Why doing nothing will save the planet

8 Jul|Tom Hodgkinson

Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson urges us to put down our phones to stop climate change

If you want to save the planet, said the Guardian last week, then be an idler. It’s that simple. Every one of its recommended policies for reducing climate change, in a feature on Saturday, involved doing less. Are people finally waking up to the fact that it is activity which causes energy to be depleted and creates pollution? After all, if we simply lay down in the garden all day with a book then we would consume no energy whatsoever. It’s all bleedin’ obvious when you think about it.

Top of the Guardian’s not-to-do list is the four day week. One extra day at home, spent not working, would massively reduce emissions.

“Spend less money” is another idea put forward (not a problem that afflicts the poor, but read on).

We should also eat less meat, eat less food in general, drive less, fly less, buy less and finally, move to north Wales and buy a smallholding (poor north Wales is about to be invaded by high-minded academics who have never been near a spade!).

Oh, and there was a new one: switch to a bamboo toothbrush. And we would add, sleep more.

Another way to put it, we could argue, is “be poor”: one professor says that the poor produce very little climate emissions. So we should, logically speaking, make wealth history.

However, there was one major gap in the Guardian’s list. It’s tech. It uses a colossal amount of energy. I am always amazed that climate scientists never say “get off social media” and “throw away your phone”. Is this because even eco-zealots like George Monbiot are slaves to capitalist corporate swindles like Twitter, because they are sheep? George does not apparently realise that by tweeting, he is not only working for free for a large American corporation which sells advertising next to his tweets, he is also burning up huge amounts of electricity. The digital economy, according to a 2013 study whose results were published in Time, uses a whopping 10% of the world’s power. Your iPhone uses, on average, 388 kWh per year – more than your fridge.

So if Extinction Rebellion were really serious, they would immediately throw away their smartphones and get dumb phones instead, and loiter, rather than Instagramming themselves sitting on traffic islands.

The problem is data centres, the vast server factories that power social media. One of these monsters can use enough electricity to power 180,000 homes. There are thousands worldwide and their number is expected to quintuple over the next couple of years. One of the biggest, at 750,000 square foot, is in Wales.

Recent research has predicted that 50 billion devices might be connected by 2020 – meaning that Information Communication Technology will be responsible for 3.5% of global emissions. Data centres are very thirsty for power: “Researchers say the data centre sector could be using 20% of all available electricity in the world by 2025 on the back of the large amounts of data being created at a faster speed than ever before seen.” Data centres today use 3% of the world’s electricity – that is double the 2014 figure.

Music and video sharing use the most electricity, so cut out your Spotify account and stop sharing cute cat vids. Disconnect. Philosophize. Unsmart your fridge. Do less tech.

And throw away your smartphone. As with other climate change reduction schemes, binning your phone opens up delicious new oases of idling time. I know because I did it.


These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views.

I receive your newsletter and have enjoyed the last few issues particularly. I am so grateful that, in the latest one, you have made the connection between the use of digital media and climate change: thank you. I have been thinking along those lines and talking about it to a few friends, and your article is there first time that I read anyone else sharing my concerns. I am extremely grateful for your research that allows me to see some figures on the actual electricity consumption. Oh and I don’t use a smartphone either…

– Bettina Reiber

Interesting piece in Wired putting forward the other side of this.

– Chris Bilko

I love, love, love your article. I’m always yelled at by family members who get upset because they can’t text me. Having said that I can text if I leave where I live in the redwoods but as I work out of the house I rarely see the need. It’s so easy to almost fold to the people who are close to me and constantly bare their teeth at me because they can’t reach me any time of the day or night. Life is lovely, I can take time to sit and watch the bees that hover on my deck and stare dreamily into the branches of the magnificent trees that surround me. It’s heaven! Keep up the good work.

– Val Larson

According to ZDNet, and they generally know what they’re talking about, an iPhone consumes 7 kWh pa, not 388 kWh. Cheaper smartphones (like the one I’m writing this on) use a lot less. I know this because the iPhone charger generates twice the current than mine. And don’t forgot that the server farms are powering the Idler website amongst others. Btw did you know bitcoin mining consumes more power than Switzerland?

– Nick Wiseman

Great article, Tom. I agree with all of it and have been “banging on about it” for years. Responses were mainly a polite smile or overt mockery. I would add to your article that we should reinvent “family planning” i.e. only have children whom you can afford to house, feed and play with. Keep up the good idling!

– Charlotte Page