A recent article in The New York Times describes how the once small rural town of Quincy, Washington is being transformed into a center of explosive technological development. Yahoo, Dell, and Microsoft have been constructing massive data centers around the town to utilize the region’s low cost energy, which is nearly three times cheaper than the national average.
One would expect such developments to be welcomed by Quincy residents and the country. Yet this sizable technological investment has been met with criticism as environmental agencies are asked to approve 24 diesel generators for Microsoft’s facility, despite their necessity as backup power resources. The superintendent of the Quincy school district even went so far as to install particulate monitors out of fear that pollutants might be affecting schoolchildren. Critics have pointed out that the data centers are consuming massive amounts of energy, as if the world’s energy supply is in danger of being hijacked by the demands of Internet users. The centers in Quincy began to get national attention as media outlets picked up the story as yet another example of big businesses destroying a small town through their dirty, polluting ways.
Despite the warnings of calamity, the data centers aren’t doing any harm to Quincy. The particulate monitors came up negative for pollutants. Worries about the data centers consuming too much energy have been met with data showing that the energy supply in Quincy is not going to be exceeded at any point in the foreseeable future. By all measurable accounts, the facilities have done nothing but benefit Quincy. By providing new jobs and new business opportunities, the centers have given the once isolated and agricultural town a place on the national map. The data centers have brought millions more in economic activity to the town since their construction which has been eagerly utilized by the town government, recognizing the new prosperity. Quincy has even changed their web site motto to, “Where Agriculture Meets Technology!”
Why then do critics condemn the Quincy data centers in spite of the tangible benefits they provide? And more broadly, why do people criticize data centers more widely as some kind of negative development in human history? (See, for example, here and here.) If they were worried about human health, perhaps their concerns would be valid. But the data centers haven’t harmed anyone and there is no evidence to suggest they will in the future, which suggests the condemnation is motivated by something else.
Contrary to the portrayal from media outlets, the data centers are prime examples of industry conducive to human health. The facilities are run entirely by hydroelectric power, the reliability and low cost of which is the reason the data centers are being built in Quincy in the first place. The diesel generators that are the source of so much concern are backup generators, generators that Microsoft refrains from using as much as possible due to cost, and which are operated only as a failsafe or during tests. Use of the generators has even dropped in each of the last two years. These new data centers should be greeted positively as prime example of industry taking into account health and safety.
Suspicion of these data centers, ungrounded in concern for human well-being, has a fundamentally ideological explanation. Environmental groups, agencies, and politicians continue to reiterate the need to migrate away from “dirty” industry. Industries continue to move towards practices that are cleaner and safer for human health, but get no praise or recognition beyond “not good enough.” Stated requirements for “green” and “environmentally sound” industry are being met and exceeded, with the data centers in Quincy as a prime example. The green movement cannot expect to be taken seriously when it simultaneously demands that corporations fulfill their vague buzzwords and condemns them for doing so.
The impact of this ideology is not limited to server farms in Washington. Environmentalist impediments to the pursuit of alternative energy are so severe that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce established a website chronicling environmental opposition to energy projects. Listed among the abandoned undertakings are wind energy installations abandoned because there is a small possibility of rotating blades striking birds, and solar energy projects stalled because it makes the desert look like a “wasteland.” And there is, for instance, the irrational opposition to fracking, which offers many advantages over past fossil fuel extraction methods.
More and more frequently the environmentalists object to human infringement on the pristine sanctity of the natural world, independent of its effects on human health and happiness. Examples like the controversy over the data centers show that the deeper motive of the green movement is not the continuation of human progress and innovation, but the belief that large successes, big businesses, and massive industry warrant universal suspicion. Progress is their problem, not damage to the human environment.
An ideology that opposes industry does not seek to protect the environment for the sake of humanity; it seeks to protect the environment from human interests. We absolutely must preserve and improve the resources provided by our environment, but the green movement has bastardized the meaning of the term “environment.” Our environment, quite literally, is the world around us and the space we occupy. For the first time in human history, more people are living in cities than anywhere else on the planet. What is the purpose of preserving the “natural beauty” of unoccupied landscape, or areas that we have abandoned?
Alex Epstein, president of The Center for Industrial Progress, has explained how industry sustains and improves the environment that people occupy. Industrial progress has freed humanity from the tyranny of the natural world by rendering natural weather cycles irrelevant. It has enabled us to live where we like and eat what we wish, independent of the proximity to food sources and regardless of growing seasons. Without extensive industrialization grocery stores in cities would be devoid of fresh produce, clean water wouldn’t be available in our homes, and the energy necessary to conduct every aspect of our lives wouldn’t be available.
The most recent industrial revolution has taken place in information technology, a field that experiences massive exponential rates of return and has begun to permeate every aspect of our lives. The data centers in question are responsible for web tools such as search engines, data storage, and internet web hosting. All of these services are improving the world we live in, expanding our boundaries, and giving us access to more information and opportunities.
A philosophy that elevates the natural world above the human beings who occupy it is a dangerous one. It asks us to return to life before civilization, forgetting how brutish and short a human life is in such a condition. The data centers in Quincy are an incredibly human creation. They are the result of productive effort that has taken into account the health and well-being of the people it impacts. The data centers, and the resources they provide, are prime examples of human beings’ transformation of the natural world into a setting for their flourishing. Through industry, human beings have been able to create the greatest environment the world has ever seen.