I’ve been on a crusade about data awareness for several years now. I try to help people understand what makes their every-day digital life possible—from sending a document to print or paying with a debit or credit card, to their everyday email, twitter and Facebook activities. I’ve launched “Lighten Your Load” campaigns to encourage employees to delete unneeded digital files and emails, and I include the topic as a speaking point in just about every presentation I give.
You would think the recent flood of articles on the “truce” between Facebook and Greenpeace regarding the energy source for Facebook’s new data center in Oregon would be welcome news. Unfortunately, I’m just really annoyed. I find most of the headlines misguided and/or misleading and the Greenpeace campaign itself lacking in integrity. Add in that there are those patting each other on the back for a perceived win, when in fact they’ve only demonstrated our society’s failure to consider the whole system when attempting to solve problems, and you’ve got one good recipe for hitting a sore nerve.
Have you seen the title on Environmental Leader, a go-to source for sustainability professionals? “Facebook Caves to Greenpeace, Plans to Run on ‘Clean, Renewable Energy.’ The headline makes clear who are the winners and losers. If you scan coverage by the major news outlets, most of them opted for the word “truce” instead. A combat metaphor still, but at least it implies mutually agreed upon closure. The need to imply that the “all-powerful Facebook” recognized the error of their ways and deferred to Greenpeace is ridiculous. I’m sorry, but it is. Anyone who has ever worked on the corporate side of these kinds of challenges will tell you the same. Businesses do what (they believe to be) is in their best interest. If renewable resources could compete in terms of both cost and reliability, they would be the go-to choice for energy suppliers and purchasers. It’s really that simple.
I’m guessing the thinking was to go after a highly visible, large energy consumer, preferably one against which it would be comparatively easy to agitate the masses. Once said consumer was successfully pressured into moving to renewable energy resources, there would be a spark of investment and innovation in the field—further leading to a hoped-for decrease in cost of the product itself. I can understand the flow of the argument; I just think it is flawed.
Why do we have to have winners and losers when win-win scenarios are possible? Approaching corporations as potential partners will always be more effective in the long run. Instead of stirring up turmoil, why not use one’s resources to create a collective of major corporations that all agree to invest a set amount of money in renewable energy each year, an amount that increases at an agreed upon rate? Climate Savers Computing Initiative (CSCI) took this approach to spur the manufacturing of Energy Star desktop computers. I view their work a success—You would be hard pressed to find a computer today that isn’t Energy Star rated. CSCI successfully influenced an entire industry. Greenpeace bullied a single company. It seems like such a lost opportunity.
The potential for this movement could have included widespread awareness about the carbon footprint of an individual’s digital life. It could have included tips for how to better manage data, and Greenpeace itself could have led the charge by serving as example. The challenge, though, is that our lives are managed in so many ways by technology that its use and source is more often a murky gray area, rather than black and white pronouncements of right and wrong.
To my mind, a campaign led with integrity would have meant an organization that removes itself from Facebook. After all, Facebook’s energy needs are determined by the amount of data they must manage in those centers. Greenpeace has an active fan page with over one million “Likes.” Imagine if the organization and its one million followers removed themselves en masse from the social platform. The implications could have been impressive—especially if those users went on over to Google+ to connect with their friends. Any significant movement of users outside of Facebook’s walled garden presents a potential loss of revenue in the immediate (from advertisers and app developers), not to mention the threat of a movement that extends beyond those one million users. I would guess that Google would have been happy to welcome those users as well.
If they were to make such a move, though, it would be important to ensure that all of Google’s data centers are efficient and green and sourced entirely by renewable energy (which they are not). It would make no sense to move from one platform to another if you ended up facing the same challenges, right? And that’s the crux of the issue. There is no service provider who can make such claims because it is a complicated system with complex requirements. Change needs to happen at either end of the source of the problem: production and demand. And changes in demand management for data reduction begin with the user—with us.