The concept of sustainability is confusing and not fully understood due to the large variety of meanings that it takes and the lack of agreement among the scientific community (Schäfer, 2013). However, a common vision on this concept is firstly needed to be shared in order to achieve a common view on how can this problem be approached (White, 2009).
The definition of ‘sustainable development’ by the Brundtland Commission (1987) as “development that meets the needs of the present world, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’’ has remained the most accepted definition until the present date. Taking this into consideration, it can be said that our current situation is undoubtedly unsustainable. We have been living beyond the fundamental rules of live on Earth (Giles, 2012), and therefore we are not contributing to the fair distribution of resources between generations (Gladwin and Kennelly, 1995), which means that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs.
Technology has always been around, but it was not until the 20th century that this term rose prominence (Schatzberg, 2006). Especially from the moment the IBM Personal Computer was launched more than 30 years ago now, its role in our society has gained such importance that many people and even companies today would not be able to live or survive without it. It may not seem a long lapse of time, but in technology terms 1980 is certainly an ancient date. In those days, there were no smartphones, no personal computers, no Internet, and modern medicine was still in its infancy. Therefore, there is no denying that information technology (IT) has totally changed our culture and daily life.
Primarily also since 1980, news of an environmental crisis started to arise multiple opinions about the need for IT management in order to solve this upcoming environmental concern (Davinson, 2004). As a consequence, technology is now seen with both hopes and fears. Many of the existing literature defends IS, and more specifically the IT subset, as a tool to fight ecological unsustainability back but, what about its consequences?
Therefore, the question arises: will technology be our last hope to save the planet from its unsustainable situation or not? This paper is intended to clarify the role that technology will have when it comes to shaping the future of our planet and identify the real saviour.
What should we understand by technology?
Technology, as its definition claims, is the usage of techniques, knowledge, information and processes with the main purpose of designing and creating objects so as to satisfy human being’s needs and improve their quality of life (Waddell, 2013). Television, credit cards, heating, social networks, cars, surgery, … all of them are different examples of technology we use on a daily basis that make our lives more easy and comfortable.
Nonetheless, there is also a dark side: people addicted or highly dependent on technology, obesity, depression, loss of eyesight, etc. In his letter to stockholders in 2002, Mark Zuckerberg initially states that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.” However, a recent study conducted by Ethan Kross et al. (2013) has shown that as the usage periods of someone using this social network increases, their satisfaction level with life decreases. In contrast with its main goal, Facebook is often also related with social isolation due to the lack of face-to-face contact with people in the daily living, which has been proved to increase the likelihood of dying prematurely (Steptoe et al., 2013).
Unfortunately, this collateral effect of technology is not only harmful to humans, but also to the whole planet. Concerns such as air and water pollution, the greenhouse effect, energy inefficiency, land degradation, animal extinction or the climate change itself are raising more and more awareness within society because of the negative environmental future these problems bring along with them. Nevertheless, technology is nowadays part of our lives, and our level of dependency is so high that it cannot be ignored its role in the environment when talking about the future of the Earth.
Is technology good or evil?
Technology in itself should not neither be classified as good or bad. Humans are by nature tool-making creatures, such as other close animal relatives like the primates. However, whilst these animal relatives still live in harmony with nature, we are damaging it. Therefore, it is the way in which the technology is used what makes it good or bad, which means that is us, the users, the ones that are truly destroying the planet. (Neely, 2011). For example, as Morrow (2013) examples, in less than a decade after the first flight took place, the Italians were already using airplanes for war purposes, for the Italo-Turkish war to be specific (1911-1912).
This may seem the reasoning of an environmentalist attempting to argue that technology should as a result be avoided. Nevertheless, unless we want drastically change our fate, it will be impossible to remove all technology. It is part of our history and nature as human beings. It is true that in the beginning we were not aware of the consequences, but now that we have learnt from our mistakes, we still represent a threat to nature (Neely, 2011). This is because the world is controlled by people who care about their own interests rather than society’s long-term interests (Ibid.). For example, gambling machines are human-made invention that can create addiction and even ruin your life. However, the real evil does not concern technology, but designer’s intention to utilise user’s neurology for that purpose (Norénn, 2012).
Hence, Morrow (2013) is totally wrong when he claims that “technology makes good people do bad things” and gives the example of how new advances in fishing have lead to a more effective catching, which has resulted in overfishing, because this author is totally missing the self-centered nature of the human-being. It is this attitude the one that truly lies behind the whole environmental degradation problem, and technology, therefore, should be considered of neutral value and as a secondary issue.
Is technology the saviour of our unsustainability problem?
Many of the literature on sustainability consider technology as a force that will fight against unsustainability, each of the author giving their particular point of view. Watson et al. claim that IS provided greatest productivity improvements in the last half century. In addition, one of the key points they argue is that today’s society consumes a great deal of energy, but IS can play an important role to reduce this huge consumption, as expressed in this formula: “Energy + Information < Energy”. Vykoukal et al. (2009) adds companies as another main group of energy consumers and present grid technology as the best technology for them to reduce their computing power. Furthermore, Pandya (2014) also contributes by mentioning cloud computing as another way to gain energy efficiency by strategically handling workloads. These types of technologies have therefore been awarded the “green” adjective.
Nevertheless, it must make clear that taking into consideration all those ideas expressed above we would be just reducing our negative impact over the nature and never fixing the real problem (Huesemann, 2003). It is true that they can and will help, but they do not represent the ultimate solution because they can only offer limited and short-term ecological success. Even so, it will not aid us always because today’s tech has a high dependency on many non-renewable resources, and it gets worse if we consider the unstoppable population growth rate. As a result, I cannot agree with Nuo & Dick that “organisation’s IS and IT are both a source of, and a solution to, organisational environmental degradation”. This current obsession to “buy green” is simply absurd (Anon., 2012). Additionally, there is a whole new marketing strategy called greenwashing that is aimed to trick us and make us believe we are purchasing a product or service that has been produced without any negative effect on the environment.
It has been argued that technology represents a secondary issue when talking about the degradation of the environment. Therefore, as the unsustainability matter is prime, we will not be able to find a solution if we just focus on technology as we have been doing for the last couple of decades, because “primary problems need primary solutions” (Yasarapu, 2014). As Albert Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Hovorka (2012) also states how technology is seen by some theorists as a tool to increase firms’ efficiency by utilizing state-of-the-art environmental practices with the final aim of being able to meet higher consumption demands and, as a consequence, increase the ecological footprint. Doug Tompkins, cofounder of both The North Face and Esprit brands, adds that IT is actually a mechanism aimed to accelerate the economic activity, which leads to a further consumption of natural resources and client demand (Confino, 2012). In fact, if all people lived as we do in Western Europe, we would certainly need more than one sole Earth to survive.
Hence, it can be said that technology is not the real saviour of our unsustainability problem. It cannot even be said that the definition of technology is correct, as modern technologies have not really met basic human needs (Davinson, 2008). Otherwise, we would not be facing this problem.
So what is the solution?
As we have already identified, our ecological degradation problem has its origin in ourselves. We are living in a system designed for the dump, in which companies carefully design their products “to be thrown up, hard to upgrade, easy to break and impractical to repair” (Story of Stuff Project, 2010) and use marketing to make us keep on consuming. This strategy allows them to increase, or at least maintain, their profit levels, but implies more material needed to meet the demand and creates 25 million tons of e-waste a year, which directly damage our environment (Ibid.). Therefore, the only path towards its ending is through a radical shift in our beliefs about the world and our behaviour (Senge et al., 2008). This is a difficult path that involves the destruction of our current economic system and the building, brick by brick, of a new one that does not trick humans into consumerism (Vergragt, 2011), and technology must be ready to follow that path. However, it is hard for us to see this, because it is way easier to change technology that our lifestyles (Yasarapu, 2014).
This shift will require the huge collaborative effort of various groups in a global scale. Taking into consideration the Triple Line Bottom framework, it can be said that currently the system only focus the attention to the organisations and the consumer, which means that the third stakeholder, the environment, is never considered (Hovorka, 2012). That is the reason why this system must be replaced, and to do that, we must extend the basic conception of this framework to a group of four different stakeholders that must contribute to this change.
Firstly, organisations must stop their business of satisfying the sustainability of economics and consider social and environmental factor as strategic, which will indeed bring success and competitive advantage in the long run (Dyllick and Hockerts, 2002). In fact, all our economic activities rely on natural resources, which should make the ecological factor a priority (Starik and Rands, 1995). Companies must look to the future and establish a planning that will take them to a business in which their footprint impact is minimal. In this new business, organisations should consider the creation of goods that are longer lasting, more recyclable and easily upgraded and repaired (Story of Stuff Project, 2010). Furthermore, enterprises should pay more attention to their customers because they can be a valuable source of IS innovation (Bogers et al., 2010).
Secondly, governments should intervene by gradually enacting regulations that will force firms to switch their current business to a new one more environmentally friendly. This is vital, as companies are not expected to take the lead due to their strong connection with the current economic system of profit maximisation (Confino, 2012), but must meet legislative requirements (Bansal, 2000). The main objective of this group is to make companies deal with their toxic problems, and not make the rest of the people part of it. Additionally, the role of the government is also important as a channel to inform and educate consumers in favour of socially desirable directions (Watson et al., 2010; Pereira, 2014).
Thirdly, technology and further research on green IT would be of enormous help. Renewable energy, cloud computing, virtualisation, telecommunications, green IT metrics,… all of them can be leveraged and further developed to make ecological sustainability more possible. It is true that every new technological invention, in some way or another, has a negative impact on the environment (Alegsa, n.d.; Huesemann, 2003). That is why governments ought to make sure that the consequences of IT always keep a gradual reduction path.
Finally, the collaboration of the human being itself, which previously was defended that is essential. As the food activist Anna Lappse argues, humans should understand that the only way to accomplish this task is by coming together for change, because it has already been successful in the past (Confino, 2012). Many authors have defended companies as the ones that will drive this change because of their capacity to make bigger differences (Discovery Society, 2013). However, even if the act of purchasing in an individual perspective may seem trivial, when considering all those acts of other consumers as a whole, it can really have a huge impact on the system.
What is the role of technology in this shift?
Even if technology is badly affecting our environment because our fault, as said previously, it has improved our quality of life and, consequently, we cannot just drastically get rid of it. Hence, we could think about replacing drastically all these non-sustainable technologies we depend on for their sustainable equivalents (Anon., 2012). Nevertheless, technological solutions have their limits as identified by many authors (Huesemann, 2003; Gilbert, 2011).
Firstly, we must notice that such shift is extremely difficult taking into account that western industrial societies are based on the overexploitation of non-renewable material and that is impossible to recycle 100% of the products we consume. Secondly, technology is bounded to the second law of thermodynamics, which claims that every industrial and economic activity has always an unavoidable negative impact in the environment. Thirdly, it seems correct to say that, due to the finite supply of non-renewable fuels, all the energy that we consume should be taken from renewable resources, such as the sun or the air. However, a large scale of solar panel deployment would have a serious environmental impact in the ecosystem as, for example, their massive production or the vast occupation of productive lands. This statement is also defended by the second law of thermodynamics. Last but not least, improvements in ecological sustainability will only delay upcoming consequences because of the growth of the population and the rise in the consumption of goods that it results. (Huesemann, 2003)
Then, the role of technology in this shift is to innovate and conceive new environmentally speaking attractive ways to keep up, as much as possible, a good quality of life that can be maintained over the generations. This concept of newness does not only involve new product or services, but also new methods of production, new sources of supply and organization, and do not necessarily imply revolutionary innovations, rather small incremental steps towards the main goal of environmental sustainability (Johannessen, 2001). In other words, we must gradually reach a point in which the consequences of technology as a whole are lower that the capacity of the nature to solve them and repair itself.