Platform capitalism and the Environment

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Climate change is the greatest market failure in the history of capitalism. What happens when the “platforms” enter the scene? It is a catastrophe, to say the least. Sohana Nasrin writes about planform capitalism and its impact on the environment and what might be the solution to fight the predicament.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Spring 2019 when I took a trip to Ashburn, Virginia to visit one of the server firms. Ashburn is home to many server farms like the one that I was going to visit, making it a lucrative and popular area for people who are in the IT sector. In fact, the architecture in the townships in Ashburn kind of mimics the design of server farms with their futuristic and almost post-modern look. As I was sitting in the car fighting the Northern Virginia traffic, I jogged my memory on some of the readings that I did earlier to understand the physicality of the internet. It is not all in the cloud, there are concrete and touchable things, vast and strong infrastructure that host the servers where we send and store our data. Walking through narrow alleys and seeing the high-capacity machines stacked upon one another, I could only imagine how much energy just that one server farm needed to keep all the machines running.

Not only that, but these servers also need intense cooling which also require a large amount of energy leaving a sizable carbon footprint in our environment. Bottom line- you are leaving a carbon footprint by sending and receiving messages to a friend online, or by shopping or ordering groceries online. Now imagine how much the big technological giants and platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Uber and the like contribute to the rising carbon footprint since they are the warehouse of data for billions of people worldwide. The number might boggle your mind!

A nebulous series of entities named “platforms” are increasingly shaping our world, be that in the global North or South. While there is much debate on just what a platform is and who gets to claim the privilege of being a platform, when it comes to the environment, all platforms and platform like entities are wreaking havoc. Essentially, the platforms share a predominant and relatively new type of business model where user data is the central asset. It is the data that gives each platform its advantage over its competitors. The centrality of data is also indicative of a wider shift in capitalism that is commonly known as platform capitalism. Just as capitalism has aggregated climate change and now fails to solve it, the platform capitalism also has nefarious consequences that are responsible for much environmental degradation and climate change.

Those among us who are optimistic and try to see the brighter sides of things might want to argue that it is much more environmentally friendly to catch up with your friends over a Zoom call or WhatsApp rather than driving, or even flying, to keep one’s carbon footprint in check. Yes, maybe so, but at the end of the day, it is not that much better. Whether you are on Facebook liking posts or streaming a movie on the internet, or just simply ordering from your favorite restaurant through a delivery service, you are producing a tremendous amount of data that needs to be stored somewhere. Thanks to the “internet of everything” and its innovations that now we have high-definition videos and looking at self-driving cars in the near future. These services sure provide us with a lot of gratifications but with the cost of creating almost irreversible effects on the environment.

A report published on the Independent reported that the server farms consume three percent of global electricity in 2016 and produced two percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, pairing the IT industry with the airline industry as both industries had the same carbon footprint. Even though there is lack of clarity as to how a complex supply chain works in the platform business, a Forbes report published in 2017 estimated that an average website with 10,000 page views per month could be responsible for emitting up to 4,700 of CO2 which is equivalent to driving a car for 5,000 miles. Experts have said that the data servers that are hosting billions of gigabytes of information produced through the platform economy will consume treble the amount of energy in the next decade, as the amount of energy used by data centers are doubling every four years.

There are two groups of people who imagine the solution of climate change very differently. The group that believes in innovation – offsetting the carbon footprint by innovating technologies and products. The other group, who are often into the low hanging fruits, believes largely in lifestyle change and policy changes from the government side. The severity of the problem of climate change does not give us the privilege to choose one of these options over others. Simply put, we need to all come together and act as aggressively as we can to stop and repair ongoing damages.

One way to curb the carbon footprints of the platforms is to use only renewable energy- an initiative that many companies have embraced but it has a much further way to go. And pardon me for sounding pessimistic, but I am not sure the growth of renewable energy can keep up with the exponential growth of internet traffic, especially much of our life’s activities have transferred into some kind of virtual activities due to the ongoing pandemic. For the platforms, they can do a huge service to humanity if they dedicate their resources in hiring experts who can lead an environmental initiative in the company. Environmental accountability is important in this regard as the problem of climate change is directly tied to our existence. As for us consumers and volunteer workers of these platforms, we need to be more responsible about what we use the internet for and for how long. We need to be aware of planned obsolescence and not fall for those new iPhones models every year because the old ones are not going away anywhere. They are becoming e-waste and are being transported to developing countries burdening them with a huge environmental hazard. Finally, the government and law makers of the world need to come together to regulate and recommend usage of IT products and services, if they truly want to save the world from environmental catastrophes.

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