Monday, 20 July 2009

Is Technology Sustainable?

By Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

by robhawke on Flickr

This past week I have been hopelessly trying to catch up with the technological side of my life: my blog, my online calendar, my online research for work, my web and social media design for work...

I took two weekends off in the past month, and my technological world seems to have surpassed me!

How did that happen?!

This week, I've begun walking to work 2 miles each way, stopping by my community garden patch on the way home. It's wonderful - I feel my body rejuvenating. My brain has the time to relax, and I end up having incredibly productive ideas along my walk. My body feels alive and burning needed calories to get back down to the weight I'd like. My senses love the walk to the garden, love picking the weeds and feeling the dirt, and talking with my neighbors as I water.

But every time I go through a period of adjustment like this, where I simplify my life to make it more sustainable, I find I struggle with the other half of today's existence: technology.

I would imagine I am not alone in this struggle between technology and simplicity.

First, does living a simple life mean living without technology?

Are technology and simplicity mutually exclusive? That would mean that, by nature of being an online community builder - with One Green Generation and with my own business at Re-Vision Labs - I am never going to live simply. Or if I live simply, this would mean I cannot live a technologically-infused existence.

There are certainly ways in which technology has helped us live more simply. We learn from one another here - sharing recipes, ideas, and patterns. We find out where our local farms and markets are located (we could probably do that without being online, but it would take more time and likely wouldn't be as informative). So maybe it's ok to participate in online communities, if it gives us more knowledge and willpower to live more simply and sustainably. But where is the line? How do we find the balance?

Secondly, is technology sustainable - or can it become sustainable?

I do wonder at times if technology is personally sustainable. For instance, when I first began reading and writing online about sustainability, I soaked in more information that my mind could hold. I actively participated in forums, blogs, and anywhere I could. But as I learned and grew and began doing, I felt I needed less information online, and I felt I had less time to learn. Now I participate in forums, blogs, and other places far less - and I feel I miss some of that online community. But I don't know how to put more hours in my day!

Also, I often wonder if technology is environmentally sustainable. I believe very strongly in the power of community to change the world. Here in the blogosphere, we have the power to traverse amazing distances in order to learn and grow and create real, lasting change.

Of course participating online alone isn't enough - I firmly believe in the power and synergy created when online and offline communities work together. But the technology that drives the online communities is driven by non-renewable resources, and made with materials that when created contribute to global warming and environmental destruction. This struggle with personal and environmental non-renewable energy makes for a love-hate relationship with technology, doesn't it?

How do we make the technology in our lives more incorporated into our values of simplicity and sustainability?

Is there a way?

How do you find the time to participate in your online and offline communities?

I've asked more questions than I've answered here - but this is something I am struggling with today, so I would love to hear your thoughts!


risa said...

Well, dear, you know the second law of thermodynamics, right? We have have to put more energy into any system than we get back from it. To maintain a signal against background noise requires, for each of us, a draw upon finite resources -- and noise is, for our purposes, infinite.

Another way to put it is, death is inevitable.

So, no technology is not sustainable.

Or maybe you mean, "can we survive our dependence on it? Yes and no.

Given a particular technology we find oppressive, and a short time frame, say a year, we can come up with strategies to prevent it from disrupting our other other technological (which are many) or non-technological (I suspect few) activities, which is the yes.

But, ultimately, the only way to keep any technology from being a drain on ourselves or our environment, is to do without it. That's the no.

Fortunately, this can be a liberating no. How I stay on them thar internets as much as I do, what with working full time and homesteading in "spare time," is: 1) I don't get out much; almost no concerts, movies or parties, and I'm a stranger to bars and night spots and restaurants, and 2) I gave up television entirely.

YMMV! ;)

risa b

Annette said...

this is a question I struggle with as well. We've already been without TV for almost 2 years and have not missed it; however, if the computer were to go (our connection to the outside world), that will be difficult. I realize that it will be inevitable as costs rise and my income does not.
Until that time, I'll enjoy it while I can!

Pat aka Posh said...

I think a small amount of everything is a good thing but when it takes over most of your life then it becomes a no no for me.. I never watch TV through the day or in the evening but I wouldn't want to give up my peaceful moment of laying in bed watching very informative gardening, travel or construction shows.. I read a lot but never spend the whole day with a book in my face.. internet is usually only early morning while waiting for the rest of the family to wake up.. and in the evenings.
We just have to figure out how to balance everything without any excesses in any one of them.

Mickey said...

I agree with what Pat said. You must find a balance with technology and set boundaries. You have to say I will not use (insert technological device here) at these times, and then stick with the boundaries. I see too many people without boundaries on these devices and they wonder why they are feeling drained or can't find time for the things that really matter.

I do not own a cell phone and hope never to have to. My husband does and so do my children (all drivers over 17) I have lived 47 years without a cell, why start now.

Between balance and boundaries, I think technology can be useful and can add to our lives.

lizzie said...

There is no reason why technology should not sustainable - technology is what is going to save us. Read James Lovelock.
Simple living does not mean going back to a peasant economy. We are all sitting on the internet taking full advantage of any new technology that come our way,
indulging in flights from reality.
Annette you can still go to the library - you wont be barred forever from the internet.

Joanne said...

This is also something I struggle with/wonder about. We here are the blogging and web browsing sector of the simple living community but there must be many more people out there who have minimal to no direct connection to computer technology. Think many of the older generation- in my part of Australia there are still many older ones, both of European and Anglo origins who grow much of their own food, recycle and live simply because its what they've always done. There's no mystery, no art to it for them. Its their life.
When I first began to make a conscious effort to simplify things, I devoured everything I could read on the net, but as was mentioned here, you reach a point where you want to DO more and you need to read less. So now I skim posts in my blog reader, only clicking in if the first line catches my attention.
Its still a conflict of time and energy. But like some of the commenters here, I watch very little TV, some weeks none; I don't go out at night; I have a mobile phone but don't use it very much.
We also don't constantly update our technology, not replacing our computer until it pretty much stops working and by then the tech has advanced to the point where it is not compatible with newer systems. Then the old stuff goes to the computer recycler in town.

daharja said...

There's another issue to technology, and that's the speed at which it is surpassing itself.

A few years ago, instead of a paper diary, I was a PalmPilot user (read about my change over here). Then I switched to paper diaries, when I worked out that for about 10 years I'd been buying a new Pilot every couple of years or so, because they had such as short lifespan.

Calculating this into dollar terms, I was spending hundreds a year just on geek diaries! Since then, I have switched back to paper diaries and not looked back - I use a Filofax clone where you replace the sections as they get used up. And when I do the maths, it is MUCH cheaper and more sustainable. And just as effective.

This is just one example of unsustainable technology, but laptops and computers are similar. Most families I know replace their computers every 3-5 years, and when you work out the cost on the family budget, it's a significant percentage of the overall take-home pay per annum.

The speed of change is increasing, rather than settling down, it seems, and few of the technological toys we use are recycled or re-used in any way. I once read that a computer uses the same amount of resources as it takes to make a car. And I won't even get into the thorny issue of toxic waste dumping from computer and electronics factories.

All these items we now deem necessary - laptops, palm pilots and similar, mobile phones - none of them were even in existence a few decades ago, when I was a kid. And I'm not that old!

A huge part of sustainability is learning to reduce the amount of items we use, but although we try to cut back on our purchases, how many of us really do have no mobile, or computer (choosing to share or use publicly owned ones at libraries, for example, instead), or microwave, or Palm Pilot/electronic diary, or plasma TV, or DVD player...? The list goes on.

So much for frugality and sustainability!

Food for thought.

Dia said...

Yes, I also notice this dicotomy - have a TV only for the occ movies (no 'channels'), no microwave, gardem & have a CSA share, do go on-line, but less blogging myself now than 'in the beginning.' Play CDs at home occ & at work as background (do Massage - so very low tech job :) . . . & do have a cell p. for the last couple of years -

The other day I was listening to Public Radio, an interview with a fellow who's written a book on how our lives will change when petrol goes up to $6 - $20 . . . & the next day, astronots talking about the 'next' human ventures into space - their hopes for!! Can we really have both??? Sheesh!

I often bike to work, walk less often as I'm always carting laundry back & forth, but walk as much as possible on weekends - & feel connection with the 'real' world of nature so important to my well being - & stars!! Love being out of the 'city' so I can see a REAL night sky!

Threads of Light said...

I don't know about technology being sustainable, probably it isn't.

I love using the technology that is available to assist me in the lifestyle I have chosen. I'm trying to simplify where possible, taking one step at a time, and I find that some elements of technology can help with that process.

If they were all to disappear tomorrow, then I hope I'd be grounded enough to cope without much of a hiccup.

For me the main thing is that the tech stuff is not in control of me; I don't feel that it's essential in any way to my survival or well being.

My nearly teen son is still trying to convince me that game consoles and tv are parts of life that shouldn't be passed over, but I'm not convinced. Life with no consoles and no tv (other than a screen to watch movies of my choice) is so much better, I don't want to give it up!

Chris said...

On it's own technology isn't sustainable, but there are more processes involved than merely the end product.

While it takes a design blueprint to build a technical device, think of the human imaginations that dreampt it into being in the first place.

Imagination is what is sustainable and as long as we keep dreaming and thinking, we should never run out of ideas of how to live. It's the "living" part however, which often throws up the most challenges.

You can't live while constantly dreaming - you have to get food, clothe yourself, put a roof over your head and look after the family and/or animal companions. Without taking care of these aspects of life, why would we bother dreaming at all?

Much is the same for technology. You've got to take care of the essentials in life first, so that technology can compliment the process. If it takes away the "living" part then why bother with it?

Both technology and imagination feed off our real lives; they should never become them.

When I find I'm struggling, I put down the technology (and the imagination) and pick up life more. But I think it's an error to believe there will never be a struggle. One of the simple living myths is that life gets easier.

I believe once knowledge of simple living stratagies starts to take over, there will always be a struggle with the "real" world. Otherwise what's there to contrast "simple" living with?

Take heart that the process you're going through is propagating "meaning" to what you choose to do or not. I try to remember every day, to take the good with the bad. Because that's the sum total of life. :)

Karen said...

i myself struggle with this question quite often, as well. i've come to see the internet as an invaluable resource for helping me build the life i want to lead, the life of simplicity and frugality, but of overwhelming richness: of task, hobby, etc. i don't think, however, that we need cell phone upgrades every 2 months (those definitely take up precious natural resources!) and "powercars" (what i call those huge lincolns, escalades, etc... WHY?) and blackberries (isn't that a fruit? lol) ... what happened to pen and paper, really? you see where this is going. i guess we choose our battles here and incorporate the technologies we do choose into our lives in a (hopefully) responsible manner. hope this helps answer the question, thanks for the post that's so often bouncing around within the confines of my own brain!

Karen said...

edit to add i do not have cable, and haven't for years. i don't miss it.

Melinda said...

Setting boundaries does seem like an important solution many of us are finding. I have set that boundary some time ago, and find myself pushing and pulling the boundary line in coordination with my life at different times.

I haven't had tv service for a very, very long time. But like Pat aka Posh, I definitely value some veg-out time to watch dvds on occasion.

Risa, good point re 2nd law of thermodynamics... but I guess sometimes I take liberties with this law. I feel like if we put energy into technology, and technology gives ourselves greater energy to do more good for the world (and reduce our overall energy use), then that is a net positive gain. Am I kidding myself?

Lizzie, interesting perspective - I am a fan of Lovelock, though have not read his last book. It surprises me, though, that Lovelock would say technology is going to save us. I don't have a total doomsday outlook on the future, but I can't envision a way where technology will keep climate change from severely depleting our planet and its species.

Joanne, sounds like we have found a similar balance between doing and reading/writing...

Chris, beautifully said.

Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I found them EXTREMELY interesting!! Thank you!