The Hidden Environmental Cost Of Almost Everything You Do Online

"Most people literally just don't think there's an environmental cost," says social media researcher Danah Boyd.

01/21/2016 04:38 pm ET

It's easy to understand the environmental cost of sending a letter. A tree is cut down to create the paper. A jet-fueled plane flies the envelope across the country. A postal service truck coughs out exhaust as the mail finally arrives at its destination. 

Email, not so much. 

"Most people literally just don't think there's an environmental cost," social media researcher Danah Boyd told The Huffington Post's Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. "All they can think about is the silicon that goes into your device or, maybe, the lithium that goes into your battery."

But the so-called "cloud" -- the networks of Internet servers on which many of us now store documents, contacts, photos and all sorts of digital correspondence -- is very tangible, as is its voracious appetite for electricity.

"If you think about it, why are you keeping around every notification you've ever got on Twitter on a live server so that it can be fed by water, power and land?" said Boyd. "A lot of it is [that] we've removed the economic cost -- it's free! -- but it has impact just like drinking bottled water has impact."

It's difficult to get people to care about something so invisible. You just expect email to exist when you need it, whether you're firing off a quick "thanks" to a colleague or searching for an old receipt for an online purchase. You might pay as much heed to this invisible network as, say, to the carbon emissions that come from buildings. Think of it this way: It's easy to note the exhaust coming out of a diesel truck, but who thinks about the impact of the four walls around them?

For that reason, Boyd suggests branding apps and tech services with the same sort of certification that the U.S. Green Building Council provides to eco-friendly structures. 

"If Tim Cook decides that every app that goes through his App Store has to have the equivalent of LEED-certified code review, developers will do it," Boyd said of Apple's chief executive. "At the same time, if users start to demand it, developers will start to come around that way."

Some companies have stepped up. Apple includes its facilities in its annual environmental responsibility report. Google maintains a page dedicated to the energy efficiency of its data centers. Facebook has posted video tours of one of its data centers, touting its energy efficiency since as far back as 2011.

But Amazon, arguably the biggest player in cloud-hosting services, has a notably poor environmental record. Perhaps if the tech giant had a LEED certification to aspire to, it'd hasten its pace of change.

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