IT has a huge negative impact on the environment, Suzuki says

Video: What Suzuki did during Earth Hour

When David Suzuki was five-years-old, his parents weren’t concerned about the amount of time he spent watching TV or surfing the Web because they’d never heard of a television set or a computer – instead, they worried he’d catch polio.

The world has changed since the noted environmentalist was five-years-old.
“Now we have too much information,” he says. “I don’t even know how many TVs we have in our house. We have all this technology and I’m busier than I ever was.”

Suzuki addressed a crowd of IT vendors and users at consultant firm IDC Canada’s Green IT-themed conference on Thursday in Toronto. The geneticist spoke frankly with attendees about the need for change in the industry.

He appeared via video conference from Vancouver – an intentional decision to reduce his carbon footprint.

“Technology has to be a part of our sustainable future,” Suzuki says.

The best-selling author also signed copies of his most recent book using LongPen, a technology invented by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and made by Toronto-based Unotchit Inc. The robotic system replicates hand-writing across great distances.

Not only did Suzuki cut down on his greenhouse emissions by not expending jet fuel for the cross-country flight, but it was convenient for him too, says Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada’s communications practice. It would’ve been a 10-hour round trip just to speak for a couple of hours.

“That mind shift will start to happen in the business world as people wake up to this problem of climate change,” he says. “If you can save on your energy usage, it puts profit back on the bottom line and the burden on the planet is less.”

It’s critical that this mind shift happen in the IT industry is critical, Suzuki says.

Thousands of scientists studying climate change around the planet now agree that human activity is causing global warming, and experts estimate that IT is responsible for just as much of that as airline companies. We’re now at the tipping point of acting to curb its effects or face bleak prospects of survival.

“We stand at a critical moment in human history,” he says. “In a short amount of time, we’ve exploded from just another species to the most powerful force in the history of the Earth.”

As the dominant species, and the most populous mammal on the face of the planet, our mere needs for survival take a toll on the Earth, he explains. But humans have the bad habit of using technology too.

“The IT area has a huge negative impact on the environment,” he says. “We have a huge need for energy and there’s rapid production of waste.”

He noted that IT vendors produce disposable products that often cost more to repair or to fix. Upgrades to hardware also usually means tossing the old model in the trash and plugging in a new model.

“This is simply not sustainable,” Suzuki says. “Nobody wants to stop progress, but we never ask the important question. How much is enough? If there are no limits, that path is suicidal.”

Today’s population is dominated by people who were born after 1950, Suzuki points out.

That means most of the world’s population accepts that exponential and continual growth is the norm. Society has become obsessed with feeding an economy that does not heed its toll on the environment.

That message might be scary, IDC’s Surtees says, but it’s an important one to make.

“I think it is the most blunt, most direct and most important message that can be hammered home, and there are very few people that can put it the way he put it, with the experience he has,” the analyst says.

It is near blasphemy to talk about limits of growth to economists and the ilk of Wall St. and Bay St., Surtees adds. People expect to experience growth every year and not run into any interference from a natural limit.

“It’s like rats on a treadmill,” he says. “It’s insane.”

But it’s not all bad news. Much like the book Suzuki was signing, “Good News for a change,” the conference heard some success stories of companies approaching technology differently to cut back on their carbon footprint as well as increase profits.

Suzuki attended on Tuesday the Vancouver City Savings Credit Union announcement that they are the first financial institution in North America to be completely carbon neutral – meaning they’ve erased their negative impact on global warming.

Two years after setting their goal, the credit union achieved it ahead of schedule by cutting back on employee travel, paper usage, and by buying carbon offsets. That means investing in green initiatives to cut back on emissions elsewhere.

“They’ve done it two years before the target and they’re making more money than before,” Suzuki says.

Surtees cited the case of IBM Canada that cut back on energy usage to save $1.6 billion off the bottom line. By reducing their data centers, the vendor cut costs and became more profitable.

IDC’s green conference was inspired by lunch-time learning sessions staff spent watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” Surtees said. The popular film got the global warming message out to many with statistics-packed slides and human interest stories.

Asking Suzuki to speak at the conference was a no-brainer.

“His name is most synonymous with being environmentally conscious,” the analyst says.

“Green IT is all about making a link between this sector of the economy and what we need to do to make the use of technology – not just sustainable – but a great enabler in the fight against climate change.”

Suzuki can apparently still offer some fresh ideas, even if the world has changed since he was just five-years-old.

David Suzuki speaks with reporter Brian Jackson via video conference.

Suzuki addressed the crowd at IDC Canada’s “You, Me & Green IT conference” from Vancouver.

The environmentalist was making a point by using the video technology. He reduced his greenhouse gas emissions by not taking a flight to Toronto.

Suzuki also signed copies of his book using LongPen technology. A robotic system is able to replicate hand-writing over a long distance.

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