After a participatory process with Association for Progressive Communication (APC) member organizations, APC and the Latin American Institute of Terraforming write a joint input for the new UN digital governance process: the Global Digital Compact (GDC) where we highlight the socio-environmental impacts of digitization. Also, based on that document, on June 14th, 2023, we made a three-minute presentation at the “GDC Thematic Deep-Dive on Accelerating Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” where States, the private sector, and civil society shared their perspectives. This was our intervention:
The 21st century is marked by two major processes: the climate and ecological crisis and the fast digitalization of the planet.
Achieving sustainable development goals cannot only mean focusing on the possibilities of digitization but also taking the socio-environmental impacts of digital technologies seriously not to jeopardize SDGs such as “sustainable cities and communities,” “responsible consumption and production,” “climate action,” and “life on land.”
A 5-minute opening remark by Paz Peña to introduce the workshop “Transforming Technology Frameworks for Human Rights and Earth Justice” at RightsCon, Costa Rica. This workshop featured invaluable interventions by APC, Sula Batsu, and Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira.
The technologies global production chain begins in El Estor, Guatemala, with nickel and rare earth elements extraction to support the world's digital infrastructure. Its mining has polluted Lake Izabal, exterminated biodiversity, and sickened and depleted indigenous populations, but in the name of techno-capitalism and its progress, who cares.
[En castellano] A 5-minute intervention by Paz Peña at the beginning of the workshop “Tech Cartographies: fighting digital colonialism and seeking social environmental justice”, organized by Coding Rights in the context of RightsCon in Costa Rica.
The map developed by Coding Rights clearly shows the material basis of digital technologies and how this material base has a differentiated powerdynamic between North and South, but also between East and West. And the map makes more visible the global chain of production of digital technologies that, as in all capitalism, displaces the socio-environmental effects to the most marginalized populations.
But I would also like to reflect on something crucial for any analysis of digitalization in the 21st century: the climate and ecological crisis we are experiencing, but in its geopolitical sense.
According to the World Economic Forum (which brings together the most powerful elite of world capitalism), “a twin transition approach recognizes that there is a huge and largely untapped opportunity for technology and data to drive sustainability goals. Rather than treating digital and sustainability in isolation, a twin transition strategy combines these critical functions to unlock huge benefits in terms of efficiency and productivity”.
At our institute, we are very critical of this concept. And we had the opportunity to make a two-minute statement at the public event “Twin Transition (Green and Digital) – Roundtable” -on the “stakeholder day”- in the context of the OECD Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting held in Gran Canaria, Spain. You can read it here:
If you are in Barcelona, you can go to the Santa Monica arts center from June 9 to August 21 to see the exhibition “La irrupció” (free admission) curated by Marta Gracia, Jara Rocha, and Enric Puig Punyet. More than twenty international and local works will open a dialogue about the complex circumstances we are living on the planet after the disruption of the pandemic.
Jara Rocha <3 also invited us to think about an itinerary, which you can do in person from now until August 21, 2022. Curiously, as many of these works are digital, you can also do the itinerary remotely, completing the pieces from your imagination, ghosts, and desires. You can find it right here.
In general, it's challenging to compete with the imaginaries imposed by hegemonic digital technology where concepts such as “digital revolution” and “disruption” champion every time a problematic aspect is raised. The first reading of the CODES Action Plan draft, in this sense, raised an alert: once again, the mere (commercial) promise of digital technologies seemed to have more relevance than the scientific evidence on the effects of digitization (those we know and, also, very important in the planetary limits in which we find ourselves, those we do not know) on the environment. We made this apprehension known in our comments. On that occasion, we stated:
”...if CODES really wants to give greater importance to the promises of digitization concerning sustainability rather than to the environmental damage and challenges that lie ahead due to the deployment of the technologies themselves, we urge that this strategy be rethought for at least two reasons. On the one hand, and as various academic literature has recognized, the digital promise of the future is an integral part of the “capitalism as usual” engine that this same document points to as a problematic attitude. And on the other, because the environmental damage of digital technologies is real, as are its challenges, and it seems unrealistic – especially in line with official IPCC documentation – that it is not given at least the same level of importance in the text.”
We’re glad that a certain empty optimism about digitization has been left behind in the final document. A turnaround is visible from the very first pages:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called “Climate Change 2022. Mitigation of Climate Change” recognizes that the lack of adequate governance of the digital revolution may hinder the role that digitization could play in supporting the achievement of stringent mitigation target goals.
This regard calls for the coordinated implementation of policy instruments that can help accelerate change in the desired direction. Targeted technological change, regulation, and public policy can help steer digitalization, the sharing economy, and the circular economy towards climate change mitigation.
It also understands that digitalization must be deployed in the context of decreasing consumer demand to lower energy consumption.
For the Latin American Institute of Terraforming, the report is a breakthrough in understanding that digitalization cannot be sustained only on the hegemonic technological promise of a sustainable future and needs bold public policies based on independent and multidisciplinary evidence.
Perhaps World Water Day, celebrated this March 22, could be an excuse to talk about how fundamental this element is for the deployment of digital technologies and how its intensive use brings socio-environmental conflicts that we are not used to hearing about. Yet, is not digitization and the digital economy the necessary step towards sustainability? Will not technological innovation be the same that will solve the intensive use of resources such as water?
Latin America, in this scenario, has a varied catalog of socio-environmental conflicts due to the use of water by digital technologies. Just to name a few: water mining for lithium extraction in the Atacama Desert, a fundamental element for the batteries of our digital devices, which has forced the displacement of indigenous populations as well as other native species; the intensive use of water by hyper-scale data centers (the cloud! ) to cool their equipment which could affect human consumption of water as well as the feeding of entire ecosystems such as wetlands; to which is added the intensive hydro-energy use to mine crypto which, in the middle of the energy transition, raises the question of how to decide socially in what clean energy is invested.