Vesna Manojlovic

Environmental Impact of Internet: Urgency, De-Growth, Rebellion

Vesna Manojlovic

At RIPE 86, Vesna Manojlovic made a plea for a more active response to the climate emergency from the Internet community. In this article she shares a recording and edited transcript of her talk.

We are in a climate emergency, we have to stop using fossil fuels, in order to preserve the life on the planet...

Before I go on, there are a couple of things to get clear right away. First, while I work for RIPE NCC as a community builder, today I'm speaking for myself as an engineer, an activist, a mother, and part of the RIPE community.

Second, what follows is an (edited) transcript of a talk I gave during RIPE 86 called The Environmental Impact of Internet: Urgency, De-Growth, Rebellion. The slide deck from that presentation are available in the archives, and the video is included here below.

Finally, in the original talk and so here also, I'm approaching this hugely, colossally important topic from a high level of abstraction. Some of you might think of this as a political piece, or as a stab at cultural perpetuity - so if you're more used to a more technical read, please bear with me as there won't be many numbers in here.


The Environmental Impact of Internet: Urgency, De-Growth, Rebellion - a presentation at RIPE 86


We are living in a poly crisis. That is to say, there are multiple overlapping catastrophic events going on at the same time and they are reinforcing each other. To name just a few - there's the economic crisis, the geopolitical crisis, and the environmental crisis. All of them can be life‑threatening for some people, and in these kinds of existential crises, people often rethink what is important to them, so for me, that is sharing, justice and sustaining a liveable planet.


Also in these kind of situations, there are a lot of strong feelings. I feel them now - although I have to contain them because this is a professional set‑up - and there are so many pictures that I didn't want to show you today (but which you can imagine and see in the media) about this poly crisis that invoke in me grief and love and rage. I really get angry.

And what do we do when we feel strong feelings? We call for an immediate discussion! (To quote my favourite Monty Python movie.)

We all know we have these polycrises and still we keep on talking about it. And we know this has been going on for a long time. Scientists have known the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increase for centuries. Researchers have been measuring temperature and CO2 emission numbers for decades. And governments and governmental organisations like the UN have been working on plans and have made their agreements - e.g. the Paris agreement - as you can see on the following graph. But while all of this is going on the emissions keep on growing and the temperatures keep on growing.

Urgent, drastic cuts in Green House Gases emissions are needed, to meet the commitments of Paris Agreement

This kind of "up and to the right" graph is also very familiar to the people on the Internet, but we have to focus on a different graph, which is one that goes down, and shows what kind of reductions in emissions we need.

So from the 2015 Paris agreement, we were supposed to cut down emissions per year by 7.6%. This is one of the numbers I will mention, it will keep on coming back. If we started decreasing emissions in 2020, a reduction of 4% per year would have been reasonable. But we have wasted so much time, and as a result, we'd now need to make much higher reductions per year to catch up. That's really unimaginable, but what's even worse is to imagine what will happen if we don't do it.

So what shall we do? Immediate action must be taken to make as much of a reduction as possible as soon as possible. Otherwise, if we continue with business as usual, we are condemning future generations to unimaginable suffering and the extinction of plants and animals and squirrels -- and we don't want that, at least I don't want that.

IAB Workshop on e-impact

So, the actual workshop that Internet architecture board organised in December, with the topic of the environmental impact of the Internet, made me very happy. I thought, yes, finally, people who care. We got together - as researchers, engineers, some civil society representatives and activists. The general goals were to bring some understanding of what is the impact of the Internet, and to come up with recommendations of what should we do. For me personally, it was a task to bring these kind of subjects to the RIPE community and I'm happy that the PC has accepted this talk. This will continue at the next IETF meetings and at future RIPE meetings.

So, what were the recommendations? We couldn't really come up to the one specific agreement so there is a very pretty picture of what not to do, and from my side, I would say all the companies, corporations, communities, have to reduce everything by 7 .5% per year for the next 100 years, and that is emissions, energy usage, material usage, water usage, all the companies, with IETF and with RIPE. Then further, as a community, we could have the Net zero emissions Working Group. And the smallest thing we can do is add sustainability considerations to every Internet draft RFC or best current practices document.

Here is mailing list discussion here if you want to join:

Books about DeGrowth


What else can we do? Well, we can learn from other movements. One of them is de‑growth - this is a political, economic and social theory or movement, based on environmental anti‑consumerist and anti‑capitalist principles. Some of those principles are listed here and some of them are actually familiar and overlapping be RIPE; for example, cooperation, we have a Cooperation Working Group. Joyful living, we are very good at partying, and the next one that we could pick up is sustainability, we could create a sustainability task force.

However, de‑growth is very pluralistic movement so this is a subset of books that I have used to research while preparing for this talk, and de‑growth as a concept is very hold, well in the kind of western science, it is started in the 70s with small is beautiful and limits to growth, a report from ‑ but in other cultures, it is actually just a way of living in balance with our more than human neighbours. And so they don't have a word for it and now trying to translate it into language is actually a hard process. So, the de‑growth is overlapping with a lot of other movements, for example, aqua feminism or deColonial environmentalism.

With ICT we like to talk about a lifecycle. So, we start with the equipment, which has to be produced, then it has to be shipped to the other end of the world, then it needs to be operated using the energy and storing the data and then disposing of it at the end of the lifecycle. But all of them, all of these processes, are actually based on exploitation, fossil fuels, pollution and injustice so that to me sounds more like a death cycle.

What can we do to minimise the impact that the Internet has on the environment? The least we can do is just reverse all of those for every component, so when producing, we can have the most sustainable practices for getting the materials, we can resource them more locally so we reduce the shipping, we can reuse some of the existing materials, and very important, stop using fossil fuels for all of the processes. Move towards renewable energy. But that's not a perfect solution. We also have to reduce the amount of energy used for running the networks, for producing equipment, for shipping the equipment and finally, at the end of the lifecycle, we can prolong the use of the equipment by repairing, repurposing, recycling and also by removing the way of thinking which is a planned ‑ and there is movement in Europe for the right to repair so there are ways that we can do this in small incremental ways.

Why do we delay?

So why aren't we doing it? Well, there is listed here in this research paper the 12 reasons for delay. Delay is the new denial. And from these 12 reasons, I see three that are kind of prevalent in technical communities: what-aboutism, perfectionism and techno optimism. So how to counter them.

What-aboutism is: why should we do it, they are worse, they should do it first. Well we all have to do it, including the car industry, the aviation industry, the building industry but within we within Internet industry have to do our part and this is where we have the power and the agency. So, we have to do it. And we could also be examples to other industries.

Perfectionism, oh, let's measure some more, let's find the best way that we can tackle this so that we actually target the best possible way of dealing with it. We don't have time for this. That time is over. We have to do everything right now, all at the same time.

And then there's techno optimism: that's the hardest one, we do believe technology can solve a lot of problems but if you look historically on those graphs that I showed before, the tech did not save us until now, so we have to do something else; I am suggesting de‑growth. Which is a problem, because the tech industry is addicted to growth. Everything is growing; the number of users is growing, the wealth is growing, and the energy consumption is growing.


Among the top five richest companies in the world, four are big tech, the fifth is big oil ‑‑ not the greatest company to be in. So we as an Internet industry, we have great power and we also have great responsibility to do something to decrease the environmental impact of our industry on the planet.

There is a choice again. We can do it by self‑regulation or we might get regulated by national, regional and international treaties, that are already in place so there are standards, there are agreements, ISPs have to follow them, data centres have to follow them, EU just had a big conference called beyond growth, so this is happening, people are doing it, we have to speed up the way that we are doing a good for the planet.

So, for RIPE, just to repeat, the suggestions are, the recommendations are:

  • Help toward a 7.6% decrease,
  • Create a sustainability task force and
  • For anybody in the position of power who can make decisions, demand that there is sustainability considerations section in every presentation, every paper submitted, every funding proposal, every solution that you implement at your work, that's the least you can do.



Because until now, we have been kind of playing by the rules, but now it's time to move away from that and towards non-violent civil disobedience -- and then it also becomes personal. Below is a picture of my daughter, Alisa, at her first RIPE meeting, there in my hands, and next to it is a picture of her at Amsterdam airport at the protest against private jets. She got arrested, it was not the first time.

It won't be the last time, and yes, she is very brave, I am very proud of her (thank you for the applause). And I'm also sad and angry that she has to do this. How did it come to that that the new generations, that joined the RIPE meeting in 2004, now have to go and protest against us, against the governments, which ‑‑ who did not do their job to provide the future for these young generations.

But she's not alone. There is many more people that are going to the streets and using the civil disobedience as a tool in addition to de‑growth, to ask for big changes. So, I'm inviting you to join the scientist rebellion.

And to conclude: I want you to be alarmed. We are in a poly crisis. Do the de‑growth, join the existing movements, join other communities and also, take responsibility for the global impact of what we do locally, stop using fossil fuels and imagine a different world; imagine a world with climate justice, a world without fossil fuels, a world that we can live to the future generations, we can do it together.

Screenshot from the video recording of the talk.

Editor's Note:

The content of this article is based on the presentation by Vesna Manojlovic as a private person, and does not represent the opinions of her employer, RIPE NCC.


You may also like

View more

About the author

Vesna Manojlovic is Community Builder at RIPE NCC. Vesna joined the RIPE NCC as a Trainer in 1999. In 2003, she took responsibility for developing and delivering advanced courses, such as RPSL, Routing Registry, DNSSEC and IPv6. In 2008, she lead efforts to establish IPv6 RIPEness as a measure of IPv6 deployment among LIRs. In 2011, she joined the Science Division as Manager of the Measurements Community Building team; in 2015 she moved to Communications Department as Senior Community Builder, with a focus on organising hackathons. Vesna gives presentations at many technical conferences and workshops, and enjoys visiting hackerspaces. Vesna received a Batchelor of Sciences Degree in Computer Science and Informatics from the School of Electrical Engineering, University of Belgrade. She has three children.

Comments 0