harvey calls “moral  masturbation . . . of the sort that accompanies   the masochistic assemblage of some huge dossier  [of] daily injustices . . . over which we can beat   our breasts and commiserate with each other  before retiring to our fireside comforts,”   a gesture which is, he says,  ultimately “counterrevolutionary,   for it merely serves to expiate guilt without  ever forcing us to face the fundamental issues,   let alone do anything about them.” But it might, at least, have the effect of  pricking consciences and maybe even spurring   action, rather than doing what this current  tool does, which is to reassure us that if we   just keep doing what we’re doing, and no paper is  involved, then we should sleep soundly at night,   swaddled in the fiction that the ecological  effects of our screen-based technologies   are as ephemeral and intangible as a  meteorite streaking across the night sky. We don’t seem to care where that meteorite  lands, as long as it doesn’t land on us.

2022-11-16 12:44

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