What is the relationship between information and communication technologies and the environment?

It may not be a core part of this project, but I wanted to make a footnote of this question. I think it’s an important one that often gets overlooked (and, a topic that belongs on the list of digital challenges!). As every aspect of our daily lives comes to rely more heavily on digital devices, what do we know about how they relate to the planet? Do ICTs have an environmental impact? How so? Are they helping us be more sustainable, or less so? Do they help us pay more attention to the changes our planet is undergoing, or less? The answer is probably a mix of both.

On the downside ICTs can have some serious environmental consequences. For instance, it takes a whole lot of energy and resources to produce and power laptops, smart phones, and other digital devices.  In fact, according to some calculations, it can actually be more environmentally friendly to write a letter (on paper, which is a renewable resource) than to send an email (which relies on a vast infrastructure of computing technology). What role do we have as students, researchers, consumers in vis-a-vis this issue?

The book Radical Simplicity and The Institute for Sustainable Communication go into more detail on the topic. Also, this interview with Casey Harrell, who leads Greenpeace’s greener electronics initiative, gives some interesting insight.  Bill Tomlison’s book Greening Through IT provides an optimistic, textbook-like look at the emerging field of Green IT.