When Wall Street International asked me to write this column, I thought of you. You stand with people who seek a livable future, a healthier balance between nature and technology.
You call yourself a communicator, not an expert. I do not consider myself an expert, either. I’m a writer. I learn about life by asking questions and writing about what I learn. In the last 25 years, I’ve talked nearly every day with scientists and engineers who patiently respond to my questions. These conversations have changed my thinking about technology’s impacts on nature. I want to share what I’ve learned, and these letters give me a place to do so.
I see that we are sustained by nature. We also depend on technology. After decades of taking much of my world for granted, I’m learning the true costs of electricity and the Internet. I’m learning what it takes to grow broccoli for two people for one meal. (Because of California’s wildfires, broccoli and kale are not available at my grocery store. To grow our own, my husband and I got two raised beds with insulating covers.)
Greta, I’ve started to ramble. In short, your name helps make my letters recognizable. Thank you.
A brief history of electricity
When I started learning about electricity, physicists sent me back a few billion years, when our planet was a mass of gasses, water, dust and rock. After a buildup of charge, lightning began to strike. Over millions of years, the Earth was bombarded by lightning storms. This led to nucleic and amino acids, the building blocks of life. Early plants made oxygen and paved the way for animals.
Homo sapiens arrived about 200,000 years ago.
To make our lives easier, we made tools: Knives, bows, arrows and spears. Shovels, wells and cisterns. Cream separators, butter churns, clay pots, copper pots, iron pots. Oil lamps. Hand-operated drills. Wheels and carts. Sewing needles. Knitting needles. Spinning wheels, looms. Calendars, compasses and measuring devices. Grain storage bins. Numbers, alphabets, symbols, paper and ink. Libraries and printing presses.
Even with all of these tools, people lived at the edge of starvation and disease.
Around 600 B.C., the ancient Greeks figured out how to generate electricity. In 1750, a Dutch man discovered how to store it in a primitive battery. In the 1880s, Nikola Tesla figured out how to transmit alternating current electricity; Thomas Edison figured out how to transmit direct current. We transitioned from visible, mechanical technologies powered by horse and human muscle, to steam and hydropower, then electromagnetic technologies—whose power is mostly invisible. Life on Earth changed, rapidly.
In urban areas, investors installed generators, substations, transformers, power lines and meters to deliver electricity to industrial, commercial and residential customers—and for street lights. In rural areas, governments funded publicly-owned utilities.1
With reliable electricity, manufacturers built factories. They mass-produced batteries, motors and lightbulbs. Investors created intercontinental radio—"the wireless.” Electronic inventions flourished for the home and the military: manufacturers made refrigerators, washing machines, blenders, military radar and x-ray machines.
Few people considered the environmental consequences of electricity or mining or burning its fossil fuels.
After World War II, most Western homes got a landline telephone. Inventors electrified everything: dryers, water heaters, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, shoe store x-rays (to ensure a good fit), black and white televisions, record players, microwave ovens, typewriters, guitars, pianos, hair curlers, hair dryers, air conditioners, sewing machines, alarm clocks, toothbrushes, cardiac pacemakers and tape recorders.
Governments built infrastructure for trucks, trains and planes to ship raw materials and final products. We built suburbs, bought automobiles and drove to work and stores. We put radios and air conditioners in our cars. We built cities in deserts—places that without air conditioning had only been sparsely inhabited before.
By the mid 1950s, few of us who had grown accustomed to electricity still knew how to grow or preserve food, pump water, light a dark room or heat or cool a home without electricity.
In the 1960s, we began extracting elements like cerium. First found in Sweden, cerium makes color TV possible. We put TVs in our kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms and classrooms.
Electricity use continues to drive economic growth.2 Economic growth increases electricity consumption3 and human population.
While technology’s energy and extraction demands threaten environmental stability and our survival, we don’t see ecological harm when we use our computers. We don’t see that nearly two billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, and nearly one billion do not have electricity. We don’t see the ways that extractions and energy use impact their communities. Call these invisible imbalances between nature and technology.
A brief history of telecommunications
Sweden launched the first fully automated mobile phone system in 1956. The University of Hawaii installed the first wireless computer network in 1970. Email was introduced in 1972. In the 1980s, manufacturers offered (and consumers bought) word processors, answering machines, cordless phones and VHS players.
Cell phones took off in the late 1990s. When Apple first marketed smartphones, in 2007, we began to think that school, work and a social life require owning a hand-held portal to the Internet. We built air-conditioned data storage centers so large that they’re visible from outer space. We expected a wireless interface for learning to read, for maps, medical consults and financial records. We read fewer books. We streamed videos. We built cars with GPS and screens for backseat passengers to watch videos.
Now, with government support from many countries, telecom corporations have begun deploying 5G (fifth generation of wireless networks) to support increased data traffic and speed. 5G's millimeter waves require cell sites installed on (say) utility poles every three to ten houses—even with reputable scientists reporting substantial increases in mobile networks’ electricity use and CO2 emissions4; and industry-run journals report that 5G will further increase mobile networks’ energy consumption.5
While Covid-19 has reduced our use of transportation, computer use and energy-intensive video conferencing have increased—along with energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste.
Greta, have I told you about my husband? He was born on a peach farm with minimal electricity, no indoor plumbing and a telephone shared with several families. He learned to read books—and animal tracks. Recently, standing on our porch, he sensed our house’s connection to the entire country’s electric grids, telecom networks, roadways, railroads and flight paths, their disruption of waterways, topsoil, migratory patterns and wildlife habitats. “I feel it all,” he told me, “under my feet.” Often, he feels cut off from nature. Still, every day, he notices the color of the sky, the dirt’s dryness or moisture, the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.
To survive, we humans have always needed nutrient-dense food, clean water, clean air, and shelter through all seasons; community, laws and conflict-resolution skills that keep us fair, orderly and accountable; and know-how to heal wounds and illness, deliver babies, care for the dying and bury the dead. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many of us have included electricity on this list of basic needs. While we built a global economy based on manufacturing and selling appliances and entertainment gear, our human population increased four-fold. Global energy consumption increased between twelve and sixteen-fold.6,7 Meanwhile, in 2020, six billion more of us are alive. Most of us expect electricity and the Internet 24/7.
We could laugh at ourselves—for changing our planet so drastically in 150 years—and expecting only minimal consequences to nature.
Questions for the future
Whether or not we’re aware of them, our expectations shape our daily lives and our future. Most of us take electricity and telecommunications for granted. We don’t know how to live more than a few days without them. We depend on devices and appliances we don’t know how to repair. We depend on electric utilities that are now often run by people dedicated to profit, not engineers dedicated to keeping electricity safe and reliable.
I’ll close this letter with questions we can only answer for ourselves: Should we try to decrease our dependence on electricity and telecommunications? Is decreasing our dependence possible? If so, what are our first steps? And how will we define progress?
1 Tuttle, David P., et. al, The History and Evolution of the U.S. Electricity Industry, White Paper UTEI/2016-05-2, 2016.
2 Yilmaz Bayar and Hasan Alp Ozel, “Electricity Consumption and Economic Growth in Emerging Economies,” J. of Knowledge Management, Economics and Information Technology 4, no. 2 (April 2014).
3 Bryce, Robert, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, Hachette, 2020.
4 Malmodin, et. al., The Energy and Carbon Footprint of the Global ICT and E&M Sectors, 2010-1015, 2018. Fig. 6 shows that mobile networks’ electricity used during operations (left) and C02 emissions (right) increased from 55 to 75 Mt (2010 to 2015 progression).
5 Yan Binfeng, director of the Technical Committee of China’s Unicom Research Institute, said that “the electricity bill for 5G equipment is expected to be more than three times that of 4G.
6 Smil, Vaclav, “Energy in the twentieth century: Resources, conversions, costs, uses and consequences,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment; 25(1):21-51, Nov. 2000.
7 Our World in Data.