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Measuring the mobile footprint

The live launch of the spiked/O2 online debate took a hard look at the impact of mobiles on the environment.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Science & Tech

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It has been claimed that they fry our brains, confuse pigeons, cause bullying, anti-social behaviour, nausea, cancer and sound pollution. Yet to most people, the mobile phone is not a life-threatening device to dread, but rather a practical piece of technology for everyday use.

spiked and O2 launched the online debate series Mobile Futures in order to examine fears around mobile phones and new technologies, and to look at how the great potential of mobile phone technology can be expanded. In the latest instalment, What future for the mobile footprint?, MPs, environmentalists, mobile communications industry figures and expert commentators have explored mobile telephony’s impact on the environment. Last week, spiked and O2 hosted a live debate in central London, bringing together some of the online debate contributors and members of the public.

The aim of the online and live debates was not to get stuck on technical aspects of production processes, use of resources or recycling options, but to interrogate the perceptions and realities behind mobile phones’ environmental impact. In taking a hard look at the measures that the mobile industry is taking to reduce its carbon footprint, in cooperation with other corporate sectors and the government, participants in the debates have unpicked some of the motivations and assumptions underlying such initiatives.

Speaking from the panel at the event, Roger Sharp, director of public affairs at Telefonica O2 Europe, explained that O2 is keen to learn about public perceptions of the mobile industry and expectations of how it should manage its environmental impact. In their response to the online debate, Phil Downing and Jenny Dawkins from opinion research group Ipsos MORI highlighted why industry figures are keen to monitor and manage social impacts. Based on their interpretation of several polls, Downing and Dawkins wrote: ‘The majority of consumers think industry has the requisite influence to combat climate change, in stark contrast to a much smaller minority who believe the same is true of individual consumers.’

Several debate respondents argued that the responsibility for tackling pollution should not lie with individuals, corporations or the government alone; rather, all these sections of society have a role to play. Chris Huhne MP, for example, told spiked: ‘We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and others about the big issues of the day such as climate change… While the corporate sector’s initiatives should be welcomed there is also an important role for government in regulating emissions.’

At the live event, an audience member argued that this was a negative trend, as we are now being inundated with lifestyle lessons that are more to do with moulding particular forms of social behaviour than tackling large-scale societal and technical problems. Yet David Hall, international director of the Climate Group’s ‘Together’ campaign, said he sees nothing wrong with initiatives that allow us to save energy and money. He insisted that this is not about telling people ‘they can’t do things’ or about ‘lecturing and bullying’ the public into going green. James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort university, argued that Hall was being rather disingenuous because the campaign was based on the idea that companies could and should influence consumer behaviour.

Woudhuysen said there is a dearth of innovation within the IT sector, which is currently not realising the potential of mobile technology. In this context, efforts to reduce the minimal ‘mobile footprint’ are a distraction, to the detriment of research and development. Woudhuysen also said that a range of environmental campaigners justify their efforts in the name of ‘scientific proof’ when in fact the small lifestyle changes as well as the large-scale measures they advocate reflect a political and social outlook that should be subject to political debate.

Some audience members also felt that although science, statistical proof and expert advice are regularly invoked to justify efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and be environmentally responsible, we are, in fact, mixing up science and values.

This is not a view shared by the celebrity-led climate change campaign Global Cool, whose website tells us that ‘the overwhelming consensus among scientists – aka the people who know what they’re talking about – is climate change is happening right now.’ Global Cool’s chief operating officer, Richard Kilgarriff, told the audience at the spiked/O2 event that Global Cool’s launch party had taken place at the Cabinet War Rooms, symbolising the idea that we’re all facing a crisis together. At the launch, Kilgarriff told us, Stephen Fry had said ‘we know what the problem is, tell us what to do’. Kilgarriff explained that Global Cool is deliberately ‘inclusive’. Its formulations at times appear simplistic, Kilgarriff explained, so that everyone can take on the message that we should all ‘do our bit’.

Some audience members felt that mobile phones encourage more consumption, more travel and more wastefulness and that this is a negative thing. One person advocated carbon labelling on products. Yet others viewed the mobile phone as a positive force for increasing communication and productivity.

It seems the mobile phone has become a ready symbol of modern-day ‘wastefulness’ and ‘unnecessary consumption’. Underlying the panics and vilifications of the mobile phone are moral messages recognisable in many contemporary discussions about modern-day technology and consumption, and about the social impact of the corporate sector.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked. She is producer of the film strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

The spiked/O2 online debate What future for the mobile footprint continues until 19 October. You can send in a response here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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