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Satyagraha of Self Regulation: How “Wise-phones” and wise humans can offset years of cherry-picking of scientific discoveries and help avert a climate apocalypse

The right to unrestricted access to the Internet ought to coexist with the responsibility to self-regulate consumption of smartphone Internet activity. The fate of the planet lies in the hands of the consumer. 

There is nothing “smart” about a phone whose manufacture involves large scale evaporation of waterbodies, destruction of large forest areas, production of radioactive waste, poisoning of potable water sources, is built for obsolescence and uses up ridiculous quantities of energy during its creation and operation [1,2,3,4,5].

There is nothing particularly “wise” about humans sacrificing their planet to the fleeting pleasures of tweeting, liking and uploading images via their smartphone internet round the clock through enormous heat producing, energy guzzling data centers, pushing the planet towards the impending irreversible destruction caused by rising global temperatures [6,7,8,9,10].

The planet is dying [11,12]. Reducing energy consumption is absolutely necessary to apply the brakes on rising temperatures. 

While it has become the norm to hold industrialists and policy makers responsible for the disastrous state of the planet, an equal measure of responsibility must lie with the citizen consumer.

The Internet has been a boon for the world and has come be viewed as a “right”. But what of the attendant “responsibilities” of the citizen? 

Access to the online world ought to be tempered by responsible and sustainable usage. Here is how smartphone consumers can become “Wisephone” users, playing their not-insignificant part towards yanking back their home from the edge of an almost certain end. Refer to box 1 and box 2  for several self-regulatory measures, recommended by experts, that consumers may adopt.

Whereas computers were largely confined to work spaces, smartphones now accompany consumers everywhere, on public transport, restrooms and even to bed, creating round-the-clock opportunities for runaway internet consumption.  

Environmental disasters, often labeled “Acts of God”, are usually the result of human inaction. Way back in 1856, Eunice Foote made the discovery that CO2 absorbs heat and predicted that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere would raise the temperature of the planet [13, figure 1]. Her results were replicated a few years later by John Tyndall through a series of independently conducted experiments, published in 1861 [14]. Since then a number of scientists have extended Foote’s and Tyndall’s findings to quantify, document and map the correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the increase in temperature including Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius in 1896, Nils Ekholm in 1901 and Guy Callendar in 1937 [14]. In 1965 a group of scientists submitted a report to President Lyndon Johnson detailing the effects of rising greenhouse gases on the environment such as melting of the Antarctic ice cap, rising sea levels, heating of sea water, acidification of fresh water bodies [14], all of which have come to pass. 

That the efforts and warnings of a great many scientists, over 165 years, went unheeded suggests ambivalence towards the scientific enterprise. On the one hand scientific inventions and discoveries have been promoted through the enthusiastic engagement of commercial and political partners. On the other, scientific findings on the dangers of unregulated consumption and depletion of the planet’s resources tend to be viewed with skepticism, disregarded altogether and even derided as being “anti-development”. Science, it would seem, exists solely to further commercial ambitions. 

The century and a half of advance notices could have been utilized towards the development and adoption of intelligent manufacturing and consumption practices. However decision makers of the earliest industrialized nations chose to do otherwise and here we are in 2021, with the double burden of reducing toxic manufacturing and  suffering the impact of climate damage, both being placed on the least culpable developing nations [15]. 

The world now stands on the brink of widespread devastation. The global temperature has risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius and continues to increase towards the 1.5 degree limit of irreversible, deleterious change to the planet.  The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ has gone so far as to call the August, 2021 IPCC report a “Code Red for Humanity” [13,14]. 

Note that a) every single instance of energy consumption pushes the global temperature rise closer to the 1.5 degree limit, b) every power-consuming device produces heat regardless of the type of fuel used and c) as temperatures rise, so does the demand for cooling devices which in turn consume more fuel and generate heat, in an endless vicious cycle.

Self-regulation can turn the smartphone into a “Wisephone”, employed by wise consumers. This is India’s opportunity to set an example in responsible consumption for the world to adopt. A worldwide citizen movement towards reduced energy consumption  could well set the course for environmental recovery.

Open Questions

  1. Businesses tend to run very tight ships, aiming for the most optimal expenditure of their resources so as to maximize profits. However the planet’s resources, human or otherwise, are rarely subjected to this degree of economy by industrialists. Note that the consumer is as much a resource as the environment as far as commercial gains are concerned. How may corporations be encouraged to safeguard the earth’s resources with the same ferocity that they bring to their more immediate assets ? 
  2. Science has had a long and constructive history of applying the peer review process to ensure the veracity, quality and originality of research. May such an expedient be employed towards the review of industrial development, with sustainability, necessity and non-toxicity as prerequisites for approval?

Recommendations for Smartphone Consumption

  • Favour longer-use smartphones:  Allow your smartphone to run the full length of its life before purchasing a new one. Subscribing to healthy internet consumption practices as described below will help prolong the life of smartphone batteries.
  • Favour refurbished smartphones: Building a smartphone makes up 85-95% of its entire energy footprint at the consumer end. Look for refurbished phones and those with replaceable parts [1,16]. The “right to repair” is now a growing movement in the EU. 

BOX 2: Recommendations for Smartphone Internet Consumption

  • Favour text and audio over images and videos:  Data transfer over the internet is extremely costly and much more so in the case of image data. This includes every image uploaded or shared over social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, online window-shopping, video streaming, games, gambling and pornography [17]. 
  • Favour quality over quantity during social media interactions:  Consider forgoing unproductive tweets, FB likes and antisocial messages on social media. 
  • Favour texts over calls:  According to one estimate, a minute long call produces 57g of CO2. A two minute call each day for a year adds up to 47kgs of CO2. One hour of being on a phone call each day for a year produces 1250 kgs of CO2, which is about equal to the CO2 emission of a London to New York flight [18] .
  • Favour local storage over the cloud:  Data stored online must be preserved indefinitely and each access involves repeated transfers to and from the datacenter, both of which use up energy on your computer, the network and the datacenter [19]. 
  • Favour local wifi over smartphone networks: Accessing the internet over a smartphone network uses far greater energy than via a local wifi network [19].
  • Favour TV networks over online ADSL to catch TV content [19].
  • Favour judicious emailing: Send fewer emails and fewer recipients, use text rather than html while composing emails (the former uses 12 times less energy), avoid attachments and email signatures and unsubscribe from sources that are no longer of interest [19 ]
  • Favour landline phones wherever possible [19]. 

How much CO2 can a tree absorb? 

A fully grown tree can absorb around 21 kgs of CO2 per year and about 1 ton of CO2 over a lifetime of 100 years. Humans are creating about 40 billions tonnes of CO2 each year ! [20]

Each time an image is posted by Soccer star Christiano Ronaldo, his 188 million+ followers on Instagram use up  240,00,000 Watt-hours of energy to view it [21]. 

Eunice Paper Photo.jpg
Fig 1: A photograph of Eunice Foote’s original paper describing the heat absorbing effects of CO2 and other gases. Source:  HYPERLINK “https://archive.org/details/mobot31753002152491/page/381/mode/2up?view=theater”https://archive.org/details/mobot31753002152491/page/381/mode/2up?view=theater

References

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

This article was first published in Down To Earth.

Dr Monika Krishan
Dr Monika Krishan
Dr Monika Krishan's academic background includes a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA. Her research interests include image processing, psychovisual perception of textures, perception of animacy, goal based inference, perception of uncertainty and invariance detection in visual and non-visual domains. Areas of study also include the impact of artificial intelligence devices on human cognition from the developmental stages of the human brain, through adulthood, all the way through the aging process, and the resulting impact on the socio-cognitive health of society. She has worked on several projects on the cognitive aspects of the use and misuse of technology in social and antisocial contexts at SERC, IISc as well as the development of interactive graphics for Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems at Siemens. She is a member of Ohio University’s Consortium for the Advancement of Cognitive Science. She has offered services at economically challenged schools and hospitals for a number of years and continues to be an active community volunteer in the field of education and mental health

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