Stewardship and Sustainability of our online lives

Stewardship and Sustainability of our online lives
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev / Unsplash

A few weeks ago I had my laptop stolen. Earlier that morning I had been reflecting and writing on the laptop about the intersection of our spiritual lives with our digital lives. And then, as if by divine intervention, my laptop disappeared-- during church service no less-- and I was given an even greater opportunity to answer the question: When we spent more time browsing the web, what is that we are doing less of? When we spend more checking e-mail, what are we doing less of? And when we spend more time on Facebook, what are we spending less time doing? Apparently, the answer in my case is cleaning is my desk and organizing the garage.  Those are the things I did more when I could do the the internet less. I joke about this, but I do envision my home as a place of rest and rejuvenation, yet I let clutter accumulate while I spent more time on my computer doing "productive" things.

There are many implications of shifting our increasingly precious free time online. Today I'd like to delve into the carbon footprint of our online lives.

You can use the audio player here to listen to a 15 minute version of the message delivered at my church, (or you can also download the audio file.)

The message continues below the jump.

Fall box bike commute

As individuals and organizations, many of us profess to hold up the value of stewardship, of caring for the earth's resources. But as some of us move more of our lives online, how much do really know about the real-world impact of our actions and data online lives?

When Google's Gmail service launched, it advertised "never delete an email again". Instead, you can archive the e-mail with a single click, and it will always be there in case you might like to find it later.

As part of the launch, Google was offering about 100 times more e-mail storage than their competitors. This was enough, they claimed, to never delete another e-mail in your life. This was a decisive moment that changed web-based e-mail forever. Competitors scrambled to dramatically increase their storage options so they could compete.

Something there bothered me.  In the physical world, this is a way of thinking that no environmentalist would stand for-- NEVER THROW ANYTHING ANYWAY AGAIN?  The circle of life is broken, replaced with a one way trip from creation to permanent storage.

Are the rules for sustainability online really that different?

There's been a belief that when we move activities online, we are being green.  We laud "Going paperless", and celebrate e-everything.

There of course some truth in the efficiencies of digital living. It's certainly intuitive that's less resource intensive to send an e-mail instead of a physical letter, or teleconference instead of flying somewhere for a meeting.

But along with some of these efficient uses of the internet, we've moved some of our unsustainable practices online without deeply questioning the impact of this.

While it may be efficient to send an e-mail instead of a letter, many of us now send and receive far more e-mails than we wrote letters.  Our use of the internet has gone far beyond replacing physical tasks with efficient digital alternatives.

I'll share what I know about the carbon footprint of our online lives now.

To talk about the carbon footprint of our online lives, let's start with the the physical existence of the Internet. Websites and e-mail are served for computers all over the world. Many websites are now clustered in a relatively small number of large data centers.

Picture a data center as a dimly lit, windowless warehouse. On the concrete floor sits aisle after aisle of floor-to-ceiling stacks of computer, neatly set on identical racks, with a blinking lights on the front and neatly organized cable on the back. There is an incessant hum from thousands of spinning disk drives and fans to cool the systems.  The temperature is comfortable, thanks to dedicated cooling systems for the computers. The aisles are even emptier of workers than it is at Lowe's. A small number of people may be onsite to tend to the rare physical needs of the machines, but most people who use the systems could be anywhere. Like you or me, they could even be sitting at home in their underwear.

Already, the data centers that host major Internet sites are drawing more electrical power in the United States than our TV use. [1] Let me say that again: the electricity American's consume to power to their Internet habit has surpassed the amount of electricity used to power to TV habit.  And while we keep our TVs just a few hours a day, we expect websites to be available 24 hours a day, every day.

Data centers tend to be powered by traditional power sources, with a few exception who choose to use wind or solar to power their operations. Google has expressed sincere interest in greening their operations, but so far continues to focus on building out their infrastructure as fast as they can, with a plan to throw money at the sustainability problem, hoping for a solution later.

A scientist researched the energy consumed by a Google search and determined that executing just two Google searches would use enough energy to boil a kettle of water [2] Google refuted this claim, saying that this estimate was far too high. Google performed it's own carbon footprint calculation of a Google search.  According Google's own estimate, it would take a 1,000 Google searches to equal  the impact of driving an average automobile a kilometer, or  6/10ths of a mile [3]. Sending a search to Google isn't just asking a question to a single computer.  Clusters of super computers are used to calculate a response. The footprint of a search is small, but the number being executed every day is staggering. I'm sure Google was trying to present their environmental impact in the best possible light. It's no wonder then that they didn't cross reference these statistics with the number of searches that are currently performed each day. It's estimated that about 300 million Google searches are performed each day.[7]

This means that according to Google's own estimate, the daily impact of Google searches adds up to the equivalent of driving about 180,000 miles each day.  Calculating this number was of my deciding points in preparing this message.  It's such a big number.  Imagine if there were 180,000 less miles driven each day!

With some further research I was able to put this number in perspective. (I think it took less a thousand additional Google searches). The United States Postal Service logs an estimated 2.6 million miles each day, or about 15 times more. [6] Americans in total drive about 5 BILLION miles a day. [4] The impact of Google searches is statistically insignificant compared to this. To try to put this into perspective: If American's were to drive one mile less per year, it would have more a thousand times more impact than if the entire world abstained from searching Google for a single day.

I don't mean to diminish the original number: The daily impact of Google searches equating to 180,000 miles of driving in terms the carbon footprint. It's still a big number and it would great to reduce it further. Comparing the impact of different activities we perform helps us to put things in perspective and prioritize what lifestyle changes could most effective. And we don't always have to chose making one improvement at the expense of another.

The Google search statistic was an example of taking an action online. Life online involves more than just Google searches though.

Our online lives are also composed of data we generate or that is collected about us, sitting up there in the "cloud", at these data centers. There are e-mail folders of archived messages. There are archived posts to mailing lists and forums, and photos of old summer vacations posted on photo sharing websites.

Our data has a cost to exist as well.  Data that seems to be inactive is likely to be regularly accessed for maintenance like virus scans, causing an energy draw proportional to the amount of data involved. Any data stored online is likely backed up every day.  Even inactive data is copied repeatedly to back-up tapes, causing additional power consumption.

What is this impact of this storage in context? I don't know, but it's clear that the more data is out there, the greater the cost to store it.

There's so much data being stored about us, often not because we care about it, but because it benefits the corporations who are collecting it.  The more data Google, Facebook and others collect, the more content they have for pages to serve ads on, and the more relevant ads they are able to display based on the data we give them.

So Google strongly encourages us to archive e-mail, not delete it, which would reclaim resources. Likewise, Facebook and many other sites have few or no limits on the amount of content you can post. Instead, they focus on infinite data structures, like Flickr's "photostream", Facebook "walls", and the endless river of status updates on Twitter.

The design of these sites is not to encourage us to review all of someone's content, or even someone's best content. The design pattern we see over and over online now is to encourage an infinite streams of data, and have us focus only the most recent entries of the infinite streams, while meanwhile the old data is encouraged not to be removed and recycled, but to stay online forever for reference and profit.

It's a hard problem to design tools that find the most relevant information regardless of whether it's the newest or not. Google search tries to solve just that problem. The problem could be somewhat voluntary addressed if people took greater care to update the information that was posted online, or delete content we controlled that knew was obsolete.

As stewards of our online lives, we should apply the same kind of thinking we do about physical world sustainability to our online lives.

Re-consider allowing so much of your data to make a one way trip to permanent archiving.  Cultivate your data like a garden. Something with finite boundries.  Review the things you've planted online periodically. Throw away content that has rotted or expired over time. Prune out the typos. Trim and rewrite your best pieces so they can flourish.

Use your data gardening time to reflect on your past. You may ask yourself "Whatever planted the seed for that article in my head?" But you may also find some heirloom crops, still bright with flavor today.

Now let's zoom out some. How can we profess to be good stewards of the earth, when we engage in activity where we don't really know the impact?

Religious history has seen groups split over such questions. Should we use automobiles? Electricity? The Internet? The Amish stand out for choosing the simpler life, while other demoninations attempt to live "in the world but not of it."

Communicating through the internet is just one example of lifestyle choices which create a more abstract existence, where the affects of simple daily activities touch back to data centers in California and factories in China.

To embrace this complexity while still prioritizing stewardship means taking on the responsibility of understanding the impact of our abstracted actions, from using the internet, to driving cars, to buying foreign-made products.

When it comes being a good steward of our online lives there are many ways to address the complexities and reduce our carbon footprint. Here are three specific practices that I use. The impact of each action may be small, but like a vote, the cumulative effect of small actions can add up to something big. The benefits of such practices go beyond simply reducing carbon footprints. Each one is a practice in mindfulness, that reminds us that our abstracted actions have real world impacts.

  1. The first tip: I  put our home cable modem and wireless router on a power strip. We turn the strip off at night and on in the morning. Not only does this save electricity, it also improves security by completely preventing outside access. It also reduces the amount of radio waves  being broadcast through the house.
  2. A second tip: When sending an e-mail that is primarily an attachment, I consider using the option to not save the message in your sent-mail folder. These messages are much larger than normal e-mails, and I already have a copy of the document on your hard drive, plus the recipients will also have a second copy in their Inbox, and likely a third that is saved to their own hard drive.
  3. Finally, here's a tip that could vastly reduce the number of Google searches, while at the same time finding what you are looking even faster. Top Google searches include queries for "YouTube" and "Facebook". Instead of going directly to a site like "", many people first type "YouTube" into Google and click on the first result. Using a bookmark for popular sites would save a small but repetitive amount of time and energy by going directly to the sites. A bookmark is not only efficient here, it makes that Google is not tracking your search and mediating your experience as pass through Google. You are saving yourself from seeing one more ad that day, which would otherwise be displayed in the right sidebar of Google as you click through.

Ultimately I think the wisdom of "less is more" that applies to being stewards of our online lives. You have the option to just not post something. Or Don't sign up for some website. Or just unplug and go outside. Visit someone in person. Stewardship the old fashioned way has a beautiful simplicity to it.

How have you found satisfaction and success in being a steward of your online life? If you don't use the Internet, or have even just avoided Facebook, what has it meant for you to chose this decision while so many others embrace it? What do you find at the intersection of our spiritual and digital lives?


  1. an EPA study stating that the data center industry devours 61 billion kWh of energy annually compared to ...about 275 million TVs currently in use in the U.S., consuming over 50 billion kWh of energy each year
  2. Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.
  3. the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.
  4. Americans drive 5 billion miles per day
  5. The Dept. of Transportation estimates that Americans drive an average of 29 miles per day
  6. The Postal Service operates a fleet of 219,000 vehicles, including 146,000 delivery vehicles...The average LLV is driven about 18 miles a day. (146,000*18 = ~ 2.6 million miles per day )
  7. ...299.83 million Google searches per day  in May 2009
  8. The book Planet Google was also a useful reference.