Worldwatch Institute

Digital Dilemma: Is the Internet Killing (or Saving) the Planet?


Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

With resource-saving notions like “the paperless office” and “telecommuting,” the digital age holds great environmental promise. But have digital technologies really helped to improve global sustainability? In the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, Richard Worthington, professor of politics at Pomona College, posits that a dose of healthy skepticism regarding emerging digital systems may safeguard our environment and our democracy (

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, the collection of ideas and artifacts that is now known as the Internet was only a research and development program at the U.S. Department of Defense. Meanwhile, environmental advocates of the era were fighting large, complex technological systems, such as nuclear power and industrialized agriculture, as threats to both the ecosphere and democratic self-governance. Yet when big digital systems began to take hold in the 1980s, these expanding pervasive and powerful technologies were rarely criticized. Today, a true understanding of their environmental and social impacts is urgently needed in order to navigate—or resist—technology’s growing influence.

Sustainable production. Studies that directly link the impacts of digital technologies to environmental benefits have yielded ambiguous results because of the difficulties in measuring these impacts. For example, it is difficult to isolate and track the Internet’s contribution to energy efficiency during a time where other changes (such as energy-efficient appliances and insulation for buildings) are also unfolding.

A “‘rebound effect’ in which the gains of, say, telecommuting are offset by increased consumption afforded by the savings, such as taking an overseas vacation,” further complicates the measurement of digital technology benefits, writes Worthington.

Although some studies address the digitization-environment link by offering projections of future savings to be had through the use of digital technologies, much of this research is sponsored by global corporations in the technology industry, leaving one to question its credibility.

Digital democracy. Among digital enthusiasts,technology is depicted as the key to creating new democratic practices. Indeed, the lower communications costs afforded by digitization have made it possible for groups to become engaged that previously had lacked the resources to participate in campaigns or policy development.

Yet many other digitally influenced developments have either resulted in very limited democratic gains or exacerbated undemocratic tendencies. In U.S. politics, for example, the use of digital systems has not increased the number of engaged citizens. Rather, it has widened the information and engagement gap by providing more opportunities for those already engaged, biasing them further toward their views. In some cases, digital technologies also have eroded the quality of political communications by generating floods of impersonal, easily ignored appeals or by shifting engagement toward event-driven, short-term responses.

Funding sustainability. Since the late 1990s, digital technology has accounted for about a third of private investment in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, investment in sustainability, such as the support needed to set the United States on track for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is grossly underfunded.

“At its core, investment capital is a measure of a society’s freedom, representing the resources to address urgent issues and to enhance prosperity,” writes Worthington. “The large claim that digital industries have on these resources in a global society that faces severe ecological disruption warrants closer attention than it has received to date.”

Looking ahead. Profound changes in environmental governance have already occurred since the advent of digitization. There are no unambiguous answers about whether or how much digital systems have added to ecological destruction and sociopolitical polarization. One fact is certain, however: digital technologies cannot be ignored.

“There is little choice about engaging digital systems in environmental governance, but naïve attachment to them will perpetuate distorted patterns of investment and other features of the socioeconomic model that has generated the environmental crisis,” writes Worthington. “Critical engagement, careful strategizing, and most of all a commitment to profound change are preconditions for using these systems for different ends.”

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of governance for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organizations, and local communities. The book highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and preserve and protect our common resources.

State of the World 2014’s findings are being disseminated to a wide range of stakeholders, including government ministries, community networks, business leaders, and the nongovernmental environmental and development communities. For more information on the project, visit

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