What Will the Internet Do to the Environment?

Some environmental planners think the Internet will be a valuable force in decreasing a number of impacts on our global environment. They point to the fact that online retailers have eight times the sales per square foot of warehouse space as traditional stores. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Internet could make 12.5% of retail space superfluous, saving $5 billion worth of energy each year. These proponents of the environmental value of the Internet note that there has been a 12% increase in the past three years in the number of businesses run from the home and a comparable increase in the number of telecommuting hours. That's a lot of saved gasoline. Finally, they suggest the possibility of the near-paperless office, and champion online habits reducing paper in our lives as we email our grandparents instead of writing letters.

Others are not so sure. Paper production and consumption continues to soar as we print out almost anything from the Internet that we want to save. A Texas Transportation Institute study shows that Americans spent nearly 4.5 million hours in traffic jams in 1999; the number of hours commuters spend in rush hour traffic continues to grow despite telecommuting, as the sheer number of workers living further away from work increases without enough new roads being built. Newspapers, catalogs, and magazines are as thick and plentiful as ever, even though the role of each is being played on the Internet each day.

Nineteenth century urban dwellers used to worry that the increasing number of horses on city streets would inevitably mean knee-deep horse manure everywhere. That fear never came true, thanks to some new technology in the form of automobiles. Yet that new technology brought its own impacts, which were not seen for years. What will be the fate of the Internet?

References

Firestone, David. 2001. "In Study of Nation's Worst Traffic, New York Must Yield," New York Times, May 9, p. A 14.

Taylor, Chris. 2000. "Why Mother Nature Should Love Cyberspace," Time, April-May, p. 82.