Greenpeace activists loosed black balloons inside two of the nation's flagship Apple stores today, protesting the company's reliance on coal to power the cloud. In New York City, San Francisco, and at another demonstration in Toronto, protesters drew attention to the fact that companies like Apple use electricity generated by coal plants to run their data centers—which power the cloud that is now sucking down a ballooning slice of the world's energy pie.
As far as Greenpeace actions go, this one was pretty tame—I'd been tipped off by organizers, so I was already inside the Fifth Avenue Apple store when a small parade of activists barged through the front doors and released dozens of black balloons. Emblazoned with illustrations of coal pollution and slogans like 'Clean Our Cloud', they collected on the roof of the glass building, above the giant iconic Apple insignia.
Down below, a couple Apple staffers gathered to point up at the balloons, customers muttered about Occupy. Security rounded up the activists, who were clad in black Greenpeace tees, in the entryway to the store. And befitting a superstore stocked with iPhones, iPads, and other devices expressly designed to distract, the majority of the its occupants barely even noticed the commotion going on above.
Outside, activists paced the streets with clusters of more balloons in tow, handing out cards with the URL to Greenpeace's Clean Our Clouds website. There, over 115,000 people have signed a petition asking Apple to stop using coal to power its cloud. Tourists took pictures of the black balloons and chatted with Greenpeace activists. In a stark contrast from recent #Occupy protests, police and security were friendly and non-confrontational. And the activists were enjoying themselves.
"I'm excited about the possibilities of this campaign, moving big corporations like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft to be champions of clean energy," Joe Smyth, a volunteer activist, told me.
Greenpeace is setting its sights on other high tech consumers of coal power—they recently dropped a 'Clean Our Cloud' banner at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle. The action is backed by a recent report that chastised Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon for using dirty energy sources to power their data centers, while praising the likes of Facebook and Google for making a dedication to renewables.
It's a smart strategy—each of these companies' reputations rest, to varying degrees, on their cutting edge-iness. Each brand aspires to some degree of high-tech sophistication; Apple products especially are built to reassure their fans of their enlightened sensibilities. Pointing out that the dirtiest energy on earth lurks behind all that intuitive, minimalist design may burst some bubbles yet. And the rise of the iCloud gives Greenpeace yet another opening to attack:
So far, Apple has responded to the Greenpeace campaign by disputing numbers in the report and claiming its new North Carolina data center will offset all of its power usage with fuel cells and a solar array. Greenpeace fired back, dubious of its numbers, but welcoming an uncharacteristic move towards transparency from the tech giant.
Regardless, Greenpeace is right that the cloud should be clean—data centers are one of the fastest expanding sources for energy consumption. The tech companies driving that expansion have an opportunity to set a precedent for using renewable energy to meet new demand. They just need to be nudged. Or pranked.