Gerry  McGovern 

Gerry has published eight books. His latest, World Wide Waste, examines the impact digital is having on the environment. He developed Top Tasks, a research method which helps identify what truly matters to people. The Irish Times has described Gerry as one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web.  

Earth Experience Design

Digital is so often a world of short-term thinking focused on selling superficial wants, and it's killing our planet. We need designers who demand space to think long term and who are willing to struggle so that they can address deep needs.

We need wisdom, truth, ethics and an understanding of worth that measures the impacts of our designs at an ecosystem level. We must become champions of maintenance and reuse, rather than this constant, relentless and planetary destructive cool newness and innovation cults. We can design great things with so much less of the earth’s energy. We can be part of highly efficient organizations while using so much less data. Let us not go down in history as Generation Waste, the designers whose proudest moment was to fashion the final nail. If we designed our way into this mess, we can design our way out of it.

Thank you, Shaun. Well, welcome everyone. In 1970 humans were extracting from the planet about 30 billion tons of material every year. So the mass of Mount Everest is about 150 billion tons of material. By 2020, we were extracting 100 billion tons. So from 1970 30 billion to 2020, 100 billion tons of material every year. And it is predicted that by 2050 we will be extracting 170 billion tons of material from the earth every single year.

That is not sustainable. Forget about global warming, we cannot consume a Mount Everest of material every year and create a livable planet. 90% of it is waste. 90% either is waste in the mining process or it very quickly goes to waste. I'm sure some of you have heard about the concept of the circular economy. The economy is becoming more linear and not circular.

We are actually becoming a more waste-generating economy. To make this laptop requires about 1200 kgs. The minerals. A typical laptop is about 1.5 kg, maybe two kgs to get the materials, the mined materials which is about one kg in the laptop, we have to dig up about 1200 kgs of rock and stone. That is 99.9% waste.

Digital technologies are much more intensive on nature and on the planet than other technologies These are some of the consequences of mining. Tailing lakes. Most of these tailing lakes, particularly with materials connected with digital, are toxic. They are like open nuclear waste pits with semi-low grade materials, toxins, much of which will never degrade. And they are not built to last.

They are built to last the length of time that the companies that make them will make their profits and change their name or get acquired, etc. in the process. These tailing lakes must last forever because their toxicity will never disappear. But we're okay because these toxic lakes are only in poor countries. Water to make the smartphone that you have requires 1400 litres of water. To make that laptop requires 190,000 litres of water.

Digital is an extraordinarily intensive water-requiring environment. A typical data centre will consume anywhere from 500,000 to 5 million litres of water every day. Every single day. And they tell us it's all free. They tell us, save whatever you want. Plastic. Typical digital product. About 25%. Plastic. Plastic. Another forever invention. That never goes away. It just gets smaller and smaller until we breathe it, until it gets into our blood, until it goes everywhere. It never disappears. Plastic will never disappear. And plastic is not recyclable. The vast majority of plastic. That was just some bullshit propaganda that came from the advertising industries in the seventies to push the blame on to consumers and say you recycle this stuff that cannot be recycled.

Most plastic cannot be recycled,and even what can be recycled can only be recycled two or three times. Whereas stuff like glass or whatever can be recycled forever. Right. So plastic and we don't even know the consequences of turning our world into plastic, which is essentially what we are doing at the moment. In our products, in our smartphone is 16 of the 17 rare earth materials in your smartphone made of rare earth materials and probably somewhere between 50 and 60 metals and a thousand plus substances, one of them being brominated flame retardants like that stop it going on fire or other sort of protections. These never break down.

These never break down. But we do not recycle electronics About 15% globally of electronics is recycled. Even what is recycled, we only get back about 30 to 40% of the materials because of the way the products are designed, etc. They are designed so they cannot be recycled. It's called planned obsolescence. It's called making Apple really rich and making big tech companies.

It's a deliberate strategy to waste the planet so as to make a small group of people extraordinarily rich. But all these silicon, the base material, silicon dust causes lung cancer. Silicon has many negative properties as well as positive properties. Mercury, one of the most poisonous materials in existence, and you find it in most electronics. Mercury...liver problems, brain problems, kidneys, central nervous system. One of the most dangerous metals in existence and becomes even more dangerous when mercury interacts with water.

And we dump over 80% of electronics in poor countries. Right. Lead. Cadmium. Arsenic. Lithium. The lithium. The salt flats. These giant salt planes in Chile that use hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of water every day to dry out the lithium that will transform our world into a beautiful green economy. Did you know that the vast majority of the pollution that comes from a car does not come from its exhaust, but comes from its tires. And tires are delivering even more pollution today in electric cars because the batteries are heavier and because we're driving around in these electric monster SUV planet destroying SUVs in the process. So these are you know, we can innovate our way to the apocalypse. Who said innovation has to be a good thing? Most innovation today is destroying the planet. All these materials. Beryllium Oxide. Copper Tellurium. Manganese. Tungsten. Gallium. Indium. They sound beautiful, don't they?

Amazing. They're all in our phones. Gold, nickel, chromium. These are called "forever chemicals". I wonder why they call them "forever chemicals"? Because they never degrade, they never degrade. And what happens is, when you create so much material complexity and intensity in small devices, you cannot recycle these things. So many of these materials, even though they're scarce and rare, they essentially become invisible from a recycling point of view because of their low quantities in our devices. There's no real way to get them back. They stay in the environment, polluting the water etc. But we cannot get them back because of the small quantities we're using. We use three to four rarer materials just to make our phones vibrate. Isn't that cool? To do the cool things, three to four rarer materials required to make our phones vibrate and that's so essential for society, isn't it? Maybe we could be thinking about material simplicity. About removing materials from design processes rather than constantly adding as we have been trained to do. Titanium. Much of it is mined in Mexico, Chiapas, where it is destroying the Cacaluta River, draining hundreds of thousands of litres every hour of water to use these mining farms and polluting it in the actual process and cobalt and coltan.

More people have been killed over cobalt and coltan than in any other conflict since the Second World War. Right. It happens in the Congo, and it's not just people that are being killed. We are destroying wildlife. Much of the mining is occurring in wildlife zones. The western lowland gorillas are threatened because of cobalt mining mammals. And we are mammals, the entire weight of mammals in the world.

Humans represent about 30% of that weight, of all the weight of mammals in the world. Human livestock is 67% and wildlife is 3%. There's only 3% left. Right. We are creating the metaverse, and in that process we are destroying the universe. Right. There will be lions in the metaverse and to make that metaverse, there will be no lions left in the universe.

Is that the world we want? Surely not. Species decline. Marine. Since 1970 all of this has kicked off since 1970 big time. Right up until 1970, all the CO2 humans had been responsible for, we had only created 25% of it. So for the previous 300,000 years of the modern human existence, we were only responsible for 25% of CO2 by 1970 between 1970 and 1995.

Another 25% between 1995 and 2020. 50% of all CO2. We have gone crazy since 1970. You know what has also happened since 1970. The computer revolution. The technology revolution. Is that an accident? I don't think it's an accident. Insects. 50%. Irish birds. Ireland is an ecological desert, looks green, but we have destroyed a true over farming and various other aspects.

Wildlife, freshwater. 83% decline. We can stop this, you know. We can stop this. 90 kgs in our phone. These things are extraordinary valuable. I'm not saying get rid of phones. I grew up in a small farm. We didn't even have a tractor. I don't want to go back there. You know, I like having a computer, but we need computers that last at least 20 years.

We need phones that last at least ten years. And it will not happen. If we leave it to Google or we leave it to Apple. The only way it will happen through citizen action. That's how we got better health care. That's how we got voting rights. That's how we got most of the things that really matter in society.

They were not given by politicians. They were not given by mega-corporations, they were given through citizen action. And we need citizen action again to save the planet. 60 kgs of CO2 in the manufacturing process of a smartphone. Typical year of use, about three to five kgs. So 80% of the pollution has occurred before you've even bought the thing.

And then we're in this extraordinary vicious cycle where we get rid of this thing that has had such an impact on the planet. After two years? That's insane. That is crazy. Hold on to your devices. Fix them. Get them repaired. The battery. Lithium. Cobalt. Oxygen. Carbon. Aluminum. Just in the battery. Right.

Right to repair movement. One of the great movements. Apple, finally, they said we've become part, we'll accept the right to repair after trying to destroy it relentlessly. Relentlessly. Apple is trying to destroy the right to repair movement. I'm old enough to remember a day when you used to be able to take a battery out of your phone.

If you want to take a battery out of your Apple phone, here's what you need. Oh, this is "we do right to repair." So I want to change my battery. They send you a 1200 kg kit that you need to be practically a nuclear scientist to use to remove your bloody battery. And they say, but we're supporting right to repair. Of course we are.

The mega-companies are making money destroying the planet. They're not going to change. They're not going to even if they want to individually within them, they are not going to change. The change will not occur through organisations The change will not occur through politicians. The change can only occur through citizen action. And the right to repair movement started off as ordinary people and is now sweeping the world.

Global smartphone sales. 15 billion phones since 2007. 15 billion phones. That's 900 million tons of CO2, 1.3 billion tons of material and two and 204 billion tons of water. And this is invisible. This is virtual. Do you know they deliberately created the computer industry in the forties and fifties to be invisible. They hid the chemical tanks underground. It was a deliberate policy strategy to say we are going to create something that's going to, from a marketing perspective, look very different than the old industries.

But it was just marketing, it wasn't real. In fact, the new industries are much more dangerous because your phone is essentially like a little nuclear plant. When it degrades, it will degrade for thousands and tens of thousands of years if we don't properly and carefully look after it. 1200 kg of CO2 as I said for the smartphone. 300 kg of CO2, 1200 kg of stone, 300 kg of CO2 to manufacture that.

80% of the damage has been done in the manufacturing process. So how do you deal how do you amortise that, depreciate that? You use it for as long as possible because it created a lot of damage in the manufacturing process. Global PC sales. You know, they say, oh, the phone will replace the PC. It didn't, the PC sales are growing again in the process.

Nothing ever replaces anything else, it just becomes an add on in our complex world. 1.4 billion tons of CO2, 5.8 billion tons of material. 930 billion tons of water. These are extraordinarily demanding and they're becoming even more demanding because chips are becoming smaller and smaller. And they have to be cleaned because even a gram of dust, one piece of dust would totally destroy a chip manufacturing process.

And one of the ways to clean it is through ultra purified air and ultra clean water in the process. Paddy farmers, they're not Irish farmers, they're in Taiwan, are not getting the water because they have to feed the chip factories with the water. But 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year, enough to build a great wall of China and it's doubling every ten or 15 years in the process.

So in another ten or 15 years we'll be able to build two great walls of China with e-waste. Most e-waste is not recycled, we send it to poor countries, we send it to Ghana, we send it to India. We used to send a lot to China in the process. We pretend we don't do that. Sometimes we send it in products that are almost broken, but then you get another 12 months out of them in the process. We said, oh, but we gave them that computer and it's still working. Just works for another 12 months, maybe six months, and we got rid of it out, so now we don't have to worry about that in Ireland or the UK. We solved our problem. We export our waste here. This has actually been shot, this dump last summer is one of the biggest in the world.

But globally there are 18 million children and 13 million women. They send the women out to do this sort of work. It's women's work. Because the men, they say, well, I'm not doing that work. They use children as young as five to do this work. Why do they use such young children? Because the hands are small and the devices are very small and it's easier to pull the wires out of these devices if you're a five year old child.

If you smell this stuff, they often use Bunson burners on the boards to get out the copper and the metal. They're going to die ten or 20 years earlier than they should because of lung poisoning, because of all sorts of impacts. This is an extraordinary, burning...This happens very typically where they burn the cables to get to the copper, to the other materials. Plastic. That sort of plastic when it's burning, it's not good. But things must last longer. Let's create stuff that lasts. How do we become designers of stuff that is not trivial, throwaway crap, whether it's a website or an app? Here, a vacuum cleaner, 6.5. It should last about 11 years, lasting about 6.5 years. A washing machine in 2011 should have lasted 17 years, was lasting ten years.

A washing machine in 2021 lasting six years because we've added, you know update this, or let's you know send to the soap manufacturer that we're out know, all this bullshit that adds nothing except reduces the life of the actual device. Electronics is very brittle. We need to get electronics out of as much things as possible in the process rather than adding it to a laptop which should last at least 20 years. And they can, they can if we design them properly and if we're willing to take a little bit of extra weight with us when we're actually using them.

A lot of what is driving this is data. So data is absolutely exploding. And of course we're being trained you know, by the drug pushers. It's free, it's free, free. Have more of it, have more of it, create more of it in the actual process. Back in 2010 they estimated there was about two zettabytes of data humans had created.

I calculated that to print out one zettabyte of data, you would need to cut down 20 trillion trees. So to get paper to print out one zettabyte of data, you'd need to cut down 20 trillion trees. So there's only three and a half trillion trees left on the planet. Imagine how much data that is, one zettabyte of data and 12, 2018, 2020.

The initial estimates were 49, then it went up to 64. Look at the way it's going. Exponential growth. This is not sustainable. By 2030 we're going to hit data crisis. Already in Ireland data centres are consuming 14% of our electricity. All of rural Ireland consumes 12%. And they want to double the quantity of data centres in Ireland over the next five or ten years.

Data centres have a big, big but hidden footprint. They are among the most secretive organizations on earth and there's a reason for that. Because they don't want us to know. They know everything about us and we know nothing about them. How about that 28% annual growth and 90% of it is crap, right? And that's not allegorical, that's real.

I've been working in the web since 1994. 90% of every internet is crap. 90% of the vast majority of things that exist. In fact it's even greater in most environments. We are destroying the planet to create digital crap. At least if we were creating something of worth you could say, well, I killed life on the planet, but look at this.

No I created digital crap. 1.4 trillion photos we took last year, 1.4 trillion photos. We took more photos last year than in the entire 20th century. Than in the entire 20th century. And we're never going to look at the vast majority of those 1.4 trillion photos But that's what makes Facebook rich. That's what makes Google rich. Right? They live off our crap because they use it to manipulate us to create more crap.

Time to stop. Probability of data reuse... 5% after 90 days, so it's worse than 90% in the process. Number of websites. Do we need 1.8 billion websites? 91% of which get no traffic from Google. They're not even indexed by Google in the process. And website weight you know, here's some stuff we can practically do in the process.

I've been involved in website design since 1995. Around 2005 the typical web page was 0.4 went up to 0.7, 2010- 2015. Now it's up around four megabytes on average. It doesn't need to be. You can design a great web page with 100 kilobytes, but most of this is developer convenience or designer convenience, or these monumental stupid cliche stock images that pollute so much and so many web pages that add zero value. In a typical web page weight environment HTML will be about 3% CSS about 5%, fonts...everybody wants a custom font these days when most people can't even see the difference. JavaScript, quite intense. JavaScript is different from everything else because JavaScript isn't just a download issue of weight, it creates processing activity on the device once it is downloaded. So it's a special case is JavaScript. Images about 60%. But we're missing the huge monster in the room here.

When you compare it to video. Video is 80% of internet traffic. I'm not saying don't have video, you know, but use video wisely. I've been watching network engineers for 15 years fix problems in Cisco and other organisations and not a single one of them wants a video of how to do it. What they want is an installation manual. They want the actual documentation.

So often the text is better than the video. Choose carefully when you're choosing a heavy option to communicate with, always go for the lightest option. There is nothing lighter than well-designed text based HTML. There is nothing that is better for the environment, so to speak. JavaScript growth exploding, most of it unnecessary, right? 37%. This was a study in the Web

Almanac 37% of mobile pages in JavaScript are unused, right? That was 80 petabytes of data, the equivalent of having to plant 37 million trees a month to deal with unused JavaScript. We can do better than that. Surely. Right? The page that you design, use every piece of code on it, it should be used right. If it's not being used it's waste and get rid of the waste so that we don't cause more waste.

A JavaScript budget absolute maximum should be 350 kilobytes. In most situations, pages don't need JavaScript because they don't need to be constantly changing for any reason. Even looking, you know, watch the weight of digital. I did a test where I saved a thousand words of text in HTML. It came out at 39 kilobytes. I saved the exact same way, the exact same amount in PDF and it was 141.

PDF is horrible for multiple, multiple reasons, but it's also horrible from a weight point of view as well. So just be watching these choices that you make. When we scale as individuals, they are meaningless, but if we can scale them and convince our organisations and convince others to do them, we can begin to address the absolute explosion of data that's occurring at the moment.

Years ago when I was writing about this, I wrote my first book in 1996 called Ireland: The Digital Age, The Internet, I'd say, "Oh, it's so much better than sending physical letters and everything like that." And yes, sending an email has less of an impact on the planet than posting a letter. The only problem is every year we send 405 billion letters, but every day we send 390 billion emails 80% of which are spam in the process.

So I calculated that we would need to plant 32 billion trees to deal with the pollution caused by, a lot of these are not even opened... by unopened emails, by spam, etc. This is the waste email. I'm not talking about the productive email. 32 billion. So thinking about these things and oftentimes, the attachments have a real negative impact, and the more attachments - I don't know if you've noticed in your own organisations, but there's a direct link between the quantity of attachments that are sent through email and the crappiness of the intranet.

The more crappy the intranet is, the more people will send attachments because you're not going to be able to find it on the intranet anyway, so I better attach it for you. So if we designed good intranets where people could actually find stuff, we wouldn't be sending so many bloody attachments, you know? So there's things we can do, there's things we can do.

I was, you know, trying to figure out things through the nineties or whatever. And, you know, I read, you know, Jared Spool and Jacob Nielsen and all these sorts of people. And one of the first rules of user design was you are not the user, you know, that that's one of the core rules.

So that's great. So I thought, yeah, well, it's not about me. We have to look outwards and then you learn very quickly that it was not about the organisation as well or it should not be about the organisation. Most complexity is, is not even organisational. It's departmental. Departments want to organize things in the way that suits the department, not even the organisation in the process.

So you often see most of the problems occur at a departmental level, not at an organisational level in the process, but I discovered user-centered customer-centred. And I thought that's it, I'm going to finish my career on that. I've discovered Nirvana. That's what it's all about, right? You know, it's all about the customer. It's all about making it easier, but maybe we're making it easier for people to destroy the planet. Maybe making it easy isn't always a good thing. And I find it strange even saying that after having spent 20 years talking about how we should always make things easier, etc. in the process. I think we have to look outwards. We have to look at the earth experience not just the user experience, not just the customer experience. The impact of all this on nature and on the climate, on water, etc. and make these conscious decisions and rather than saying "just do it", maybe just don't do it, you know, don't do it.

Be the voice that says, we don't need this extra feature, we don't need this extra content. The vast majority of apps never get used after a couple of months in the process. Why are we going through this really? You know, we are so intelligent but so unwise. We are so much better educated.

Where is our wisdom? Our wisdom is out here. We need to regain a sense of wisdom in the world. And it will not come from the big brands and it will not come from the politicians. Who are we left with? We're left with the people in this room. So the earth experience. Can we move from short-term thinking, delivering superficial wants to longer-term thinking, solving deep needs?

That's the big challenge. That's the transition. This is what makes money right now. But can we challenge that? Because only us, only the citizens can really challenge that in my belief. The UK Committee on Climate Change they said, "how are we going to get to net zero?" and let's park net zero as even a good objective. But it's better than "how do we get to destroy the planet by 2050?". So they estimated about 38% of the change can come from low carbon technologies.

Some behaviour change demands 53%, a major behaviour change demands 9%. We don't need new technology or more innovation to solve the problems that face us. We need to start walking more. We need to get on a bicycle. We need our kids to walk to school, not be driven in monster SUVs. We need to feel safe in the streets that we're not going to be run over by a technology. Technology has taken over our world.

Our kids are spending time on devices because they can't go out. But let us create spaces again where kids can go out and play in the street. That doesn't need a revolutionary weekend brainstorm by a bunch of high-paid consultants to figure it out, does it? It needs parents to say, enough is enough. Let's all get on the street and start cycling and walking in the middle of the street, as they did in Barcelona two years ago.

You know, we can bring about this change. We have a lot more power and all the great changes, from health to education to voting came from true citizen action in the process. A survey I saw just last week, almost nine in ten UK adults don't know what the circular economy is. There's your job but you won't do it on your own.

We need to come together into organised groups. Individually we get taken off by the marketing or the relentless power of these organisations. And another concept to leave you with; de-growth. Why do we need constant growth? That's a cancer. And we have moved from being consumers of the earth to being devourers of the earth.

We need de-growth and we can live very well using technology wisely. Why do we need to make more shit? We don't. We don't. We have enough technology. We landed people on the moon with technology. That's a thousandth of the power of what's in our smartphone. We don't. We need more wisdom. You know, we need to become much more active.

It's not enough for us to get it. If you get it, you've got to convince somebody else and try and create something in your locality, a repair cafe or something. I know it's asking a lot of in a lot of situations, but if we don't act, it's not going to happen.

If you're interested in these ideas, my last book World Wide Waste. Thank you very much for listening.