Can the Internet Help Slow Global Environmental Decline?
First Monday

Can the Internet Help Slow Global Environmental Decline? by Gregory C. Unruh

This article addresses three fundamental ways in which the Internet could help in the move towards a more environmentally sustainable world. The Internet can improve our capability to understand the science of environmental degradation and communicate that knowledge to public and private decision makers. It can also improve environmental policy by increasing international equity and participation in the policy development processes. Finally, it can help decrease resource waste and associated pollution by improving the efficiency economic activity. The exploitation of these fundamental opportunities is not predestined however, and will require an ongoing elaboration of the Internet's role in global environmental sustainability.


Networking Science & Policy
Overcoming the Tragedy of the Commons
Lowering the Environmental Impact of Economic Activity




Venture capitalist John Doerr, from the Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Buyers, is famous for calling the 1990s information technology boom "greatest legal creation of wealth in human history." One is therefore tempted to call the subsequent dot-com bust the "greatest destruction of wealth in human history." However such an assertion would be a mistake. The greatest destruction of wealth in human history has been occurring without cessation for well over two centuries, the cause of which is the ongoing exploitation and degradation of our global environment. While high-technology entrepreneurs were busy building the physical and intellectual capital needed to sustain the growth of the Internet, low-technology entrepreneurs in the rest of the world were rapidly destroying the "natural capital" (our forests, rivers, atmosphere) needed to sustain human kind.

In many ways, the recent Internet-driven economic expansion, and associated euphoria, drew attention away from some of the most urgent environmental problems faced by industrial society. During the boom, citizens in wealthy nations largely ignored signals that many global ecosystems were being pushed beyond their capacity to regenerate themselves. Our natural predilection to focus on the human-built world of cities, and the new virtual world of cyberspace, directed our attention away from the decline the natural world upon which both the human and virtual worlds, and ultimately our individual survival, depends. The ongoing destruction of nature's capital has been cataloged by many organizations (Alexandratos, 1995; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 1997; United Nations Population Division, 1996; World Resources Institute, 2000), but below are some facts that indicate how far we are pushing nature's limits:

  • There are numerous signals that global climate change, induced by the burning of fossil fuels and the release of other greenhouse gases, is well underway. The 11 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980 and the most recent decade was the hottest of the millennium. Estimates indicate that the planet is heating at a rate faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years. If this trend continues, the Earth's temperature could rise six degrees above the 1990 level by 2100. Such an increase could lead to rising sea levels, water shortages, declining food production, and the spread of malaria, dengue fever and other diseases.
  • Population growth is overcoming both the capacity of nature and governments to provide basic needs and security for citizens. Presently 1.2 billion people lack basic necessities like clean water and healthy air. While trying to provide food and shelter for their families, the world's poor destroy forests and fragile ecosystems, such as coral reefs, at a rapid rate. Population pressure has led to settlements on unstable hillsides and flood-prone valleys creating the conditions for natural disasters such as the 1998 Hurricane Mitch, which killed 120,000 people and displaced millions more.
  • Unique ecosystems are being lost at a rapid rate. Over the past 30 years, the world has lost fully a fifth of all biodiverse tropical rainforests. We have also lost 27 percent of the oceanic equivalent of tropical rain forests, the world's coral reefs. The FAO estimates that since the beginning of this century, about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost and that 60 percent of the world's fish stocks are "in urgent need of management."

The list could go on, but the point is clear. The greatest creation of financial wealth in human history, driven by the diffusion and application of information technologies, has been paralleled by the greatest destruction of natural wealth in history. While the destruction of financial capital during the dot-com crash was distressing for investors, it was mostly a destruction of unfounded expectations about the future profitably of dot-com business models. In the words of U.S Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, the destruction of stock market valuations was a return to rational expectations from a time of "irrational exuberance." Destroying stocks of natural capital, on the other hand, is a far more serious problem with lasting consequences. While expectations can be reversed, environmental degradation like extinction and global climate change cannot. Preventing this irreversible damage is a major task for society.

Most of our environmental problems have presented themselves as unexpected consequences arising from the growth of industrial society. Mass production and marketing have required the extraction of enormous quantities of natural resources. Industrial techniques like mechanized agriculture have led to the replacement of large ecosystems with monoculture and industrial food production. The ubiquitous use of fossil fuel energy, which drives industrial society, has created numerous kinds of pollution. So far attempts to deal with industrial society's environmental problems have relied on the use of industrial-age technological fixes. Successes, however, have been few and slow in coming and have led some to question whether environmental problems can be solved with the same methods that created them. As an alternative, some analysts have begun to look toward "new economy" technologies and approaches as a source of opportunities to improve environmental conditions. Thus the question arises, "Can the Internet play a role in slowing, or even reversing environmental degradation?"

It has been claimed that information technologies have the capacity to recreate commerce and society (Tofler, 1980; Negroponte, 1995; Castells, 1996) and there is some evidence that there are indeed widespread impacts from IT diffusion (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999; Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 1999). The reason for this broad impact arises from the fact that the Internet is a general purpose technology (Bresnahan and Trajtenberg, 1995) whose greatest virtue is in its ability to collect, process and distribute information in ways that are valuable in a wide variety of economic sectors. The Internet, like all new technologies, creates a set of potential futures. Which of the potentialities emerges depends upon how the technologies are applied to society's challenges.

The possibility of a move to an alternative economic model that allows growth without environmental damage has been debated for decades. The highest expression of that goal emerged in the 1980s with the concept of sustainable development, which describes a new type of economic growth that balances human society's need for economic prosperity with the additional requirements of social equity and ecosystem health. The 1987 World Commission on the Environment and Development defined sustainable development as "development that provides for the needs of present generations without jeopardizing the needs of future generations" (World Commission on the Environment and Development, 1987). While an apparently simple statement, turning the idea into a set of operational guidelines that are useful for decision makers has proven extremely difficult. Despite the debate, however, there is a general consensus that moving towards sustainability requires society to find a new balance in three different areas. These areas, known as the three Es of sustainability, are the economy, the environment and international and intergenerational equity.

Experience has shown that poverty is no pathway to a better environment, thus economic well-being is an important foundation of sustainable development. However, unrestrained growth based on extensive exploitation of natural resources and damage to planetary ecosystems is neither a pathway to lasting development. Sustainability therefore seeks a middle pathway where preserving the Earth's ecological heritage contributes to long run economic progress. Furthermore, because we all rely on the same biosphere, the rich in industrialized countries cannot escape the impacts of poverty in remote parts of the world. For prosperity to last for future generations, a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits of development is required. Unfortunately, present evidence indicates that we are a long way from balancing sustainability's three Es. Besides the already discussed environmental degradation, we are also far from an equitable distribution of benefits. Currently the wealthiest 20% of the planet consume 80% of global resources. Can the Internet help re-balance the pattern of global economic development?

The following sections explore these questions and point to the potential contributions of information technology in each of sustainability's three Es. Environmentally the Internet can, and indeed is already, being used as a research and management tool that can help human kind identify when we are near or have passed nature's limits. As an information technology, the Internet can help advance a wider and deeper understanding of how ecosystems function and the implications of their modification by humans. In terms of Equity, the Internet can help overcome the unequal distribution of political influence in global economic systems that in the past have fostered over-exploitation and inequitable division of environment benefits. As a communications technology, the Internet provides opportunities for the disenfranchised to participate in the political debates about economic, social and environmental issues. And for the Economy, the Internet holds the potential for increasing the efficient use of resources, like energy, water and forests. As a network technology, the Internet opens multiple avenues to improve the efficiency of commercial systems and the elimination of waste. The following sections discuss these opportunities in greater detail.



Networking Science & Policy

Nature can't speak for herself and thus cannot tell us when we have passed the limit of natural systems to regenerate themselves. However, our natural environment is produced by combined interactions among geological, hydrological, biological and human social systems and is therefore one of the most complex systems we have to analyze. Understanding the fate of pollution entering the environment or the global impact of destroying a forest ecosystem is highly complicated, yet without this understanding we have little basis for advancing environmental protection. The unfortunate outcome of this situation has been the historic tendency to allow environmental problems reach a crisis point before taking action. History provides many examples. The famous science writer Rachel Carson documented the threat to ecosystems from the pesticide DDT, which accumulates in ecological food chains, in her 1962 book Silent Spring. However governmental consensus to eliminate DDT in the United States only emerged after the chemical decimated populations of the national symbol, the Bald Eagle. Likewise, significant actions to reduce acid rain emerged only after Waldsturben, a German word meaning "forest death", manifest itself in Northern Europe and North America (Sand, 1987; Nilsson and Duinker, 1987). And only after the 1989 discovery of the Antarctic "ozone hole" did the complete phase out of chlorofluorocarbons begin (Doniger, 1988; Benedick, 1991).

The cause for delay is due largely to the complexity of developing scientific consensus about a given problem and then turning it into social consensus for policy action. It is in fostering scientific understanding and social consensus where the Internet has been playing a major role, and will increasingly do so. The typical policy development process is very information intensive. Scientific data must be collected, processed, analyzed, and communicated to policy makers. The policy formation process then requires communication among diverse groups that have a stake in the policy outcome. Once policies are developed, their implementation requires substantial communication and monitoring for compliance. Because the Internet and related information technologies allow us to capture, process and transmit information with far more ease and efficiency than in the past, they can play a role at each point of this process, improving both the quantity and quality of scientific understanding about pressing environmental problems. It is this scientific understanding, diffused widely among members of society, which informs and drives environmental policymaking.

Historically we have had only a foggy picture of how human infrastructures, like sewage systems, power plants and highways interact with the natural environment. Collecting information about human systems and their interactions with the natural environment has historically been a costly endeavor. The Internet, however, makes data collection and transmission much less expensive and can help policy makers get an accurate picture of environmental conditions and the impacts of human activity. The quantity and quality of environmental information can been increased through the use of technologies like networked sensors linked to management tools like online geographic information systems (GIS). GIS integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with geographic data and maps, allowing the exploration of options and the development of management strategies. Networked systems increase the potential to monitor environmental conditions in ways that have been previously impossible.

Collecting more data is only valuable if it doesn't overwhelm the user's capacity for analysis. The Internet, however, has proved valuable in allowing multiple researchers to access and process data simultaneously thus multiplying the analysis capability. The Human Genome Project (National Center for Biotechnology Information) demonstrated this capacity through immediate online publication, making the code results available to all scientists over the Internet (Bentley, 1996). Environmental research efforts, like the Carbon Dioxide Meta-Analysis Project (CO2MAP), have also utilized this capacity to maximize the knowledge extracted from data through the use of data mining techniques to perform meta-analyses of previously published studies. In cases where supercomputer power is needed but unavailable to researchers, as is often the case in complex climate simulations, the approach of SETI@home (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is being applied. SETI researchers have used the Internet to access idle desktop computing power to perform complicated data processing. Thus the Internet provides numerous avenues for collecting, distributing and analyzing environmental information, making it available to greater numbers of researchers, reducing redundancy and increasing our capacity to understand the complex global ecosystem.

Making scientific discoveries, however, is only the first step. Communicating scientific understanding in ways that are useful to governmental and business decision makers is a second area where the Internet can contribute. Arcane scientific jargon is frequently difficult for non-specialists and policymakers to comprehend, but the Internet's unique communications capabilities, like hypertext and multimedia, can greatly aid in explaining environmental problems to non-scientists. The graphical capabilities of the Internet can help policymakers and others to "see" and understand the sources of environmental degradation [1]. Images, such as the "ozone hole" (see, for example, The Ozone Hole Tour at the University of Cambridge) or the impacts on agriculture of a doubling of global temperature, are becoming increasingly available on the Web. These digital efforts make environmental problems much more intelligible to lawmakers and diplomats, thus providing both incentive and scientific basis for policy development.

Once policies have been put in place to limit environmental degradation, the challenge becomes one of ensuring compliance and enforcement of the rules. The Internet can be a powerful tool in disseminating, monitoring and enforcing international environmental agreements and national environmental laws. Policies can be publicized and administered through Internet-based approaches like government portals. Enforcing environmental regulations has always strained the capacity of regulatory agencies, but by making the regulations available on the Internet, as well as violations, agencies have found their corps of enforcement agents expanded though the collaboration of environmental and community interest groups. The Internet can greatly increase the transparency and participation in both setting and enforcing environmental protection agreements.

A glimpse of just how useful the Internet may be in setting and reaching environmental quality goals can be seen in some emerging Internet-enabled networks that focus on the sustainable development of regional ecosystems. For example, the Great Lakes region is a diverse bi-national set of interrelated ecosystems that, in 1991, began to look at the possibility of using Internet-based systems to develop an ecosystem approach to the management of the region's natural, cultural and economic resources. The system has grown by linking data, information and management professionals from numerous businesses, agencies and jurisdictions in the area. The network, known as the Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN), has become a reliable source of information for those who live and work on the Great Lakes, and a key element in regional decision-making.



Overcoming the Tragedy of the Commons

In his 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons" Garret Hardin formulated what has become the most basic understanding of why environmental problems arise (Hardin, 1968). The root problem is that the environment is a common resource that is open for people to freely exploit and this very openness, combined with human nature, ultimately leads to ruin. The classic example is village commons (a grassy pasture in the center of the village) where farmers are free to graze their animals. Each farmer views the use of the commons as free and thus has the incentive to make his herd as big as possible. However, as all other farmers make the same calculation, the commons is soon overgrazed to the point where it can no longer support anyone's herd. Hardin's thesis has been used to explain the decline of many global commons such as fisheries, the atmosphere and common water resources. As many Internet users have discovered, the tragedy of the commons can also play out as an network phenomenon when there is free, unlimited access.

Overcoming the tragedy of the commons generally requires all users to gain a common understanding that all will benefit if individual action is restrained. In the case of the environment, this is a classic collective action problem where resolution requires large numbers of dispersed, dissociated individuals to take coordinated actions. The problem is especially acute in regards to global ecosystems because the environmental damages are spread among all members of the planet, while costs of reversing the damage are concentrated among a smaller group of polluting industries or countries. The groups currently responsible for the problems are in the advantageous position of being smaller in number and able to coordinate their substantial resources to resist any change that threatens their interests. On the other hand, the diverse groups of global beneficiaries of environmental protection policies have much greater difficulty in coordinating their responses. This creates a highly inequitable situation that is a driver of ongoing environmental destruction.

Righting this imbalance requires greater international environmental equity. Equity, in the case of global ecosystems, is a fair and just distribution of the benefits, burdens, and decision-making authority associated with improving international environmental quality (Harris, 2001). Unfortunately, most countries have been reluctant to take action on addressing equity issues. In the last decade, however, the Internet has turned out to be a quite powerful equalizer in the collective action challenge (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1997; Harasim, 1993), giving the previously disenfranchised a new say in international environmental issues.

The November 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Seattle provide a striking example of how the Internet is bringing greater equity to international policy debates (Financial Times, 1998). While the media images of the protest focused on a groups of anarchists smashing Starbucks Coffee shops, the reality of the event is much more complicated. It is clear, however, that the Internet played a key role in bringing together a hugely diverse group of over 700 different organizations into a coordinated protest of over 40,000 participants. It appears that organizing began at least 11 months prior to the meeting through a series of e-mail alerts from numerous international groups like Public Citizens' Global Trade Watch and Rainforest Action. By the fall there were dozens of listservs and e-mail discussion groups distributing fliers, seeking volunteers and even helping participants find lodging.

The individual groups that made up the protestors, which ranged from the Third World Network to the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, would have little influence in the decision making of international organizations like the WTO on their own. Yet by using the Internet to overcoming the collective action challenges they have had repeated successes in initiating dialogues over international agreements they feel will hurt environmental or cultural interests (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). Less dramatic than the Seattle protests, but possibly more significant, have been the dialogues forced with the World Bank and WTO over the environment and indigenous peoples, the OECD over the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (Kobrin, 1998; Drohan, 1998), the inclusion of environmental side agreements in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the impact of IMF structural adjustment policies on local communities (Walton and Seddon, 1994). These international organizations, accustomed to making decisions in seclusion, are now being forced to increase transparency and the participation of civil society in decision-making.

Opening historically closed international governmental organizations to a larger debate about how the global environmental commons should be managed is only one example how the Internet can help increase equitable participation. It is still too early to tell if this will improve the environmental conditions and overcome the tragedy of the commons. It is also unclear if governments and newly empowered civil society organizations can learn to work together to advance legitimate economic development goals while balancing environmental and equity issues. What is clear, though, that the Internet will play an ongoing role in reaching any new balance.



Lowering the Environmental Impact of Economic Activity

An article entitled "The Internet Begins With Coal" (Mills, 1999) claimed that the Internet was a major user of electricity and would dramatically increase demand by the end of the decade. Because most electricity is currently generated by coal-fired power plants, the paper reasoned, an equivalent increase in coal consumption should be expected. If true, the environmental implications of such an assertion are alarming and should be of interest to those in the Internet community. Coal is the most polluting fuel in our energy mix contributing, among other things, to smog, acid rain and global warming. If the Internet energy use did indeed develop along the lines of this article, the environmental impact would be important.

With the rapid adoption of personal computers, fax machines, Internet servers, routers, and other electronic devices, the thesis that the Internet will increase energy use seems intuitive. Despite this observation, however, numerous researchers including the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories (Laitner, 2000; Koomey et al., 2000) find indications that the Internet is causing structural changes that are actually decreasing the energy and material intensity of economic activity. For example, while the U.S. economy grew by eight percent during period 1996 to 1998, energy use grew by only one percent (U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 1999; Geller and Thorne, 1999). The assumed source of this decoupling of economic growth and energy use is the rapid increase in the use of Internet-based information technologies in business and economic activity (Romm, 1999). Another study has tried to break down the gains and finds one-third to one-half of the improvement is due to the increase in Internet facilitated "new economy" business practices (Laitner et al., 2000) while the rest appears to be Internet-induced efficiency gains in the "old economy" (Mitchell-Jackson, 2001).

While these initial data are encouraging, by taking a closer look at the full life cycle of a product or business process we can begin to see that the Internet opens up numerous opportunities for environmental gains. A new product generally begins with design and market identification. The Internet's capacity for two-way communication among sellers and buyers is already providing manufacturers with better information about customer preferences and needs. Better information about what customers want means better customization in meeting their needs, ensuring greater efficiency and satisfaction. Increasingly customers are also expressing their environmental preferences to manufacturers, such as a desire for energy and materials efficiency and recyclability. As these preferences are incorporated to products environmental impact will decline.

Additional gains are also being seen in the retail phase of the product cycle. Comparing an e-tailer like with a retail bookseller shows far less energy use per book sold, in fact a 16 to 1 difference. Furthermore, an OECD study indicates that generalized use of Internet retailing could eliminate the need for 12.5% of retail building space, saving the energy and materials needed to build, operate and maintain buildings (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 1999). And product delivery from e-tailers, contrary to common opinion, may use 40 to 90% less fuel than if customers drive their cars to the mall (Romm, 1999). UPS expects to improve on these numbers by using the Internet to fill what would be otherwise empty trucks as they make the return trip from a delivery. Added benefits from these efforts are reduced traffic congestion, air pollution and fuel use. Even larger gains can be had with products that can be digitized and delivered entirely online, like software, music, entertainment, and some consulting services (Wired, 1999). Along this line Egghead Software has closed all physical stores and moved to a completely online business model (Libert and Ribaudo, 1996).

Outside of digitizable products and services, some of the biggest savings come from the middle of the product life cycle through improved supply chain management. By using the Internet to integrate customers, manufactures and suppliers, wasteful over production and spoilage can be largely eliminated (Siekman, 1999). Consulting company Ernst & Young estimates that Internet applications could reduce inventories by 25 to 35%, while IBM estimates the savings could be as high as 50% (Romm, 1999). At the extreme, Dell Computer has eliminated inventory almost completely by only building computers when it receives an order through its Web site (Jupiter Communications, 1999). Should these approaches be generalized, and energy savings spread across several business sectors, the Internet could prove an important innovation for reducing environmental degradation.

For many products the greatest environmental damage comes not from industrial manufacture or retailing, but from the customer's actual use of the product. Gains at this phase of the product cycle can come from using information technology to get the right product service, in the right quality and quantity, to the right place at the right time. For example, instead of flooding an entire workspace with heat, networks allow the heat to be directed where it is needed (where people are) in real time (when they are actually in a room). In the consumer products area, Electrolux is experimenting with intelligent washing machines connected from individual homes via the Internet to the company's server. By processing information on energy and water availability, washer technical performance and other parameters the company can maximize the efficiency of use, getting the cleanest clothes with minimum waste.

Examples of the Internet's capabilities to reduce environmental impacts can also be found outside manufacturing. Agriculture, for example, is a major source of water pollution, much of which comes from the over use of fertilizers and pesticides. The Internet has served as an important innovation in facilitating what is called "precision farming methods" that dramatically lower the amount of inputs needed for any given crop. Using the Internet to connect satellite imaging and global positioning systems to digital controllers on farm tractors and harvesters allows the precise applications of fertilizers and pesticides to the local conditions in the fields. The result is higher yields, quality and profits while at the same time much lower environmental impacts. Similarly, the forestry giant Weyerhaeuser is using digital maps and satellite imagery to classify forest type, age and health (Horurgin, Irwin and Cook, 1998). This information is delivered to field crews over the Internet through handheld devices and laptop computers. The technologies allow forest managers to extract maximum value from precious natural resources while reducing the environmental damage.

These initial examples indicate the potential of the Internet to help increase the efficiency of economic activity in all phases of the product life cycle. While yet to be proven, it seems clear that environmental benefits of applying Internet-based information technologies can outweigh the environmental costs of increased electricity use by the networks themselves.




This article has presented three fundamental ways in which the Internet could help to slow global environmental decline. The Internet is already improving our capability to understand the science of environmental degradation and communicate that knowledge to public and private decision makers. It is also helping overcome the historic collective action problems that inhibit consensus for social action which, in the past has, led to the tragedy of the commons in many ecosystems. And its capacity for improving the efficiency economic activity opens the possibility for decreasing environmental impact while allowing ongoing economic development. While these fundamental opportunities are encouraging, professional and academics working in both the environmental and Internet fields need to consider more closely the potential environmental implications of the Internet. Policy and other decision makers would benefit from the elaboration of a comprehensive vision of the Internet's role in the move toward global environmental sustainability. End of article


About the Author

Gregory Unruh is a Professor of Environmental Sustainability and Professor of Technology Management at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain. Dr. Unruh's current research interests lie in role of technological systems in the pursuit of global environmental sustainability. This article is part of an ongoing study of the role of information technologies in increasing resource productivity and reducing the environmental impacts of economic activity.



1. The best example of this capacity, known as the "overview effect", was the 20 July 1969 view of the Earth from the moon; see NASA's Apollo 11 - 25 Years Later. The picture of our planet as a small blue sphere alone in the cold expanse of outer space increased the mankind's consciousness of the Earth's fragility.


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Editorial history

Paper received 4 October 2001; accepted 12 October 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Can the Internet Help Slow Global Environmental Decline? by Gregory C. Unruh
First Monday, volume 6, number 11 (November 2001),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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