Society today is seemingly mindful of waste, with plenty of recycling campaigns and ‘green’ initiatives being portrayed as miracle solutions that can heal our planet. In an increasingly digital world, many of us fail to realise the extent of waste we create. In World Wide Waste, McGovern explores the idea that our digital presence is not as waste-free as it may seem. McGovern targets both digital professionals and environmental champions, discussing sustainability in terms of individuals and the workplace alike.
The book tackles the subject of electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’, which refers to all technology that we dispose of (such as household appliances, vehicles, and laptops). Many books on sustainability tend to focus on plastics or fossil-fuel pollution but, as McGovern says right off the bat, this topic needs to be urgently addressed because “digital costs the Earth energy”. From a book on this subject, I would expect a critical discussion of the modern-day wasteful culture as well as productive suggestions to provoke change. However, the book focuses mainly on our polluting digital habits, as well as some of the major overall contributors to waste (such as fashion and phones).
This book is structured in two main parts – physical and digital waste. It begins with a discussion of the Zettabyte Armageddon, a theory based on the idea that our data consumption is spiralling out of control and which suggests the amount of required storage will come at an increasingly high cost. Indeed, the book states that internet traffic has increased “by a factor of 1.7 million” in the last 20 years and doesn’t look to be slowing down. This core idea then leads to a discussion of how our productivity, wallets, minds, and planet are being affected by this surging demand.
One insightful look into our energy future is a discussion of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is “a child growing at a phenomenal rate”. AI has become so advanced that AlphaGo, a Google-owned program, defeated world-champion Go player Lee Se-dol. The AI system was able to master Go, an incredibly complex Chinese board game, in only 21 days by playing games against itself. Whilst this is an exciting development, the power requirements for this kind of tech doubles “every three to four months”, within an industry that acts “as if there’s limitless energy”. Smart speakers alone now require one billion dollars of electricity annually, meaning there is a physical cost for the sake of human convenience.
What McGovern pulls off extremely well is his use of extended metaphors to contextualise ideas. He poses the concept of “thinking in trees” to the reader, where he calculates how many trees would be required to offset the CO2 pollution of an activity. A particularly poignant use of this idea is on the topic of fast fashion, which McGovern estimates would require 12 trillion trees, which is “four times more trees than currently exist on Earth”. McGovern also discusses smartphones, and how we ‘upgrade’ our phones every 1-2 years unnecessarily. He suggests that this is seen as “a treat, a sugar rush,” using a clever extended metaphor to equate sugar and the obesity epidemic to describe how we are now treating technology.
However, the book does lack a more productive conclusion about what can be done to help tackle waste. McGovern himself acknowledges that large companies, or “Big Sugar” industries, create most of the pollution and masterfully fuel the public’s desire to overconsume. In spite of this observation, he then puts the onus on us, the reader, to change. Whilst this is a good sentiment, the takeaway message that “3.5% of society changes society” feels a little empty, as it takes blame away from the industries that produce this tech in the first place.
The book’s structure lends itself rather well to a diverse audience, with the more technical chapters being easy to skip over for less specialist readers. The end of each section has a list of key actions, inviting the reader to question their daily activities. For example, the chapter “Junkies and Wasters” explores our addictive relationship with tech and concludes with the question, “Am I willing and able to dispose properly of this after it is no longer useful?”. At the end, McGovern summarises these pointers in a “World Wide Worth” section, which makes for a handy reference tool for the target audience.
World Wide Waste gives some real insight into why we are compelled to buy the latest gadgets and why we need to unlearn this behaviour so that our planet can thrive in years to come. It offers a well-crafted perspective on waste in the digital era, but does lack insight into how the industry itself and new technologies can reduce e-waste levels. Nonetheless, this book a must-read for anyone wanting to navigate the digital landscape with more awareness.
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