Environmentalists or hyperconnected?



Considerations on the dilemmas of ecoactivism

At the “climate camp”, among hundreds of participants, some circulated from one group to another saying in low voices: “In 15 minutes, meeting to prepare for tomorrow's demonstration. In the corner of the field.” When you arrive at the indicated location, the furthest away from other activities, you are invited to place your cell phone on a table, a few meters away. Then, the activists get as close as possible to each other and information is exchanged in low voices. The reason is obvious: this demonstration plans to arrive, without prior authorization, in a location that the police consider “sensitive”. Therefore, it is necessary to play the clandestinity card.

But we know that smartphones can work both ways and transmit the signal to eavesdroppers without their owners' knowledge. The activists then stop for 15 minutes – no doubt futilely, as there is certainly spyware (spy programs) capable of listening from a distance... not to mention the fact that there are most likely informants among the dozens of activists (but this is another subject rarely discussed in the movement).

The rather recurring ritual of turning off our phones is clearly a less than honorable commitment: we are well aware that we really should be without a permanent connection, but we only manage to do it every now and then, for 15 minutes, and only for “safety” reasons. , which makes us laugh the most because of its somewhat Boy Scout appearance. And yet, ecologically sensitive people should, more than anyone else, be wary of the digital world and reduce its use as much as possible. At the risk of repeating arguments that every environmentalist should know by heart and spread around them, let us remember some “basic banalities”.

Devastating screens

The internet is one of the largest consumers of energy: currently 10 to 15% of electricity worldwide, but with strong growth that will make it the sector with the highest energy consumption within a few years.[I] Its contribution to global warming is well known. Networks are said to be “immaterial”, but they are based on very material structures, such as data centers, cables, computers and telephones.

Presenting the move to an ever greater use of digital technology as an “ecological” solution is an illusion or a deception, just as when we propose – following the example of the German Greens in government – ​​to make the most of remote work, even rejoicing due to the fact that Covid management contributed greatly to this evolution. We must, therefore, forget that the Internet and cell phones only exist thanks to the extraction of raw materials and the proliferation of waste that necessarily occur in deplorable conditions in the south of the world.

But the same people who only drink coffee and wear “fair trade” t-shirts are not very sensitive to this issue, because they know that, in this area, they will not find any label that eases their conscience and that they should, therefore, do without it completely. if they were coherent.

Let us briefly mention the consequences of electromagnetic waves on health and the fact that we are no longer safe from radiation anywhere.

Next, ecological awareness is generally accompanied by a concern for freedoms (even if, in certain circles, the temptation grows to evoke authoritarian methods to partially resolve the ecological crisis, whether in the form of smart cities with detailed control of behavior people, whether in the form of a true “ecodictatorship”).

It is not necessary to remember that today nothing threatens freedoms more than the possibility of following a person's every word and every gesture through connected objects, whether it is their telephone or their credit card, their electricity consumption (Linky meter ) or TV series, your train tickets or your supermarket purchases. We are already experiencing a degree of surveillance that, in many aspects, surpasses that described by Orwell in 1984, when it was still possible to position ourselves out of sight of the screen at home.

And since, in this domain, everything that can be done eventually gets done, we can be sure that the surveillance systems that are already working in China, including facial recognition, will soon be common throughout the world. At all levels, there is permanent pressure to live a digital life – anyone who doesn't have a cell phone is deprived of certain services. For capital and the State, total digitalization clearly constitutes an absolute priority and nothing should escape it – which is reason enough to oppose it.

Furthermore, ecology means defending nature from technological aggression, that is, criticizing the increasingly artificialization of existence. It is impossible not to notice that, the greater the digitalization, the less direct our relationship with other human beings and with nature.

Activists caught on the Web

These facts are well known. If we remind the average environmentalist of them, he will quickly admit it. But putting it into practice is another matter. We often see that the reasons given, both by those in power and by ordinary citizens, to declare any rapid change impossible (getting out of the car, abolishing pesticides, reducing meat consumption, ending hunting, banning nitrites, drastically reducing air traffic) , etc.) are false and, at best, boil down to laziness, or even sabotage and the desire for everything to continue as before.

But the same ecologists who make this justified criticism are quick to declare that networks facilitate the organization of militant life and the dissemination of information to such an extent that it is unthinkable to do without them. The subject itself causes irritation, the discussion quickly moves on to other topics. Only one aspect attracted attention: the fear of wiretapping. But the technological solution is already ready: “ultra-secure” applications, because they are end-to-end encrypted.

All activists need to become experts on these apps and then swear by Protonmail, Telegram or Signal. It is a shame that in 2021 Protonmail passed on information about environmentalists to the police.[ii] It is absolutely true that the police can force any vendor to hand over their data when “security” is at stake (“ecoterrorism!”). And it is equally true that the police can infiltrate, with or without legal basis, any means of communication. It is childish to believe that we can communicate confidentially on the internet.

Perhaps there are safer ways to distribute information that is not intended for law enforcement. For example, the old postal services, possibly using addresses of non-suspect people. For more than a century, this was very common among people who had something to hide. Or speak on the phone in code. But all this costs time and effort, and the activist, like everyone else, like the common citizen who praises the train and, in the end, ends up going by car, resorts to the easiest way.

In fact, at the point we are at, it seems very difficult to suddenly be without a smartphone, or a car, or a bank account. But wouldn't it be necessary to at least start the debate and, above all, start some “good practices”? Why stick QR codes with the program everywhere in a climate camp without printing it? Why distribute documents from a “Don’t Pay for Fossil Fuels” campaign (Last generation, Italy) always with a QR code next to it, a symbol of the total digitalization of the world and its consequences for the environment, such as excessive consumption of fossil fuels?

It would be inconvenient to go to the Sainte-Soline demonstration without a smartphone. To get there with a shared vehicle, you would need to sign up on a website with a password and everything else, like Blablacar. Then, to know where to go, we would be invited to register on Telegram, etc. Anyone who did not comply with these rules would be a nuisance to others and would be considered, at least tacitly, reactionary, old, unadapted, outdated. Just like the rest of society.

A practical suggestion: in all environmental meetings and actions, the food is always vegan, although not all activists are. So why not declare these meetings “internet free”? Even if you are disconnected for a few hours, or a few days, it would be possible to promote detoxification and awareness…

However, this proposal is unlikely to be successful. In fact, one of the characteristics of ecoactivism is the search for unanimity and the avoidance of internal conflicts (“there are so few of us…”). Giving up connection, even if only for a short time, would seem very difficult to many people; Perhaps we would then discover that nomophobia (the anguish of being without a cell phone, disconnected) is even stronger than “ecoanxiety”.

Behind the issue of the use of networks, there is a very serious potential divide in the environmentalist camp: between those who believe that avoiding ecological catastrophe requires a sharp reduction in the use of technologies and the reconstitution of practices of autonomy, and those who believe, even without saying it openly, that it will be inevitable to resort to existing technologies or those yet to be developed, from remote work to geoengineering, from waste management and circulation algorithms to synthetic meat, from electric cars to polystyrene thermal insulation, from wind turbines to biofuels …

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy. Author, among other books, of A permanent plot against the world: Essais on Guy Debord (The breakaway).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


[I] “If the Internet were a country, it would be the third largest consumer of electricity in the world, with 1.500 Terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, behind China and the United States. In total, the digital sector consumes 10-15% of the world's electricity, the equivalent of 100 nuclear reactors. And this consumption doubles every four years! Thus, according to researcher Gerhard Fettweis, by 2030, the Web's electricity consumption will be equal to the world's consumption in 2008 for all sectors combined. In the near future, therefore, the Internet will become the largest source of pollution in the world (…) In terms of CO2 emissions, the Internet pollutes 1,5 times more than air transport.” (“Internet: the biggest pollution on the planet?”, fournisseur-energie.com, July 26, 2023 – by the way, it is not an environmentalist website, but one that gives “advice to consumers”!).

[ii] “ProtonMail transmits IP addresses to the police: 4 questions to understand the controversy”, Numerama, September 6, 2021.

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