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issue: 03/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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1 State of the World 2000, The Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown et al., particularly Molly O'Meara's Chapter 7, "Harnessing Information Technologies for the Environment," W. W. Norton & Company, New Yor/London, page 127.

2Thanks to Frieda Gordon Dilloo of Berkeley, CA.

3 From the ULS Report, a bi-monthly newsletter created to help people Use Less Stuff by conserving resources and reducing waste.March-April,1998, Volume 5, Number 2, "The Paper Chase;".

4 Build 2.1 January 1999, by David Tomere, editor, BETA Online

5 In the last 20 years, the combined usage of today's top ten users has increased from 92 million tons to 208 million, a growth of 126%. Individual percentage increases showed the USA lowest at 77%, the UK at 88%, France at 104%, Germany at 129%, Italy at 131%, Japan at 137%, Spain at 168% and Canada at 219%. But the real stars were China at 597% (from 3.8 million to 26.5) and S.Korea at 842% (from 0.7 million to 6.6).

This information availablehere. I thank David Tomere for bringing this site to my attention.

6 Produced by "Too Much Information! No Paperless Office Yet, But Plenty of File Cabinets," by Tiffany A. Wilken.

7 Exopa Terra, an electronic journal of technology and society, conducted an informal survey of 75 office workers to determine how the widespread use of technology has impacted the volume of paper circulating in the office. It found that respondents print much of what they receive electronically.

8 United States Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response (5306W). The article cited is June 1996. For more info on WasteWise: 800 EPA-WISE.

9 Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, phone: 206-223-1151, e-mail:, web:

10 This amount varies according to which computer you use. But I also saw a variety of figures, one as high as 300 watts per computer.

11 Brown et al., p121.

12 Brown et al., page130, as quoted from US Dept. of Energy, Annual Energy Outlook.

13 Brown et al., p 130.

14 ULS, March-April,1998 issue, as above.

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology:
Can Computers Save Resources?

by Cate Gable

Last month, I outlined the basic IT/ECO dilemma: can we justify information technology as a supporting tool for global ecology when computer manufacturing is one of the most polluting processes on the planet? For every 25-kilogram computer, there are 63 kilograms of waste, 22 of them toxic.1

One reader pointed out, "In order to ponder figures like these in a meaningful way, they would have to be juxtaposed with statistics such as: how much a typical office computer or home PC saves on driving, paper, and chemicals (for copying etc.)."2

I decided to take the challenge. Here's what I discovered.

Most evidence points to computers actually increasing paper usage. Eighty percent of the waste in a typical office is high-grade white paper. The volume of office paper and commercial printing increased 245% between 1960 and 1994, from 3.9 to 13.5 million tons.3

David Tomere writes in his online mag, BETA Online: 4

  • The United States' over-all paper usage dwarfs other countries' with 88 million metric tons in 1995 to number two Japan with 30 million tons.
  • From 1975-1995, the combined usage of today's top ten users has increased from 92 million metric tons to 208 million, a growth of 126%.
  • Some authorities predict that world consumption will increase during the next 15 years from 280 to 490 million metric tons, another rise of 75%.5

Tiffany Wilken in her essay on the myth of the paperless office reiterates,6 "paper usage seems to be increasing, rather than decreasing. What gives?" Though we take advantage of digital technology for info-searchs, email, chats, and games, we don't quite trust it. We've all been burned by our computers at one time or another. In the back of our minds is the haunting doubt, "What if my computer crashes and I lose all my files?" A hardcopy back-up still feels safer than something on hard-disk.7

The major obstacle to reaching the paperless office may be "sociotechnical," according to a report funded by the Electronic Document Systems Foundation. People like the smell of opening a book. We may simply prefer paper.

On the other side of the fence are those who think the paperless office is occurring in a slow transition. The EPA hosts information for corporate members in a group called WasteWise.8 They report many instances of dramatic savings in office waste in the following general categories:

  • on-line purchasing catalogs, directories, human resource documents, and corporate policy manuals avoid the need for constantly updated paper versions
  • CD/ROMs or other electronic filing and storage systems store vast quantities of well-indexed information without the use of paper
  • Electronic data interchange (EDI) saves $1 to $5 per document over paper- (other e-commerce business-to-business savings have yet to be measured)

But what about energy costs? The Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center estimates that, "About 25 percent of office computers are left running at night and on weekends. . .which accounts for about 7 percent of commercial electricity consumption. That doesn't include the cost of air conditioning to remove heat buildup caused by office equipment."9

A typical desktop computer with a monitor uses 120-18010 watts of electricity, about the same as two lightbulbs. Computers in sleep mode use 30 watts or less. 11

Yet the net effect of the use of information technologies is far from clear:

Computers and other office equipment represent the fastest-growing demand for electricity. At the same time, most computer processing units are embedded in devices other than computers and these electrical controls have increased energy efficiency in a number of industries.

In 1999, electricity demand was only slightly higher than the previous years because was off set by a decrease in industrial demand from efficiency improvements.12

This research took about 2 hours. I did print out one longer WasteWise report of sixteen pages-who would want to read that on a computer screen-but I used Union Camp Great White paper with 25% recovered fiber that had gone through the printer once already. And I did not drive to the library, although as Lester Brown et al. have pointed out in their hot-off-the-press State of the World 2000, "No communications technology in history has ever been associated with a new reduction in travel."13

So what's my conclusion?

We would have to take into account the entirety of the earth's macro-systems, tally up everyone's missed trips to the library, count up all the computers left on 24/7, figure the percentage of computer 'sleep' time, count sheets of paper, give credit for recycled fiber. . . How can any of this be measured in a neat total? It's enough to make rocket scientists run screaming from the room.

But, it's not all bad. More and more of us are realizing that the 'cost' of a computer is not just what we paid for it. If we are asking questions too large to be measured that means that our consciousness about the earth is changing radically.

Another reader of last month's column said, "I just read your article in Mindjack. Good for you, Cate. Particularly your unwillingness to come to a conclusion. If we don't use IT we're sunk socially and environmentally. Lead on! Godbless. Julie."

She's right twice. We can't come to a conclusion, yet-there isn't a clear one- and perhaps IT can assist us in finding one. Every time I cruise the web I find innumerable, creative ways that IT furthers the environmental cause:

  • The World Wide Fund for Nature's (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) Panda Passport that you use to travel electronically and gather points as you respond to environmental crises around the globe:

And how 'bout this runner-up winner in a ULS environmental contest who earned in-line Skates from Rollerblade, Inc. for his effort:

Tobay Salas, Hinesburg, VT, age 6, home school: When something breaks, I make it into something else. For example, the arm broke on my robot and I made it into a toy pocket clock. I didn't throw anything away and got a new toy by using my imagination. 14

Hey, it's a start!, even if recycling your robot arm may not have as much impact as a moratorium on logging. The use of IT for complex data retrieval and storage projects created by environmental scientists using GIS and data-mapping techniques are giving us a view into earth's macro systems: ozone depletion, climate fluctuations, biodiversity distribution-a view that hasn't been available before.

We'll look at some of these projects next month.

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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