Putting the "eco" in media ecosystems

The ecological footprint of websites

The material impact of media on the environment can be traced all along the production chain of our technological gadgets, which disproportionately and negatively impacts the 2/3rd world. Smart phones, televisions and computers require rare earth metals (coltan, cassiterite, wolframite, gold) that are extracted from mining operations that have had a particularly devastating impact in Central African countries. These “conflict minerals” have laid waste to biodiversity and humans and exacerbated regional military conflicts. Once extracted, minerals and other resources are shipped, processed and assembled in nations like China (the “workshop of the world”). The production of electronic gadgets impacts the health of workers and poisons the water and air where they are produced. Once shipped around the world, gadgets are consumed and disposed of at an alarming rate.

Chinese researcher Jack Linchuan Qiu summarizes the system of electronic gadget production as such:

“To make these tangible products, there has to be a global system to assemble, polish, pack, and transport them before they can be used to relieve, generate, and circulate content, and to facilitate social networking. Digitization has, in this sense, made the world more industrial and more dependent on the geopolitics of industrialism, not less. Humanity taken as a whole, including the majority of our fellow human beings in the developing world, has become deeply entangled in a planetary industrial system operating by and through digital media.” (iSlave, p. 13)

In terms of cloud computing, on a global scale server farms already produce as much CO2 as the aviation industry, due largely to the fact that most energy they currently consume comes from coal-powered plants. While large social networks (such as Facebook) and search engines (such as Google) are starting to convert to renewable energy use, Amazon Web Services and BitCoin (just to name a few) are increasing emissions through the expansion of server farms. As The Guardian reported, Loudoun County in Virginia handles upwards of 70% of the world’s online traffic, and its energy needs are primarily served by Dominion, with only 3% of its energy coming from renewables. So ravenous is its energy needs, as of this writing Dominion is involved with developing a regional pipeline that would deliver fracked gas.

The ecological footprint of this website

This website is hosted on DreamHost, which promises “Green Hosting”:

“We’re making a conscious effort to reduce our impact on the environment with optimized facilities and policies that put respect for natural resources at the core of what we do.”

This includes, according to DreamHost:

  • Data centers powered by grids that obtain electricity from many renewable sources
  • LEED Platinum and EnergyStar-certified facilities
  • Power-efficient processors used whenever possible


While this sounds good, what exactly is the ecological footprint of That’s hard to say. While DreamHost appears to be making a sincere effort to be a green company, the language on its website is a bit vague and perhaps misleading. For example, most major electrical grids in the United States obtain at least some energy from renewable sources, so any internet data center in the US can claim it is “powered by grids that obtain electricity from many renewable sources.” This doesn’t mean the data center is powered by renewable energy.

When we chose a webhost for, DreamHost’s operations merited a “green hosted” certification from the Green Web Foundation, which develops tools to support the transition to an Internet that is 100% powered by renewable energy sources. (It’s currently a little bit over 15%.) That certification encouraged us to use DreamHost to host this website.

Since we launched the website, however, DreamHost apparently migrated most of their accounts to servers leased from Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s largest cloud computing company.  (This is an example of the ongoing migration of data from in-house corporate and institutional data centers to so-called “hyperscale” data centers operated by the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft.)  Greenpeace has charged AWS with having a deceptive posture on its use of renewable energy.  For example, it says that while Amazon Web Services is committed to using 100% renewable energy, it has greatly expanded its data center in Northern Virginia even though the local electric utility has not been able to provide any additional renewable energy.  I confirmed that the data center in this dispute is used by DreamHost, so perhaps is hosted there.

We are planning to find another webhost that uses 100% renewable energy. Until then, we’ll have to display this badge:

This website is hosted Green - checked by

The Green Web Foundation has developed a Green Web Check tool and Green Web apps that monitor websites’ “greenness” as measured by the use of renewable energy by their webhosts. Check them out here: