Greening Through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability – By Bill Tomlinson
Article first published online: 9 NOV 2011
© 2011 by The Policy Studies Organization
Review of Policy Research
Volume 28, Issue 6, pages 638–640, November 2011
How to Cite
Cleland, R. (2011), Greening Through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability – By Bill Tomlinson. Review of Policy Research, 28: 638–640. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-1338.2011.00530_2.x
- Issue published online: 9 NOV 2011
- Article first published online: 9 NOV 2011
Greening Through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability . Cambridge, MA : MIT Press . 210 pages. ISBN 978026201393 , $24.95 hardback . . 2010 .
Commercial sardine fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala had a market problem. Every day, between 5 and 8 percent of their catch went unsold and wasted. In the late 1990s, however, fishermen in the region started using their cell phones to connect with buyers and coordinate sales. As a result of this increased efficiency in the local information market, profits for fishermen increased, prices for consumers decreased, and less of the daily catch ended up thrown away. This seems like clear evidence of a role for information technology (IT) in the march toward environmental sustainability and a worthy example for author Bill Tomlinson to begin his optimistic book on the subject, Greening Through IT.
The book begins with an overview of current research regarding the state of the environment. It provides a thorough compilation of available data on the current and predicted levels of human population, waste, resource and energy consumption, as well as their possible impact on the global ecosystem. For a more extensive treatment of these concerns, Tomlinson directs readers to the Intergovernmetal Panel on Climate Change assessment in their Climate Change 2007: Synthesis report.
To address the significant human contributions to the challenges of environmental sustainability, Tomlinson argues that people should embrace green IT, IT that reduces system waste and accrues positive momentum toward a sustainable future. With the aid of more comprehensive information systems and the collaborative communities they engender, societies will be able to identify potential waste and empower citizens to achieve sustainable environmental solutions. Solutions that, heretofore, people have failed to seek out because the compounding threats to the global ecosystem have been obscured by a disparity in the relevant scales of time. Human beings, with relatively short time horizons, have difficulty perceiving effects that transpire across the much vaster time horizons at the global scale. Tomlinson's argument is at its most innovative when it presents ways that IT can translate information between these two time perspectives.
The argument suffers, however, from an optimistic enthusiasm for human nature. The discussion is laden with good examples and case studies that demonstrate how IT could make a difference by giving people the level of information access needed to accurately assess and responsibly manage their ecological footprints; missing from the case is why, this time around, it would. Why will smart meters and word clouds inspire sustainability when older information systems such as the printing press and telephone before them did not? The presented answer seems to be that the volume of new information along with the acclimation of the modern user to the new information environment will, for the first time, allow people to see the rational choice for sustainability. This would be more convincing if the author had included a substantive assessment of the behavioral psychology behind choice adoption, in particular dealing with concepts such as bounded rationality and information processing with regard to environmental decision making.
Balanced against the potentially transformative powers of green IT, Tomlinson presents a thorough accounting of the direct environmental costs associated with it. Currently, the CO2 emissions from power-hungry information and communication technologies represent approximately 2 to 2.5 percent of global emissions (p. 71). They create considerable amounts of hazardous waste and deplete scarce and nonrenewable resources in ways that often disproportionately affect the health and political stability of less technologically developed regions. To address these issues, the author presents a valuable framework for “greening” IT with a focus on sustainable design and a paradigmatic shift in the conception of productivity from a labor to a resource focus.
Unfortunately, the author does not provide an equally satisfying insight into the landscape of the indirect costs to sustainable societies from IT. Tomlinson adopts the metaphor of IT as tool. As such, he acknowledges the carpenter's role in choosing a hammer, but he largely ignores the important role, in this case, that the hammer plays in shaping the carpenter. Does “one-click” shopping and microtargeting on the Web incite more conspicuous consumption than telepresence and online sharing mitigate? The example of the Keralan fishermen may point to good prospects for green IT, but the traditional understanding of market economics suggests that as prices decrease, demand increases, taking production, and populations of sardines, along with it.
In the end, it is hardly surprising to argue that the benefit to society from IT is information, neither is the idea that a global information network has an essential part in the achievement of environmentally sustainable societies. If humanity is on a path to further environmental degradation and global climate change, however, can responsible policy makers afford a wait-and-see, hopeful attitude with regard to the popular adoption of green IT? A more provocative question may be if humans fail to use IT to transition human society to a sustainable future of their own volition, what role can green IT play in taking them there without their volition?