Big Tech firms are keen to reassure us that responsible development of AI offers a ready way out of our current environmental woes, with firms like Google proudly proclaiming commitments to “building a carbon-free future for all”. In contrast, Ana Valdivia documents a litany of environmental harms arising from the rapid expansion of AI – not least the damage to local communities and environments caught up in core aspects of IT industry infrastructure, such as data centres and chip manufacturing.

The IT industry business model is built on a range of environmentally unsustainable practices – such as the extraction of rare minerals and metals, alongside sucking up massive volumes of water. The scale of this natural resource consumption is staggering – for example, one 2021 study reckoned Google to have used 15.8 billion litres of water, with many observers noting that such IT industry figures are routinely under-reported.

Of course, Big Tech firms are keen to tout their environmental credentials through high-profile pledges to become ‘water positive’ and engage in carbon-offsetting schemes – all of which Valdivia calls out as cheap forms of corporate ‘green-washing’. As she contends, “Many of these projects are empty promises, wasting immense amounts of public money to eco-bleach technology, capitalism, and AI in particular”. All told, Valdivia suggests that there is very little appetite or incentive within Big Tech corporations to meaningfully curtail their expansive, extractive logics:

“Silicon Valley utopians imagine AI solutions to ecological crisis, while being oblivious to the real material and ecological harms their fantasies wreak”.

In light of tokenistic industry action and weak regulation, Valdivia advances the argument that these environmental harms are perhaps being most effectively addressed at a local level. Indeed, Valdivia notes a rise in local organised action and resistance against the continued exploitation of local environments in the name of digital innovation. For example, a number of governments are beginning to move to protect the resources within their borders – for example, legislation recently passed in Mexico prohibiting private industries from mining lithium.

Perhaps even more significant is a rise in community-organised action and resistance. In drought-ridden regions the imposition of IT industry data centres and manufacturing hubs is prompting street protests and land occupations. Valdivia points to local farmers occupying key dams in Chihuahua in efforts to protect local population’s access to water.  Elsewhere, we have recently seen organised resistance to lithium mining in Indigenous communities in Nevada and regions in Spain, alongside Chilean community fights against planned construction of Google data centres. As Valdivia concludes: 

“There is no algorithm that can bring water back into the Chihuahua region, put out the fires that will overwhelm Europe next summer, or achieve net zero emissions. In contrast, counter-power and resistance at the local level have proven to be more efficient than any line of code or policy target to adapt to the current climate emergency”.