Minus Oil:Three Ways Technology Can Curb Our Consumption


Photo via quapan via Flickr CC

Our culture is obsessed with technology, and for many people it seems the solution to our environmental conundrums is embedded in the ways we utilize the technology we have to create solutions. To a great degree, technology is what got us into this oil-dependent mess in the first place; still, it can very well be an important component of moving away from oil while maintaining the same degree of global connectivity we currently experience. In three major areas, including communication, transportation and food, we discuss how technology can lead us toward a more sustainable future that doesn't include oil.

Electronics and Communication


Dependence: Our use of electronics has skyrocketed over the last few decades. There are now computers, cell phones, televisions, gaming stations, alarm clocks, digital cameras, dishwashers, refrigerators, HVAC systems and water heaters in every home. Also in practically every home is at least one car. We're more mobile than ever, from driving our own vehicles to flying anywhere in the world at a moment's notice to make it to a two-hour business meeting. But all that stuff and all that mobility add up to a serious dependence on the oil that produces the plastics the electronics are made of, and ships them and us all over the planet. Condensing our use of these technologies is key, and it is technology itself that will help us with that progress.

Independence: Using technology to reduce frequency of driving or flying will go far in reducing our dependence on oil. For example, using teleconferencing technology like Skype for business meetings rather than flying staff around the world goes a long way for reducing the use of airplanes. Similarly, using technological advances in telemedicine to reduce travel by patients can boost health care quality as well as cut back on oil. Also, refurbishing and redeploying office equipment like servers, laptops, and other items can cut a business's expenses by thousands while also reducing consumption of products shipped from half way across the planet.

Additionally, simply reducing how many electronics we have shrinks our oil use since technology helps us dematerialize. From our all-in-one devices like our smart phones that act as phones, MP3 players, alarm clocks, GPS devices, and so on to our digitalization of materials from photos to novels and school text books, we are able to reduce how much oil we use in the production and shipping of products. And, electronics such as smart phones can lead us toward a lifestyle that is more efficient with oil -- for example, smart phones can be used to map out bus routes and check arrival times, or find people to carpool with to make efficient transportation easier. Or it can house an app that shows us where to find local food, which cuts down on the oil footprint of what we eat. But the role of technology in making our lives more oil efficient doesn't stop with the devices we carry on us.

Communication goes beyond simple phone calls and plane flights. Technology is also the future of communication for smart grids, advanced transportation networks, smart buildings, and other aspects of modern society that currently lean too heavily on oil to function. Our advancements in real-time communication and reaction for the smart grid will reduce our energy consumption overall, creating highly networked and streamlined transportation networks of efficient vehicles for moving people and things all over the globe can radically reduce our oil use, and so too can creating and running smarter buildings that minimize the need for heating and cooling.

Cars and Vehicles

Dependence: Cars themselves, and shipments of goods from far away locations, are the primary culprits in oil dependence. In fact, about three quarters of our oil consumption goes to transportation. But the problem with transportation and oil consumption comes down not to vehicle fuel efficiency, but how we use the vehicles in the first place. Coming up with a vehicle that gets improved miles per gallon still does not solve the main issue of our lust for personal vehicles, and our itch for things that have to come from far away.

Independence: Besides creating cities that are walkable and bikeable, technology that goes into efficient and intelligent public transportation is key. The study of biomimicry has already done wonders for transportation, from reshaping our vehicles to re-mapping our routes and methods for shipping.

In the meantime, technology that tracks traffic patterns and helps redirect drivers to get the most fuel efficiency out of a trip goes a long way in minimizing how much energy we consume in everything from personal cars to UPS trucks.

Moving from oil-dependent vehicles to battery-dependent vehicles isn't the whole solution, or even a significant part of a good solution. Changing the way we travel and ship things on the whole is more important than going all-electric. But technology that makes transportation networks more advanced and helps us devise the most efficient vehicles that use renewable fuel will also be key.

Food and Water

Dependence: While transportation is a key reason our food system keeps us latched on to oil, but it isn't the only reason. Industrial agriculture, from the machinery used in the fields to the fertilizers themselves, is highly oil intensive. The mechanized processing of foods, the packaging (particularly plastic) of it, and the distribution and storage of foods all require massive amounts of oil as well. Our food system is so wrapped up in oil, it's tough to even begin to extract ourselves from it. And the same goes with water.

Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute looked at the energy intensity of bottled water production, from making a plastic bottle, processing the water, labeling it, filling it, sealing it, transporting it, and cooling it. They estimate that just producing the bottles themselves uses 50 million barrels of oil a year -- or equivalent to total US oil demand for 2.5 days. Overall, the two scientists estimate that meeting U.S. demand for bottled-water--assuming the 2007 consumption rate of 33 billion liters--requires energy equivalent to between 32 million and 54 million barrels of oil. The energy required to satisfy the global thirst for bottled water is about three times that amount.

Independence:
The technology to reduce how much oil we use with our food and water is already available to a large extent, but much of the problem with the oil footprint of our food is rapped up in other systems beyond what technology is capable of fixing. The idea of convenience, the ready availability of anything we desire to eat regardless of where it grows (or even if it grows or is created in a laboratory) has become an ingrained part of our lives. Sucking oil out of our food and water is more about heading to farmers' markets and the sink faucet than it is about coming up with some new software system. But technology can, and is, helping.

For example, on the consumer side there are apps that show how easy it is to find free tap water when on the go, as well as locate farmers' markets and seasonal foods. And on the producer's side, there are great systems in development including efficient water use on crops or desalinating salted water to reuse on crops. We recently heard about cloud computing technology that helps fishermen find a market for a catch before heading in to dock so that overfishing can be avoided.

It will take more than simply advancing technology to extract the oil from our daily bread (and admittedly, technology got it there in the first place), but it can happen.

Two Components of Reducing Oil Consumption Through Technology

There seems to be two elements of minimizing the impact of our consumption on any level. First, minimize the consumption itself. Then, minimize how we consume and dispose of goods and resources (indeed, to the point of not disposing of anything, ever, but putting it back into a cradle-to-cradle production system).

This comes down to personal choices we each make, both at home and as part of a global community. There are many decisions we can make as individuals; in fact, there is even an eHow article on how to transition off of oil with changes in your use of technology. But there is only so much that can be done by the individual.

Bigger changes in our use of technology from transportation industries to manufacturing to the systems that run our cities like waste removal and wastewater cleaning all must be reanalyzed for how we can be smarter and more efficient with both our hardware and software.

Improvements lay with both the consumer and business end in how we utilize technology for transitioning away from oil.

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