Crossing the Technology-Environment Divide

A former techno-skeptic embraces blockchain’s environmental potential.

A close-up of a screen displaying code in multiple colours of text.
Photo: Rawpixel

Twenty years ago in San Francisco, I was surrounded by the first dot-com boom, but I didn’t feel like part of it. At the time, I was working for a small, web-based alternative news syndication service. Beyond the convenience of publishing online, I didn’t really understand what the internet meant, or could mean, for my work in media. And I definitely didn’t see a connection between this new technology and my previous occupation cleaning up polluted soil and groundwater in and around the city.

To be honest, I wasn’t really open to finding the connection. My techie friends and those I’d see around my work seemed either blinded by the shininess of new gadgetry or hungry to earn large amounts of money — neither of which appealed to me. I had just graduated from UC Berkeley, and while histories of computer technology might reference Stanford, its public school rival to the north is more likely to be referenced in the history of social movements. Unlike my friends building websites and hawking software for big companies, I was set on making a real difference. After all, hadn’t technology caused many of our environmental problems?

I thought about that version of myself recently, as I rode my bike through Vancouver to attend a panel discussion about blockchain’s potential to solve environmental issues. Initially developed to track bitcoin transactions, blockchain is a shared and open digital ledger of transactions, verified by a distributed network of computers in a credible way, so no central authority is needed. Far more interested now in technology’s potential to impact the issues I care about, I took the morning off work to attend.

Here we are, in the early days of blockchain, and people already seem to be envisioning its use in relation to larger environmental challenges.

My eyes opened to technology’s potential to solve environmental problems through grad school research into the use of tech to influence employee and business behaviours, and my interest has grown since. Blockchain seems to offer even more promise than other internet technologies — not only because of its capacity to be combined with many other applications (other technologies have that too) — but because maybe the world has changed. Many people equated the internet in its early days with a few simple applications like email; the only environmental application seemed to be the mythical “paperless office.” But here we are, in the early days of blockchain, and people already seem to be envisioning its use in relation to larger environmental challenges.

I was inspired that the panel, on Blockchain and its Emerging Role in the Clean Economy, consisted of business leaders who had already created tangible, real-world environmental solutions. For instance, the Plastic Bank had used blockchain to allow people in Haiti to exchange plastic for hard currency, or desperately needed products and services like cooking fuel, soap, phone charging and internet access.

I straightened in my chair as Joe Madden from Xpansiv and Kerstin Rock of LO3 Energy discussed the work of their respective commodity and energy data companies. Commodities like lumber and cotton follow an often long and undifferentiated path from production to marketplace. This brand invisibility reduces the incentive for companies to produce them — and more difficult for consumer-facing brands to source them — in an environmentally conscious way.

Madden talked about how Xpansiv helps both types of companies capture the value of responsible production by using blockchain to credibly track each unit of a commodity from source to market. Energy is itself a commodity, and Rock talked about how LO3 Energy is helping everyday consumers find more eco-friendly energy, and be certain of how and where it was produced. Their system targets consumers who want to buy energy locally from neighborhood “prosumers” (the “pro” comes from “producer”), creating microgrids cut off from mainstream utilities.

As Steven Fish talked about his company ESG Ledger and how it used blockchain to help consumers see the sustainability performance of companies, I leaned forward further. I suddenly realized blockchain’s real, unique potential was not just to provide less-damaging products — like solar and wind power, or organic cotton — but to incentivize people to buy, and companies to make, more of these products. This ability to change human behaviour is what it takes to really make a difference. As Plastic Bank’s co-founder Shaun Frankson said: “Ocean plastic is not a plastic problem. It’s a human problem.”

My newfound enthusiasm started to wither, though, when I heard Fish talk about the enormous work that went into one of his projects using blockchain to verify conflict-free gold. As a result, ESG Ledger hadn’t undertaken anything similar since. Had the world changed enough for this technology to be used to solve our biggest environmental crises? Or was it just me who had changed, with the weights of family and mortgage making me susceptible to shiny distractions? Would this technology end up relegated to niche uses at best? Or, at worst, sink us deeper into our environmental crisis?

Blockchain could, hypothetically, be used by wealthy drivers to pay other drivers to get out of their way, worsening tensions around inequality.

That question was raised in a later panel at the GLOBE 2018 conference, called Digitalization — New Systems New Thinking Driving Sustainability 4.0. An audience member asked whether the efficiencies gained by emerging internet technologies outweighed the costs, citing rising rates of e-waste and energy use. Greenpeace estimated last year that the IT sector consumed about 7% of global electricity. The massive energy consumption of bitcoin has drawn attention, and raises questions once again about technology’s net benefits to society.

“You can’t just assume that there will be a benefit,” said panelist David Potter, co-founder of the DX Institute, a consulting company that helps “traditional analog businesses” enter the digital era. “You need to take full account.” Potter pointed to the real-world example of drones: they can be more efficient than trucks, but not under all circumstances. He also pointed out that the waste from sensors to track products could outweigh the environmental promise of delivery by drone.

Marcelo Lu, president of the Canadian subsidiary of chemical giant BASF, pointed to how blockchain could, hypothetically, be used by wealthy drivers to pay other drivers to get out of their way, worsening tensions around inequality. For that reason, Lu said social and environmental considerations “need to be ingrained in every single launch model.”

My experience in fast-growing companies, and with the time-consuming practice of environmental life-cycle assessment, suggests that even in companies that try to do this, it’s still more often principle than practice. It’s even more difficult to get many “growth-oriented” tech entrepreneurs to consider the full social and environmental impact of what they’re building.

The number of clean tech companies — businesses designing technologies specifically to solve environmental problems — is growing, but there are many more tech entrepreneurs without an explicit environmental purpose. Even the growing number of tech companies that are greening their operations are failing to — in the words of the DX Institute’s Potter — “think about how they fundamentally operate.”

This reminded me that any technology’s impact on sustainability has less to do with the technology itself, than with how and why the technology is used. And that is driven as much by consumers, and what they want, as by techies themselves.

For that reason, the solution to increasing the use of blockchain and other technologies for environmental purposes — and mitigating their negative impacts too — isn’t as simple as more tech entrepreneurs and developers waking up to the dangers of climate change. It also requires average people — those who consume products and influence decisions about their design and production — to better understand technologies. That includes people working on developing environmental solutions.

Will blockchain really do these things? Or will it eventually be seen as just another curiosity?

Most audience members at the start of the blockchain panel testified with a show of hands that they didn’t really understand what the technology was or how it worked. One panelist suggested it might not be important for the average person to know how tech works as long as they know how to use it. An audience member from India backed him up, saying that some of the poorest populations in his homeland had already adopted digital currencies without understanding how they worked.

Maybe we don’t all need to be experts on all technologies. But for me — having seen the effect on the media of not trying to understand new technologies and their impacts — understanding as much as I can is important. It was clear that many of the blockchain entrepreneurs at the conference were once regular employees and consumers too. They had become interested in a technology and saw an opportunity to help steer the world in a positive direction — or saw an opportunity to help and got interested in technology as a means of doing that.

So how can technologists find the greater purpose in what they build, the eco-conscious see the potential for good in emerging technologies, and everyone in between consider what they consume so that more of our products will have purpose? Someone in the sustainability-minded conference audience, asking where to start with all the complex new technologies, seemed to be looking for this answer. Potter suggested the practical: “Look at smaller opportunities and parallel industries to see what you can bring in.”

BASF’s Lu made a more emotional suggestion: “There needs to be a general curiosity, and for people to start getting tickled” about the possibilities of technology for sustainability.

For me, it seemed that an increased susceptibility to shiny-object distraction and money concerns weren’t the only things I might have picked up over the years. My curiosity about technology, especially in relation to sustainability, had clearly grown too. A few weeks after the conference, I noticed for the first time a small, stand-alone “Bitcoin ATM” in an old mall near my house. It was tucked between the entrance to a dollar store and one of those carnival machines where you grab stuffed animals with a metal crane. I went over to the ATM and saw that the price of a bitcoin was now over $12,000 per token, at odds with the machine’s modest size and location.

Photo by Eric Unmacht
A bitcoin ATM in unlikely company at a Vancouver shopping mall.

As I left the mall, I again wondered about the technology behind the digital currency. I’d just been to another talk on the potential for blockchain to get rid of city governments. Will it really do these things? Or will it eventually be seen as just another curiosity like the game next to the ATM?

The latter seems unlikely, but I’m still unsure whether blockchain will be able to deliver on world-changing promises, especially ones promising changes for the better. It seems like curiosity about its potential to solve serious challenges is a good place to start though, and the full rooms at the technology panels I attended were a good sign that others are starting there too.

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