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On Being Anxious About Digital Carbon Emissions

A version of this piece will be published in a Social Media & Society’s 2K section entitled “What’s the climate crisis got to do with communication?”

I was recently asked to discuss the ‘backstages’ of my research process. The prompt was a good one: there’s a lot of tangents, doubts, and tools that get hidden from the ‘frontstages’ of talks and publications—academics generally don’t like to show off their messes and mistakes. I, however, was increasingly keen to. I’ve lately begun to wonder about an emerging set of emotions and gestures that seem to be an inexorable part of working on the climate impacts of digital media. After all, we’re often stuck critiquing the very digital stages on which we are speaking, whether that’s Zoom, data centre archives, or the servers that host our words. It can make you feel like a cartoon character on a plank suspended over a cliff, sawing through the wood you’re standing on. The results can be both awkward and illuminating.

Let me start by painting a few scenes. In the first, I’m about to launch into a multi-day online workshop on information and communications technologies (ICT), art, and climate justice. The goal is to bring a group of technologists and media artists together to explore how the arts and tech sectors are currently imbricated—and might be reconfigured in future—as part of a wider decarbonization plan made for and by art workers. My job is to summarize and organize months of research from a winding set of empirical and interpretive fields. I have an extensive set of infographics and statistics to share, detailing the carbon footprint of everything from sending an email (as little as 4 grams (Richards, 2018)) to running the entire bitcoin network (up to 46.72 Mt/year—equivalent to the nation of Finland (Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, n.d.)). The ICT sector’s climate emissions are, I will soon urge, an urgent problem. Effectively addressing them will mean disrupting the aesthetic and operational norms of some of the largest corporations on earth.

But first: a self-reflexive gesture. In addition to the usual land acknowledgement (a ritual common to us in Canada that details the treaties and First Nations of the territories on which we are gathered) I also attempt to chart the digital and energy infrastructures involved in our transatlantic Zoom call. Here, I show, are the Equinix data centers, the power plants, uranium mines, and unanswered environmental harms that play a role in our meeting today. Let’s acknowledge them too. We are all meeting and living inside the frame of the problem.

I probably don’t do a terribly good job of the whole thing; I run a little long and overly didactic with an audience I’ve only just met. At the end, a participant jokes that, if Zoom isn’t as green as we thought, maybe we shouldn’t be meeting at all. I laugh and grimace at the same time. I can see how the joke defuses some of the tension I’ve built, even though it isn’t the conclusion any of us particularly want to come to.

A year prior, I’m running an online lecture series with a network of scholars I’ve invited to think with me about the climate impacts of our research methods. [1] Again, I get ahead of myself and the speakers. I suggest that, in light of the problem of sprawling data centers, there is a need for mitigating actions right here in our virtual room. These are partly social: I urge my participants to turn off their video when they aren’t talking, stressing that this will “reduce the carbon intensity of the endeavour.” Others are more personal and infrastructural: I will later take the video recording (stored locally, not on the cloud) and compress it to near oblivion in order to make it small enough to fit onto an SD card loaded in a raspberry pi powered by a solar panel in my backyard. This low-tech, low-energy server is itself an experiment (perhaps also a provocation?) in climate-conscious digital research infrastructure (Brain et al., 2022). There are insights to be had, I hope, by trying to operate within its stubborn constraints: no YouTube, no institutional repository, no placeless cornucopia of computing (Abbing, 2021). Instead, I have just 64 GB of space and a highly variable and weather-dependent amount of uptime. Even so, the boundaries of this setup aren’t totally clear to me yet, so I insist on the most visually limited and data-austere approach. I compress the video a second time. The blaringly large pixels, I hope, will signify.

I am in these moments, I know, being a little weird—maybe also a little extra. I am trying to achieve both pragmatic and constitutive ends: to reduce, in some small way, the carbon footprint of our online gatherings, and also to frame this question as a problem worthy of individual experiment and collective concern. I might also simply be annoying. Some colleagues have asked me for my slides and scripts around these moments of digital acknowledgement so that they can mirror—or at least further contemplate—these communicative moves. Others, no doubt, happily shuffle on to the next Zoom talk where the social rituals of speaking and listening online are simpler.

Weird though I am, I am not alone. There is a growing number of us compelled towards these experiments with and critiques of our means of digital communication. I know of colleagues slipping notes into their syllabi detailing the human and climate costs of cloud streaming (Hilderbrand, 2020). Others have launched climate-conscious digital film festivals (Marks & Przedpełski, 2021), Mastodon instances (Laser et al., 2022), and websites (De Decker, 2019; Landa, 2021), all with demonstrably different material and aesthetic modes of sensing and shifting our data-energy relations. Together we seem to be caught up in something quite similar to what Hannah Knox (2020) observes in her study of climate scientists and civic activists: climate is not an external and static problem here, but rather one in which our thoughts, gestures, and methods are thoroughly entangled (and signifying!) within the fields we’re trying to study. The results can be a little noisy and self-referential. The backstage and frontstage distinction gets burry.

This impulse to do something, even just to place ourselves inside the physical movements of the problems we study, seems a logical extension of the material turn wending its way through the theoretical tools of our many allied fields. More and more colleagues are thinking through the economic and environmental impacts of communication by way of the watersheds, coal ash, and dissipating heat imbricated in the data centres that power the Internet and its many clouds (Hogan, 2015; Pasek, 2019; Velkova, 2016). This requires an orientation towards the infrastructural—stuff that you can kick, as Lisa Parks (2014) aptly summarizes. It can also make for rather depressing reading, with far more problems than solutions mustering across our warming world. It makes sense that, after stewing in it long enough, you might want to actually kick something.

This points to the unignorably emotional aspect of doing this work: we all seem to carry a fair bit of anxiety with us (or at least, I certainly do). This is common enough to climate work in general. The vast asymmetries between the scales of action we need to prevent future immiserations and the state of these efforts in the present can be a little maddening. The seeming apathy of others, and the inertia of our social arrangements, are a further source of agitation (Ray, 2020). The meteoric rise of video conferencing over the past three years, combined with the sundry stresses and loneliness of the pandemic, surely deepened this angst just as it raised the stakes of the problem.

I wonder if the ethos of acknowledgement that runs across so many of these digital decarbonization gestures is also, at least to some degree, a bid for social recognition. Could our communication be phatic in some small way? Are we looking for others to affirm that they too are anxious? I’d be lying if I said this dynamic wasn’t at play in some of my many experiments.

My feelings about these practices have grown more complicated over time. Certainly, less justified bids for attention have been made in the strange social milieu of academia. Even so, I fear that there are potential hazards at play. Beyond merely annoying my audience, I might also mislead them.

This is at once an empirical question. If I only kick at the closest parts of our entwined digital and climate systems, I won’t present a very accurate depiction of their total shapes. Quantitative research on the environmental impacts of ICT is less certain than some communications researchers often presume and it isn’t terribly well captured by attempts to measure discrete, individual actions (Pasek et al., 2023). My injunction to my Zoom audience to turn off their cameras, for instance, ignores the fact that the carbon intensity of digital streaming doesn’t neatly scale with the amount of data passing through network infrastructures. Transmission equipment, data centres, ISP operations, and home routers are more or less always on, drawing the same amount of electricity regardless of consumer use (Ericsson IndustryLab, 2020). Our gesture, ultimately, didn’t achieve that much. I was incorrect to presume (and instruct!) that it did.

A further risk lies in how these statements configure the terms of apprehensible political work. Here the trap is to assume that individual consumer behaviours are the best, or only, starting place for environmental politics. It’s a tale as old as (white) environmentalism, and it’s an enduring barrier to building the coalitions and emotional resilience we need to take on both big oil and big tech. The on-the-ground fights against data infrastructures and their energy demands (Bresnihan & Brodie, 2020) are much more exciting than my exhortation to store fewer files in the cloud.

That said, I am not abandoning my material and social experiments in low-carbon digital communications, nor do I want to conclude that the sum of such efforts has been negative. Instead, I’ve come to see the value of these practices in the emotional and epistemic dividends they offer, beyond a narrow accounting of avoided emissions. Building experimental infrastructure has been good for me: it’s forced a rapid education in the mechanics of Linux command line, html coding, and server configurations, bringing me closer to the material and mechanical stuff of computation. These lessons lend pragmatic optimism to my questions about how digital networks could be otherwise configured (see also Lison, 2022). At times I find myself wondering if this could be an infrastructural equivalent to the civic upskilling effects others are finding in volunteer social media moderation (Zuckerman, 2022). Perhaps these are classrooms for many future, undetermined ends. At other moments, I’m content to simply have small rituals of care I can offer up to a burning world: brushing snow off a solar panel, updating my DNS information after a prolonged period offline, or dithering another image. [2] To quote a fellow traveler in the world of solar-powered websites, “The practical elements give me more joy than when merely focusing on theory” (Landa, 2021). Joy, I believe, is worth building into our research methods.

But what should we ultimately do about the climate impacts of digital media? My answer to my workshop participants last fall, and to you now, is that there are many directions to explore: none definitive, yet some with more potential than others. I’ve personally found clarity in Mél Hogan’s concept of the ‘data center industrial complex,’ which argues that the drivers of ICT expansion reify assumptions about the need for growth more than discrete consumer behaviours in and of themselves (Hogan, 2021, p. 284). This helps me to ask new questions: What can we do to prevent the next data center from being built? How might degrowth provide a hermeneutic for digital communication systems built around equity, rather than green austerity (Abbing, 2021)? The move from anxious acknowledgment to material practice is a sustaining one.


  • 1. You can find us at http://lowcarbonmethods.com/, at least when our server is up.
  • 2. Dithering is a digital equivalent to halftone printing; it uses compression algorithms to achieve an illusion of depth with limited colour information. The result is (charmingly) speckled and grainy. Many solar/low-powered websites use it as a means to reduce page sizes.