Stop global warming by unsubscribing from this blog!

What a load of complete codswallop this is. I’m rather fond of our local Transition group, and the Transition Towns movement overall, but this is just stupid.

The linked article tells us that we should consider the carbon cost of our online lives, and “take the pledge to reduce your digital footprint“. How? By deleting emails from your inbox, and unsubscribing from RSS feeds.

Really? Really?

Quite apart from the technical misunderstandings (do they really think that Google, for instance, stores a separate copy of each blog post for each of the thousands of people who subscribe through their Reader product? Or that archiving email on your own computer is more energy efficient than leaving it in a purpose-built data centre?), the whole idea reeks of the kind of “austerity measures” that most strongly impact individuals while corporations aren’t held to any kind of standards of all. Actually, it reminds me of the recent drought here in Australia, where everyone I knew kept a bucket in the bottom of their shower and watered their garden with the runoff, while it turned out that something like 90% of water use was coming from a small handful of industrial users. The effect of limiting your Flickr uploads or Facebook posts is infinitesimal compared to a few steps that could be taken by major technology corporations and/or legislators if they chose to.

So, in that vein, here are a some actually useful ways to reduce our “digital footprint”:

  • Run data centres more energy efficiently and/or on renewable energy.
  • Produce gadgets (computers, phones, etc) that are intended to be longer-lasting, are upgradeable without total replacement, and which can be easily repaired if/when broken.
  • Regulate polluting manufacturers, even if this means moving manufacturing to somewhere local rather than eg. China.

What’s that you say? That would cost corporations too much money, and cut into their enormous profits? Oh well in that case obviously we should all just tighten our belts. I’m going to start by throwing out all my backup drives. After all, I hardly ever need them.

4 thoughts on “Stop global warming by unsubscribing from this blog!

  • Sally MacAdams

    Hi Skud,

    Thanks for your interest in this topic.

    It’s true. I’m not an expert in this field. And when I looked to find any easy guides to reducing digital footprint, I couldn’t find any that were actually focussed on energy use as opposed to privacy or security.

    So I created my own. Perhaps I should have added a disclaimer to that effect. I did on my facebook page, which is what that pledge links to.

    I have now.

    The fact that I’m not an expert however, doesn’t necessarily mean that this is ‘codswallop’.

    I couldn’t agree more with your excellent suggestions for systemic ways of reducing our digital footprint. In fact a later version of my guide includes a section on checking out which internet-based companies are doing what in terms of their energy use, and encouraging people to lobby these companies to do better.

    I’m on holidays right now so I can’t access that document, but I’ll post it in a couple of weeks when I back – ironically enough, I didn’t save it in my dropbox or email it to myself!

    To respond to a couple of your particular points:

    • do they really think that Google, for instance, stores a separate copy of each blog post for each of the thousands of people who subscribe through their Reader product
    • No, I don’t. RSS was probably a bad example. What I meant was that people sign up for a lot of different kinds of notifications that come to their inbox and which they often then just ignore or delete – yes each one would be miniscule, but when you think of the millions and millions of instances of this, it’s a lot. If they’re actually useful, and you delete them afer you’ve read them, knock yourself out. If you don’t actually read them, why not unsubscribe? If you do, just delete them when you’re done.
    • Or that archiving email on your own computer is more energy efficient than leaving it in a purpose-built data centre?)
    • What I’m talking about here is archiving email that is just purely ‘one day I may like to read that again’ stuff – not stuff I access regularly. I’m a hoarder and I have gigabytes of that stuff. And yes, if it’s on my own computer and not taking up any server space, then my assumption is that it’s not using any extra energy that wouldn’t be being used anyway. As you point out, just how efficient are most data centres? But more to the point, how much of what they store is really worth keeping? Of course some of it is. But I certainly know I have kept a lot of utterly useless junk over my time, and with the exponentially growing use and storage of films, music, photos etc etc, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone…

    And to respond to your substantive point:

    the whole idea reeks of the kind of “austerity measures” that most strongly impact individuals while corporations aren’t held to any kind of standards of all

    I agree corporations and organisations absolutely need to be held to account. It was an omission on my part as I mentioned above that that angle was not covered in this point.

    However I don’t believe that absolves us of individual responsibility. Why do Dropbox and You Send It send us offers of unlimited storage? Why do Google and co create more data centres?

    Because we all treat digital storage as if it is magic, requires no energy to support, and has no consequences.

    I believe that the crises facing us will take individual, community and societal action to solve. I don’t think individuals acting on their own will be enough. Nor do I think governments and corporations will act in the absence of individuals and communities taking action and demanding action.

    And for me taking no individual action doesn’t feel right or empowering. I know that my own car is not going to make or break the fight for a safe climate, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to ride my bike and take public transport and avoid the car as much as possible. I think individual ‘austerity’ is probably a smart move for our own resilience in the context of an energy-constrained world, and I think it constributes to community ‘austerity’. How can I credibly ask governments, communities and corporations to take action or make changes if I’m not prepared to do it myself and am in fact adding to the huge appetite for resources, energy etc?

    So yeah, I’m going to continue to take action individually, as well as in community groups and also through advocay, lobbying, working through government etc.

    Not everyone is interested in playing in every arena, so I think it’s important to empower people to contribute in the ways that call to them. Sometimes one leads to another, sometimes it doesn’t.

    The point of this particular post was really to get people thinking about how much energy digital storage does take, and to think about how unnecessary much of it is.


  • Skud Post author

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sally. I have to say I actually agree with most of your points about considering how much you use technology and whether you really need it, but I come at it from quite a different angle. For me it’s more about my attention and mental health. Too much email, too many subscriptions, can feel like mental clutter and make me feel tired and overwhelmed. There is definitely plenty to be said for cleaning out your inbox on those grounds if nothing else.

    With regard to data centres etc, even the most inefficient are more efficient than our home computers. Think of a personal desktop computer that is on for 8 hours a day. It runs at about, oh, 100W or so (very rough number) which is to say 0.8kWh (8 hours * 100W) per day. That’s serving just one person. Now, your desktop PC would make a very inefficient mail server in a data centre, but if they had the same hardware there, they could support maybe 100 users on it. It would be running 24 hours, but that would be 2.4kWh to support 100 people and all their email storage, which is to say 0.024kWh per person — about 1/33 the power usage per person. In reality, though, mail servers in data centres are built to support more users more efficiently than that, through efficiencies of scale. There are, admittedly, costs associated with a data centre that don’t apply to your home PC, such as cooling — one PC in your living room doesn’t make enough heat to need air conditioning, but a big data centre does — but overall it’s more efficient. Which is not to say it’s as efficient as it could be, but on the whole I think there are arguments in favour of storing our data “in the cloud” rather than on personal computers, if you want to look at energy efficiency.

    Another example are cloud storage sites like Dropbox and YouSendIt as you mentioned. Those sites got some press recently because the public learned that they don’t always store all your data if it duplicates data they already have. Let’s say you have a copy of a PowerPoint presentation and upload it to Dropbox. If another user has that exact same file, Dropbox will just point your copy at their copy, and store one of them instead of two. This means that storing files in file lockers can take less disk space, overall, than storing it on your own computer. (The downside is that there are some privacy concerns, which is why it was in the news, see eg.

    If TD would like to have more activities to inform and engage the community on technology issues that would help build more resilient local communities, I’m sure there are a number of local tech specialists who’d be happy to help out. I’d be happy to assist, though I’m about to head overseas for a couple of months so can’t do much (except online) til I get back. However I know one friend locally who is looking at setting up a hackerspace/repair cafe type thing, who I’ve already suggested might like to liaise with TD. I also have a lot of contacts in the open source community, which I think shares many values with the Transition movement, and they might like to do something in collaboration with TD.

  • Sally MacAdams

    Thanks Skud,

    Great info here, ta! Have also now posted the missing part to that post btw (see below).

    I totally agree with the mental health angle!

    I think we might be talking at cross-purposes re the mail storage thing. I use mac book which is on only when I’m using it. I’ve archived all my infrequently used mail to this laptop and deleted it from my yahoo account. I’m really happy to be set straight but I would have thought that it’s not taking any more energy to store a bit more stuff on it. Maybe I need to make that clearer in my guide…

    Thanks so much for your offers of help and contacts – sounds fantastic to me!

    You know what would be an awesome place to start? I’d love if if you could help me make my guide as technically correct and useful as possible! I’m sure you’ve got lots more ideas about this topic… Another idea would be to do a skillshare at one of our gatherings… Let’s get in touch when you’re back – and/or feel free to pass my details onto your friend.

    Good to know that about Dropbox by the way – that makes me feel a little better about it!

    And yes we all love open source, bring it on!


    Lobby your favourite computer manufacturer, internet provider, search engine or social media giant to green their energy supply
    • If you’ve watched the Hungry Beast clip you’ll see that some companies are bowing to pressure to install renewable energy to power their servers or buy green energy.
    • Since then more have followed, e.g.
    • Here’s a review of different companies by Green Peace.

  • Ricky Buchanan

    NB: I’m having Internet Issues and haven’t been able to access Sally’s original article so please correct me if I’m misunderstanding the issue here.

    Skud, I’m thinking you’ve got the wrong math going on here… if Sally’s talking about infrequently used data that’s accessed via her existing computer then the energy use would be:

    Current setup: Existing Macbook energy use + energy used by Yahoo Cloud Service on Sally
    No Cloud Setup: Existing Macbook energy use + slightly more local hard drive accesses

    On the other hand, I think the difference would be so very minuscule that it’s something akin to carefully putting out soup bowls around the edge of your driveway so that you can catch rainwater to put on the garden. In other words yes it might have *some* effect but the effort required would be fairly large compared to the minuscule savings accomplished.

    And if it turned out that you bought a larger hard drive to accommodate your extra data, or upgraded your existing hard drive (or whole system) earlier than you otherwise would have, because you needed the extra space, I’d think the embodied energy in that drive’s manufacture would completely outweigh any small energy savings you’ve accomplished.

    I think it’s more useful to be focussing on things where there are relatively high energy savings compared to the effort outlaid, since there are still so many of those around in our lives. I’m assuming this probably came in the article I can’t access, but things that I can immediately think of in the computer/data area that would have larger impacts for a lot less effort might include:
    – Putting off buying larger hard drives (or additional drives) by deleting un-needed local data.
    – Taking energy use into account when deciding on the purchase of a new computer.
    – Waiting a few extra months before upgrading or replacing computer systems.

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