The Dark Side of Sustainable Technology and How We Can Fix It Just Cuz It's Green Doesn't Mean It's All Good

Advancements in technology have the potential to do great good and great harm to our environment. The toxic lake of tech waste in Batou, Mongolia, is testament to the damage that modern technology can do to the environment. The man-made pool of toxic sludge is a result of the tech industry, which relies heavily upon rare earth elements to create everything from magnets to smartphone screens.

On the other hand, advances in technology have allowed renewable energy industries to thrive and gain traction in many countries across the world. About 2.5 million Americans work in renewable energy, which benefits from technology coming out of the tech sector.

Is Clean Energy Truly Clean?

It would be quite difficult to do a proper analysis of the actual environmental costs of the industry and innovation that actually goes into producing the components for renewable power. The production of materials and technology required for a renewable energy operation could potentially be executed in extremely environmentally unfriendly ways — which defeats the purpose.

Sustainable Technology
Cobalt mining for lithium ion batteries is despoiling the environment and harming human health. Credit: Trocaire, FlickrCC

There have been a number of advancements in electrical engineering, one of which has made batteries an increasingly useful resource in clean energy. They’re used in clean cars and provide increased energy security. There are, however, severe environmental impacts associated with batteries, especially those designed for electric cars and renewable power operations.

Sustainable From the Ground Up

Clean energy is a noble goal, and despite the political climate it remains competitive in the U.S. There are a lot of reasons to hope for a future in which the majority of energy is clean, but without clean methods of production we might just be spinning our wheels.

We need to start thinking about sustainability in the design process. The engineers who create advancements in renewable power need to start considering the impact not just of the result of their ideas, but of the systems that create them. From the production of basic materials, to transport, to the machines required for assembly, we need to change the entire supply chain that creates clean technology.

Good News: We’ve Already Started

Green careers are popping up across a number of industries, which include electrical engineering and design, giving sustainability-minded individuals the chance to push change forward at all levels of innovation, creation, and production.

From legal careers that focus on green issues, to corporate social responsibility positions that give people the opportunity to change the way an entire company thinks about the business they do, there are opportunities emerging for individuals to create real change. For people concerned about environmental issues, it’s rare to have the opportunity to do so much good. The work can be so daunting that we don’t know where to begin.

Solar power, wind power, and electric cars are high-end products and the result of long, complex production chains. Until we change the way those chains work, the footprint of clean technology may continue to have an unpleasant dark side. The bottom-up change is absolutely achievable.