Circulating music as resource-free downloads might reduce carbon footprints, but the fast turnover of the computers, MP3 players and mobile phones we play them on costs the Earth plenty, argues Phil England.

It’s been encouraging to read in this column about the responses musicians are formulating to the threat posed to their already precarious livelihoods from declining CD sales. But I’d like to widen the discussion with a consideration of the broader social and environmental impacts of current technological trends.

There’s an assumption that digital download culture is resource-light and impact-free. The idea that tangible product has 'dematerialised' is one that the digital industry is keen to get into circulation. Yet one recent study suggests that it could be more than just marketing speak.

Research published by Yale University entitled "The Energy And Climate Change Implications Of Different Music Delivery Methods" (Journal Of Industrial Ecology, October 2010) concludes that there is a 40–80 per cent reduction in energy use – and, correspondingly, greenhouse gas emissions – of an album that has been downloaded as an MP3 compared with a CD that has been purchased from an online store and delivered to your house. Result!

But there are caveats. Although published in a peer-reviewed journal, the research was funded by Microsoft and Intel, so everything is not what it seems. The main determinant of whether there is a 40 per cent or 80 per cent saving is whether or not the download is subsequently burnt to a CD and stored in a jewel case. If it is, then the 40 per cent residual saving is due to the energy that would have been spent getting the CD to your door. But even this figure starts to wither if you challenge the study’s curiously weighted assumption that your CD with packaging weighs a full pound (450g) and that it is delivered by courier van rather than regular US Postal Service.

Without scouting round and drilling down into other research that may or may not be out there, let’s give this idea the benefit of the doubt. The saving might not be what it first appears, but it seems there is indeed a saving. The move from CDs to MP3s means we’re living lighter on the Earth. If the retreat to vinyl in some quarters (as celebrated by David Keenan, for example, in Collateral Damage, The Wire 329) is likely to be a step backwards in this regard, it’s not really a cause for concern if it remains a niche trend.

So it seems like a move in the right direction, but even download culture is not impact-free. Consider the energy and resource implications of home computers, smartphones and MP3 players. Between 1990 and 2009, home computing and consumer electronics were responsible for pushing up UK home electricity consumption by 20 per cent at the same time the UK government was supposed to be cutting its greenhouse gases emissions by a similar amount. Perhaps the increase in the number of computers and gadgets in the home will start to level off, but the turnover of these products is likely to remain high in a growth-driven economy that recognises neither planetary boundaries (such as the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) nor our finite resource base.

The alarmingly short lifespan of computers also means that more energy is spent in their manufacture than the total electricity they consume when in use; and disposability implies a cumulative pressure on mineral resources. Mining these minerals essential to their circuitry often involves both a resource grab and a land grab, which dispossesses local communities, destroys ecosystems and poisons local soil and water sources. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western corporations hungry for the coltan used in mobile phones and computers are complicit in a resource conflict in which over five million people are estimated to have died. Last year the United Nations Environment Programme reported that the annual extraction of ores and minerals rose by a factor of 27 over the course of the 20th century and under a business as usual scenario would treble again by 2050.

Labour conditions are a concern all along the conveniently hidden supply chain from mining, through processing to manufacturing. In 2010 the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights likened conditions inside a US-owned high tech factory in China to those of a minimum security prison. Working conditions at these facilities regularly drive people to suicide. In January this year 150 workers threatened a mass suicide at the world’s largest electronics manufacturer Foxconn. Apple has admitted that child labour is a problem at Chinese factories that manufacture its products.

But the game changer is climate change. We can deny the way our technology links us to labour abuses and resource conflicts if we wish to keep our heads in the sand, but climate change is something we can’t ignore, as it threatens our collective survival. As leading climate scientist James Hansen put it, we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 drastically from current levels “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

I wrote about some of this back in 2005 for the London Musicians Collective’s Resonance magazine in a piece called "Time To Unplug? Thoughts On Music, Technology And Environmental Limits". I was hoping to generate some debate in the experimental music community about personal responsibility in this area and possible future trends. I pointed to the example of sampling composer Matthew Herbert, who quit his excessive flying habit on environmental grounds; to the possibility of an enlightened national arts policy supporting a revived regional touring scheme; and to Ivan Illich’s call to choose “a life of action over a life of consumption”. I stopped reviewing CDs for The Wire, reasoning that it would be hypocritical to do otherwise.

But resisting the flow is not easy. We might know one or two people who have somehow managed to resist the social pressures to buy a mobile phone for example, but they’re the exception, not the rule. I was a relatively obstinate late adopter in the mobile phone stakes, but have found a computer fairly indispensable to my work for some time and have flown twice to New York in the last ten years to visit my girlfriend’s family. I have just completed an unauthorised audio tour of London’s Tate Modern with radio artist Jim Welton, which relies on the user having a smartphone or MP3 player to listen to the work, so I could be accused of incentivising the very technological novelty I’m criticising. But in my defence, the project is about criticising BP’s sponsorship of national galleries like the Tate as part of an ongoing campaign to end the normalisation of one of the world’s biggest environmental and social criminals through its association with the arts.

After all, at this late stage in the game we need to move beyond individual behaviour change and push for urgent system-level changes, such as new international rules to ensure we recognise and respect planetary boundaries and the rights of nature; outlawing ecocide (large-scale damage to ecosystems); and changing the legal structure of corporations and banks so that they operate in 
the public interest. At the same time, we can help to usher in a more genuine dematerialisation by recovering the kind of participatory art practice that Dirty Electronics’ John Richards hinted at in his Collateral Damage column in The Wire 338.

Phil England and Jim Welton’s unauthorised audio tour of London’s Tate Modern, Drilling The Dirt (“A Temporary Difficulty”), is downloadable from tateatate.org

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.