By Mallika Balakrishnan

Ahead of COP26, can the narrative be shifted away from what Camila Nobrega and Joana Varon describe as a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism? Mallika Balakrishnan explores the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy’s reading & discussion of Nobrega, Camila & Joana Varon. “Big tech goes green(washing): feminist lenses to unveil new tools in the master’s houses.” GISWatch: Technology, the environment, and a sustainable world. 2021.

On June 17, the Minderoo Centre will be hosting thinkers from academia, civil society, and industry for our workshop on Technology & the Environment.

In the lead up to COP26, we’re keen to spark discussion and amplify action at the nexus of technology and its impact on the environment.

One of the themes we’re hoping to explore more is the environmental cost of technological convenience. 

Frankly, critiques of convenience are often the place my brain starts to tune out: “convenience” frequently serves as shorthand for a framework of climate destruction via individual consumption choices.

Several, though not all, of these analyses are ableist and anti-poor, and they refuse to start from a commitment to decoloniality. 

Nevertheless, the environmental and social costs of convenience are staggering, and will be crucial to understand on the road to environmental justice.

I proposed reading Joana Varon and Camila Nobrega’s recently published article because I resonated strongly with their feminist, power-based analysis of technology and the environment, specifically around the role of big tech companies and intergovernmental meetings such as COP.

Their work articulates the dissonance between big tech’s stated commitments to climate justice and actual consolidation of power, in a way that helped me start to think about convenience at a level of analysis that doesn’t feel disingenuous. 

“Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” “

Some themes and remarks that surfaced in our discussion: 

When it comes to the environment, Big Tech companies are eager to centre themselves in policy-setting debates.

This article highlighted how tech companies have already positioned themselves as having useful tools to help solve the climate crisis, sweeping under the rug the ways they are exacerbating environmental destruction. As brought up in our discussion, this feels reminiscent of tobacco companies’ roles in shaping narratives around the risk of lung cancer. Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” 

Solidarity with local resistance reminds us to avoid consumer/market-centric framing.

So how might MCTD work to address the gap between policy discussions and tangible justice for impacted communities? We discussed the importance of amplifying—and not tokenizing—voices in movement, recognizing many who have been doing this work for years.

There’s a connection to be made to the twin logics of extraction and abstraction (as highlighted in Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI). The relationship between technology and the environment is easily abstracted to technocratic language or boiled down to carbon footprint. This abstraction eschews an explicitly anti-accumulation, structural analysis, and in turn makes it easier for tech companies to position themselves as “green” solutioneers.

We should be in solidarity with real-time resistance and reject framing issues in ways that suggest:

1) the only relevant harms are consumer harms

2) the only relevant solutions are market solutions

3) everything is consumable and replaceable.

As far as tactics for socio-environmental justice go, planting a tree for every square mile of land destroyed leaves a lot to be desired. And as Varon and Nobrega remind us in this article, we should be thinking about the human, social, and environmental costs of environmental destruction as linked.

We also talked about the relationship between environmental destruction and the destruction of the commons: while there were some reservations around the concept of the commons, folks discussed the emancipatory potential of bienes comunes in challenging companies’ privatization and ownership of (often unceded) land. 

We need to look beyond “effectiveness” and remember structures of power.

How do we avoid the “racket” of sustainable development and green tech?

At one level, we need to push back on the claim that Big Tech can effectively parachute in and solve problems of environmental injustice. But whether or not a tech company’s proposed solutions do what they promise, we should remember that the consolidation of power to these companies is the broader context in which this is taking place. 

Drawing from insights around online advertising ecosystems, we discussed how a lack of transparency can make it difficult to hold power to account, especially in terms of regulation. Nevertheless, we emphasized that whether or not a company’s tech solution works is incidental to the power the company has: rather, it’s about how Big Tech companies have consolidated restructured capacity and centered themselves infrastructurally.

Convenience is costly. We need to be asking why, and for whom.

When we think about convenience, it’s worth remembering to question what is convenient for companies, for workers, and for frontline communities—we should think beyond convenience as ascribed only to the individual consumer. Analyses that treat people as totally separate individuals forego possibilities for power through collective action. 

Have a different perspective to add? There’s still time to submit your provocation to our Technology & the Environment Workshop before the May 15 deadline!

Read our call for provocations (no set format; we just want bold questions)here