On water
Anna Bernal

It feels strange to remind about the water pollution again. Everyone has seen photographs of a turtle stuck in a plastic six-pack wrapper and everyone got the message. Why bring it up again? Did the turtle do a bad job? The turtle, probably, did too good of a job and became the iconic image of water pollution. This image is so bold that it always comes first and obscures the rest. That’s why it’s important to bring the current state of affairs closer to us from time to time.

People tend to associate the pollution related to the media and technology with carbon footprint, while the water pollution is not the first thing that comes to mind. Water pollution seems to be something related to household waste, microplastic or heavy industry factory discharges. Some might remember big industrial disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, but mostly water is out of the picture: the media technologies’ impact is often measured in a carbon emission equivalent. We think that media is something ephemeral and almost imaginary, relying on abstract lines of code.

Just to illustrate how much of a physical impact do seemingly insignificant online activities: let's assume a person would have 15 1-hour meetings a week, which wold yield a monthly carbon footprint of 9.4 kg CO2e. Simply turning off the video during these calls would reduce the monthly emissions to 377 g CO2e. This would save the emissions of charging a smart phone every night for over 3 years. If 1 million videoconference users were to make this change, they would collectively reduce emissions by 9023 t of CO2e in a month, the equivalent of powering a town of 36,000 people for one month with coal.[1]

But let's switch back to water. The connection of internet and media to water may not be apparent, but nevertheless, the ever-growing media industry considerably affects water consumption worldwide. It relies on certain metals to build the hardware; their extraction causes serious water pollution in the surrounding areas. Big data centres need to remain operational all the time to support our global media, which requires large-scale cooling systems, a lot of them are very water-intensive in process. And so on... Water is an indispensable part of the equation.

It's beneficial for the industry to portray the current technology as lightweight, innovative, happening 'in the cloud' and conveniently omit the actual environmental and technological costs of it. The lack of transparency and absence of mindfulness in this are rather alarming.

Even though I can not directly influence technological transparency, maybe mindfulness is something I can address. I focused on a project that draws attention to the water pollution yet again, since it's taking a new twist now with all the emerging media technologies, and that has playful attractive imagery, that would not be too moralistic. I went to seven different locations in Finland, where I collected water samples. I photographed them placing the water in a context that brings them closer to the viewer: presenting the water samples (some very polluted) as edibles. The commercial looking clean imagery creates an imaginary situation where this state of affairs is the norm, which provides certain food for thought.

Another reason that drove me to focus on water is the fact that I am currently in Finland, the land famous for its waters, but that also has a long mining history and a developed industrial infrastructure when it comes to geological resources (favourable operating environment for mining, low corporate taxes, established refinery industry, etc). [2]


[1] Obringer R., The overlooked environmen- tal footprint of increasing Internet use. (Resources, conservation and recycling, 167, 105389, 2021) doi:10.1016/j.rescon- rec.2020.105389

[2] Nurmi, P., Geological Survey of Finland strengthening its role as a key player in mineral raw materials innovation ecosys- tems, (Geological Society London Special Publications, 2019) doi: 10.1144/SP499-2019-83