In Defense of High-Tech Tools for Living a More Sustainable Life

CC BY 3.0. tec_estromberg

High technology is here to stay. It's in our pockets, on our desks, and in our cars, and regardless of the initial (and even ongoing) cost to the environment, some of it can and is helping us to make our lives more sustainable.

After publishing my piece on low-tech and simple tactics for living more sustainably yesterday, I found it interesting that the one high-technology point I used (small solar chargers) was met with some criticism, both on the post itself and on social media channels (and in several private conversations).

The biggest arguments that several commenters here (you know who you are) love to make against the "greenness" of many tech products tend to come from an LCA (life-cycle analysis) and EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) perspective. In other words, asking if the product does the most work, with the least amount of energy input and the lowest environmental impact, and then what happens to it at the end of its useful life? (Obviously I'm simplifying and summarizing that quite a bit.)

One of the problems with using the word sustainable is that because it's such a black and white issue for some folks, it can be construed as meaning only that which is fully able to be sustained indefinitely with no external inputs, with no middle ground whatsoever. It's a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, and I'd argue that strictly speaking, 100% sustainability isn't really achievable, just due to entropy and the natural aging process of just about everything on the planet, and that what we can and should aim for is living "more sustainably."

By that I mean taking steps to reduce our environmental footprint, our energy consumption, our water usage (and wastage), our household and office waste streams, as well as steps to replace the amount of single-use items with those that are longer lasting and made with renewable resources, and to replace some of our fossil-fuel based energy use with that coming from renewable sources. And I think that high-tech does play an important part in that, especially when we use those high-tech items we already own to reduce our environmental footprint in our everyday lives.

Here are a few points in defense of using high-tech tools for living a more sustainable life:

Sharing information and community-building: Most of us already own a computer, and use one for both work and pleasure, and by connecting to the internet, we have access to the biggest repository of information on green living, DIY, energy efficiency, etc. in the history of humankind. There are also a great number of communities on the web that not only instruct and inform across a wide variety of sustainable living topics, but also offer support and human networking for those looking to living a greener life. Before the internet and personal computers, that knowledge and those personal connections and communities were much more difficult to attain, so the high technology that goes into personal computers can offer a large amount of leverage to us. And again, we already own them, and if we're using them to learn how to live more sustainably (even if just for part of the time), it seems at
least incrementally greener than using them only to watch movies and laugh at GIFs and share memes.

Digital and paperless products and transactions: Aside from those that print out their emails or insist on always having a hard copy, many of us are already very comfortable with going digital. Using digital files for everything from ebooks to bill paying to music and video downloads can radically reduce the amount of physical materials that must be produced and disposed of in our lives. Emails vs paper mail is one example that most of us use daily, as is reading the news online or getting a digital version of a book or music album instead of a physical version. I'd also argue that with digital photos, we can now capture more images and videos than ever before, without the need for the film, photo paper, and processing equipment necessary to print them, and by using the web to display them, I can do things such as share a photo of my composting toilet design with an interested person in Sweden without needing to produce and send a physical artifact.

Smartphones as multipurpose tools: With the wider adoption of smartphones as our primary communication device, we can now replace multiple gadgets with one multipurpose device. We don't need to own and carry a separate camera, music player, map and compass (or GPS), or watch with us, unless we need specialist tools (a pro photographer would obviously not simply replace their DSLR with a smartphone camera). In addition to the hardware, the ability to run third-party apps on smartphones opens up a number of angles for living more sustainably, from energy consumption software to e-guides and apps to help us make greener choices in our daily lives.

Electric bikes and vehicles: While many of us won't be in the market for buying an electric car until their prices drop significantly, for those that can afford one as an integral part of a home and personal energy strategy (with PV panels perhaps), electric vehicles can make for a cleaner local environment and reduce the demand for fossil fuels for transportation. A lower hanging fruit for more sustainable transportation is the electric bike, especially when an e-bike can make the difference between being able to commuting by electric bike and having to rely solely on a gas-powered car. Taking bigger and less efficient vehicles off of the roads, especially those used to only transport one person at a time, can be a step toward a greener world.

Smarter home technology: While I think that Lloyd made a great point about the need for "the dumb home, done right" before we need the smart home, most of us can't go out and build a new home that embodies the passive house ethic and appropriate technology. We're stuck with what we have, and so in order to make the homes that already exist more sustainable to live in and operate, we can take advantage of high-tech solutions such as smart energy monitors, intelligent thermostats, connected devices that we can control remotely or schedule the operation of, or even such boring tech advances as double-paned windows and efficient home insulation. For those that can afford it, a PV array (either grid-tied, or a standalone system with its own microgrid) can offer long-term sustainability benefits, and as a lower-cost entry point, LED bulbs can make a difference in greening our lives.

Smarter agriculture and gardening: For the small home gardener, high-tech products may not appear capable of making a huge difference, but even something as seemingly low-tech as drip irrigation tubing coupled with an electronic control system can radically reduce the amount of water needed to grow food. For the bigger operations, the smallholders and small farmers, the use of soil moisture monitors, weather forecasting devices, smart irrigation controls, and even GPS units on tractors (for more precise control of cultivation and fertilizer application), can help make the growing operations more sustainable.

Small scale solar power: I like to think of small scale solar power as a gateway to renewable energy options, as portable solar chargers and small independent solar arrays can not only provide energy to power those gadgets and devices mentioned above, but can serve as examples of an alternative to our conventional addiction to the fossil-fuel grid and offer advantages in mobility and energy independence on the small scale. If we can use those small solar chargers and battery banks to teach us to live within our "energy means", then we may also learn to be more mindful of our resources in other areas of our lives.

I'm not arguing that we ought to go out and buy more high-tech devices in our quest to live more sustainably, or advocating "shopping our way to a greener life", as some critics say we do here at Treehugger (though I do believe that there is a case to be made for investing in some of this technology to save time or energy and to increase efficiency), but rather that we can move incrementally to a less wasteful and more intelligent use of resources.

After all, we're here on the planet already, and we consume natural resources just to stay alive. We can't go back and wipe the slate clean and start over, only this time with 100% renewable and 100% sustainable energy, tools, and materials. We've got to start where we are, and that means learning to live more sustainably, using less energy, less water, and less resources, and I think that high technology definitely has a role to play in that.