Technology has improved our lives in many ways and not just through making thing faster and more convenient. We are better connected and better informed. Technology lets us travel the globe and get close to wildlife without leaving our desk, our cell phones can help us to make better shopping decisions and software helps us to be more energy efficient. It also has served to dematerialize our lives. Here are five of the major ways that technology helps us to consume less and lighten our environmental footprints.
Probably the biggest technological advance that has helped us to consume less is the digitization of so much of our lives. Think of all the things that we now overwhelmingly use digital versions of instead of physical items: music, books, movies, phone books, photos, letters, maps, encyclopedias and on and on. While the physical versions of these things still exist, overwhelmingly we now favor the instant digital version.
When we replace these things with digital versions, we consume less actual stuff. That translates to fewer resources used to make things and less energy used to manufacture and transport them. When we use our computer or smartphone to consume music, we prevent the use of resources to make physical CDs, their jewel cases and liner notes; when we read an e-book, we prevent the need for pulp for the paper and the energy used to print and ship them.
When your entire music library is contained within an iPod or smartphone, or an unlimited amount of knowledge is just a Google search away, your footprint is so much lower than if you had consumed the same amount of music in physical form or bought the equivalent amount of books.
Another major way that technology is helping us to consume less is through the consolidation of things within one gadget. This has been especially noteworthy in the past few years with the rise of smartphones and tablets. These technologies let us carry just one device that serves several purposes, as opposed to many. Smartphones serve as phones, music players, personal planners, GPS devices, cameras, watches and alarm clocks and more. Tablets do all that plus they have the ability serve as e-readers, dvd players, gaming consoles and pretty much any type of media device.
For some, tablets are even replacing home computers.
These devices can act as several gadgets in one, and replace the need for many individual things. In fact, the more you can use the features of your smartphone or tablet for instead of buying additional gadgets, the lower your environmental footprint is. We've talked before about how smartphones can help us to be better consumers, but the phones themselves help us to consume less in the first place by filling so many needs at once.
Buying second-hand and reselling your things when you're done with them is one of the best ways to reduce your environmental footprint. The practice helps to curb the consumption of resources and energy for making new things when used items continue to be marketed and used.
It's always been possible to walk into your local thrift or second-hand shop and find used items, but technology has opened up a global marketplace for selling and buying used goods. Ebay and Craigslist connect buyers and sellers in a way that had never been possible before. Whatever you're in the market for, there is an easy way to go online and find a used version, from sofas to clothes to iPads.
Electronics-recycling sites help to extend the life of our gadgets by buying, refurbishing and reselling them. Sites like NextWorth, Gazelle and TechForward all give us easy ways to conserve resources and energy by keeping working devices out of the landfill and reducing demand for new gadgets off the assembly line, usually with just a click of a few buttons.
4. Community Sharing
Something else that technology has really allowed to expand to a much greater scale is community sharing. It's one thing to get to know your neighbors and occasionally share items with them and its another to share things on a city-wide, national or even global scale.
Services like ZipCar, where people can set up online appointments to borrow cars in their city by the hour or by the day, lets many users share a small number of cars, instead of each person owning one. Netflix lets people consume DVDs that way and Borrow Lenses lets photographers and filmmakers rent camera, video and audio equipment for their projects instead having to buy it.
Ride sharing service RideJoy has an app that instantly connects drivers and those who need a ride based on city or route they're traveling. City-wide bike sharing programs use let anyone access community bikes from kiosks located around the city. All you need is a credit card.
These types of community sharing services are able to have a far reach thanks to technology and, especially in urban environments, they open up the possibility of only sharing major things like cars and bikes instead of owning, cutting down on not just individual consumption, but community consumption as well.
Most recently technology has really helped us to customize the things that we make and buy, leading to consumption that is less wasteful. Here at TreeHugger, we're huge fans of 3D printing, an innovation that defines customization. 3D printing allows you to design and make exactly what type of object you need or at the exact time you need it, using only the exact amount of materials required and without the need to ship it anywhere.
The possibilities are also endless. 3D printing can be used to make replacement parts for repairing things instead of buying all new items. Also, making things one at a time in the spot where they will be consumed means no wasteful packaging or excess products made on an assembly line that may never be bought. Right now, 3D printers are still more of a specialist product, but I can't imagine that it won't be too long before they are accessible to everyone.
Another service that I would also include here is Kickstarter. The crowd-funding site that lets people support the launch of products and innovations of their choosing has been allowing us to customize what ideas we want brought to the marketplace. The site allows us to put our money behind things that are truly needed in this world and are sure to be used, unlike the random, endless rows of plastic things found at big box stores that may never really have any usefulness or any buyers and represent heaps of wasted resources and energy.
Technology Has Helped to Dematerialize Our Lives, but It's Still Up to Us
Technology has in many ways allowed us to consume less from physical stuff to energy and resources, but all of those advances won't matter if our behavior is still one of over consumption. Smartphones and tablets may consolidate our devices and gadgets, but if we update our phones and tablets each year or every time a new model is released, we're voiding a lot of that benefit.
Community sharing services are out there, but to make an impact we have to use them more instead of more often choosing individual ownership.
All in all, it's still up to us to use these technologies to their potential and be thoughtful about what we buy, what we use and to do our best to get by with less.