Smart apps can already track our reductions in calories. Let’s get smarter and start counting our carbon.
Last year in Cosmos magazine, I wrote all about my growing love affair with my smartwatch. With it I’d built the internal and external “feedback loops” of information and awareness that helped me to lose 20kg, put a spring in my step – and set me on the road to health. Those loops consisted of data read from my body, my activities, and the world around me, beamed into an array of cloud-based systems, processed, analysed, then selectively fed back to me in a cycle of reinforcement. I kept learning from these systems while these systems kept learning from me.
Putting aside questions about privacy (where is my data? who has access to it?) and agency (am I being manipulated? to what end?), this allows me to shine a spotlight on a very simple but very intense relationship – a relationship that’s less with a particular device than with the connections to the world and to my own awareness that my smartwatch amplifies. It helps me to do something that I have difficulty doing myself. As it becomes more sophisticated – it recently gained the ability to perform an on-the-fly electrocardiogram – my smartwatch will find new ways to create and amplify those loops of information, accentuating my own awareness of my health, my activity and well-being.
That’s a good situation for a man in middle-age, for this is the time in life when your actions begin to catch up with you, and the consequences of youthful insouciance (smoking, drinking, sloth etc) present their price tags – with accrued interest. So this recently intensified consciousness of my health represents a sort of penance, a way for me to acknowledge certain limits have been reached (or broached), and now need to be respected.
I kept learning from these systems while these systems kept learning from me.
Most of my peers in Generation X, on journeys broadly similar to my own, will arrive via their own paths at a similar destination. Unlike our parents or grandparents, we’ve grown up expecting to live long lives – if we take the necessary precautions. With another 30 (possibly even 40) years of life before us, it makes sense to take actions today to increase the chances that those years will be as pleasant as can be managed. In life, no one gets any promises – but we’ve learned a lot about how we can put our thumbs on the scales.
That hoped-for future of a billion seconds hence raises a profound question – what kind of world will we inhabit at mid-century? The recently released IPCC Sixth Report on the Physical Science Basis of Climate Change paints five possible scenarios, known as the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” or SSPs – “shared” because where the planet is concerned, we are literally all in it together.
The first of these scenarios, SSP1, offers us a world very much like the one we inhabit today, with just a bit more warming – to 1.5ºC above the long-term average – before a long-term cooling trend settles in across the second half of the century. That world will be livable, largely because we’re already learning how to live within it.
The last of these scenarios, SSP5, threatens us with levels of climatological catastrophe that can only be framed as apocalyptic. Greater than 5ºC of warming by the end of this century upends all the planetary climate systems: the ice caps melt, the thermohaline circulation of the Gulf Stream collapses (along with the monsoon), and the boreal permafrosts melt, releasing methane that produces even more intense heating, as the planet slides into a thermal feedback loop with no known endpoint.
It’s pretty scary stuff.
Yet the thing that’s truly frightening thing about SSP5 is that this is the path we’re already on. It’s the “business as usual” scenario, should we continue to add as much carbon to the air as we did in 2019.
Of course, that’s got to stop, lest we cook ourselves, the planet, and any hope of a future where I live to celebrate my 90th birthday.
Often, this is the point in any discussion of climate change where people begin to feel powerless. Climate change is such a big problem – the consequence of everyone’s actions everywhere on the planet – it can feel as though the actions of one person or even one nation would never amount to enough to make a difference. That kind of negative feedback kills the spirit of action, dampens hope, and leaves us all in a growing darkness of despair. People want to do something, and they want that something to be meaningful. They want to be able to move the needle – because seeing the needle move is the positive feedback we crave to stay motivated, focused and goal-centred.
We need tools that can help us maintain our motivation while we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the goal.
Something that works for all of us.
Something very much like what we already have.
If our smartwatches work so well at helping us to maintain an awareness of our own health, maybe we could use them to help us maintain an awareness of the planet?
If our smartwatches work so well at helping us to maintain an awareness of our own health, maybe we could use them to help us maintain an awareness of the planet? At the simplest, that might look like a “glanceable” display of the current concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide – currently around 421 parts per million, and increasing by around three parts per million a year. Every time that number clicks upward – even by a tenth of a unit – people will have cause think about what that means for themselves, for their children, and for everyone else on the planet. At the rate we’re adding carbon to the atmosphere, that will occur around 30 times a year. Every 12 days, everyone, everywhere could be reminded of what’s really at stake here – adding a “nudge” of motivation to work a bit harder at cutting the carbon.
Such a smartwatch app would be easy to create and would help us build awareness – but what about agency? How can we feel as though our actions as individuals are making a difference in a problem that is so vast we nearly always feel swamped by it? There we find ourselves limited by a lack of transparency around the carbon impacts of our activities. My smartwatch can work out my daily activity in kilojoules – could it measure my carbon dioxide output in kilograms? For example, we know that for each 100 kilometres we drive, we generate around 2.3kg of CO2. That’s easily sorted – but what about all the other activities we participate in? We need to work out how to account for them, so that we can each can build an awareness of our individual running totals of carbon dioxide generated.
My smartwatch can work out my daily activity in kilojoules – could it measure my carbon dioxide output in kilograms?
As we do that, we can create “challenges” and contests and leaderboards, watching and learning as individuals “hack” themselves into the best lives for the least carbon generated. (Just imagine how the Instagram influencer crowd will go for this!)
As that begins to work, we can scale it up a bit: how is my city doing, my state and my nation? Can I glance at my smartwatch and instantly understand how I fit into the greater whole, and how my actions – together with the actions of my neighbours – produce something that moves the needle?
All of this seems possible – and necessary. Without these kinds of connections, we’ll continue to find it difficult to build an awareness of the consequential nature of our actions into our activities. We’ll remain ignorant – and slowly roast. But if we build those loops, we’ll all develop our own versions of a “gut feeling” – a new kind of connection to our activities, our planet, and our global well-being.
For a civilisation wanting to make it past middle age, that’s one path toward longevity.
Mark Pesce invented the technology for 3D on the Web, has written seven books, was for seven years a judge on the ABC's "The New Inventors", founded postgraduate programs at USC and AFTRS, holds an honorary appointment at Sydney University, is a multiple-award-winning columnist for The Register, pens another column for IEEE Spectrum, and is a professional futurist and public speaker. Pesce hosts both the award-winning "The Next Billion Seconds" and "This Week in Startups Australia" podcasts.