How dark is it on the dark side? The environmental downside of using technology for mediation

Originally posted on the BC Distance Family Mediation Blog

Today, we warmly welcome Colleen Getz — evaluator for the previous phase of our distance mediation service — as she follows up on an earlier post in which she discussed the environmental benefits of meeting with the help of technology:

"We humans have a bad habit of creating new problems in our attempts to solve others. Several previous posts on this blog (Save paper, save trees; Daring to think small; Daring to think BIG) have talked about the environmental benefits of distance mediation over the more traditional face-to-face mediation format. But, to get the full picture, it’s important to look at both sides of the equation — is there an environmental darkside to distance mediation?

Energy used to run our electronics, and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated in the manufacture of that equipment, are the biggest factors contributing to the minus column of the eco-equation for distance mediation. Gartner, an information technology research and consulting company, estimates that the industry generates about 2% of the global volume of emissions. Additionally, there are major concerns about other kinds of pollution, such as the huge volumes of electronic garbage and toxic chemicals released as we dispose of the old and rush to acquire the latest and greatest in electronic wizardry.

But on the plus side, the World Wildlife Fund has examined the contribution these technologies can make in efforts to reduce the other 98% of global GHGs. The Distance Family Mediation Project is a wonderful example of this. In an earlier phase of the project, it was estimated that, on average, somewhere between 500 to 1600 kilograms (.5 to 1.6 metric tons) of emissions were avoided by the participants not having to travel to mediation sessions.

According to Mike Berners-Lee (in his book How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything), the energy consumed by a computer used for a mediation by web conference — say, perhaps, involving three one-hour mediation sessions — can be measured in grams, not kilograms. Three hours of computer use is estimated to emit between 204 and 660 grams (.000204 and .00066 metric tons) of GHGs. This means that, in that early phase of the project, the emissions generated by computer use were less than 1% of the emissions that might have been generated had the participants travelled to their mediation sessions. Clearly, using a computer in a distance mediation process is a winner when it comes to avoiding GHG emissions!

It is important for technology manufacturers and users (advocates of distance mediation included) to continue their search for ways of reducing their carbon footprint. As well, there is much work to do in recycling and properly managing the electronic garbage most of us produce by living and working in the information age. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that, no matter how you do the calculations, the dark side of the eco-equation for distance mediation really doesn’t add up to much — especially when you compare it to the alternatives."

Photo credit: "Trash" by basheem (CC license)

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Comment by Noam Ebner on January 28, 2012 at 10:30am

Hi Susanna -

The paper in which Colleen and I explored the environmental advantages associated with ODR (ODR: The Next Green Giant) is due to come out in the next volume of Conflict Resolution Quarterly. The full text of the article can be found at (click one-click download to access the.pdf).


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