The climate crisis moral evasion in IT

The South African IT industry must chart the sustainability course in 2024 by overcoming its moral disengagement.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 25 Jan 2024
Rennie Naidoo, professor at the Wits School of Business Sciences, Department of Information Systems, University of the Witwatersrand.
Rennie Naidoo, professor at the Wits School of Business Sciences, Department of Information Systems, University of the Witwatersrand.

As we step into 2024, a pivotal year for technological advancement and environmental accountability, a pressing challenge confronts the IT sector.

Amid the escalating climate change crisis that demands urgent action, there remains a noticeable reluctance among some IT professionals to engage with green IT initiatives.

This trend, analysed here through the lens of Albert Bandura's moral disengagement theory, highlights how individuals can sometimes rationalise unethical behaviour, ignoring their usual ethical standards. Understanding this disengagement is key to encouraging greater ethical decision-making and actions among IT professionals.

This article explores key aspects of climate change disengagement in IT and the positive role IT leaders can play in encouraging moral engagement and sustainability practices.

Moral justification: Balancing profit and planet

Sometimes, harmful decisions in IT, such as ignoring sustainable practices, are cloaked under the guise of serving greater business goals. This situation can be exacerbated by intense pressure from business leaders and other stakeholders to deliver immediate results that positively impact the bottom line.

Research suggests there is a prevailing belief that economic growth and environmental sustainability are mutually exclusive goals, leading to a moral justification that prioritises profit over harmony with the planet. Given this mindset, performance is predominantly measured in economic terms, which often results in sidelining environmental considerations.

Technical jargon in IT hides the real environmental impact of technology, with terms like 'data-driven growth' and 'maximising server capacity' masking the carbon footprint.

The pressure to meet short-term financial targets can overshadow the long-term benefits of sustainable practices, further entrenching a mindset where economic gain is seen as paramount, often at the expense of environmental health, safety and sustainability.

Euphemistic labelling: The masking effect of technical jargon in IT

In some cases, technical jargon in IT hides the real environmental impact of technology, with terms like 'data-driven growth' and 'maximising server capacity' masking the carbon footprint.

The shift to cloud computing can exacerbate this, presenting it as efficient, while downplaying the environmental cost of large, energy-intensive data centres often powered by non-renewable sources.

This veiled language, coupled with greenwashing, where companies falsely appear to be eco-friendly, can mislead stakeholders and hinder true sustainability efforts.

Advantageous comparison: Misleading benchmarks in environmental impact

In IT circles, there are instances where the environmental impact of tech decisions is downplayed by comparing it with more polluting industries. This method of contrast, a psychological principle leveraged by some IT decision-makers, makes their choices appear more righteous and less harmful.

By asserting that the tech industry is 'less harmful' than, say, manufacturing or mining, IT professionals can create a false sense of benignity about their environmental impact. This comparative exoneration can help them to free themselves of moral restraint over their IT decisions.

This technique conveniently shifts the focus away from their environmental footprints. This not only justifies their choices in the context of greater industrial pollution, but also allows them to sidestep the responsibility to adopt more sustainable practices within their operations.

Displacement of responsibility: Shifting the burden elsewhere

In the IT sector, there is sometimes a tendency to perceive the environmental impact as an issue for 'others' to address, such as the government, consumers, non-governmental organisations, environmental organisations and other civil society groups.

This displacement of responsibility implies that actions within the IT sector itself are either unnecessary or redundant.

Moreover, IT professionals in managerial and subordinate roles often absolve themselves of personal responsibility for the harm caused by their decisions by viewing their activities as simply following orders from higher authorities or client demands.

Furthermore, they create systems of deniability that keep them intentionally uninformed about the environmental consequences of their actions. By distancing themselves from the direct implications of their decisions, they foster a culture where accountability is diffused and environmental negligence is indirectly sanctioned.

Diffusion of responsibility: The hierarchical complexity in IT

In IT, complex hierarchies and team dynamics can sometimes cause a diffusion of responsibility.

Decisions made at different levels lead some individuals to believe environmental responsibility is someone else’s concern. This is exacerbated when responsibility is shifted to external value chain partners, reducing personal accountability for harmful impacts.

This bureaucratic setup can shield IT professionals from facing the ethical implications of their choices, fostering a culture where environmental responsibility is often dispersed and evaded.

Disparaging critics and victims: Undermining voices of concerned stakeholders

Environmental critics, including activists and scholars, sometimes face belittlement and are branded as alarmists or impractical by some IT teams who view them as outsiders.

This dismissive attitude allows some IT professionals to detach themselves from the ethical weight of their actions. Some decision-makers in IT often disregard or devalue these critical voices, reducing their moral self-censure.

When critics are perceived as external to the IT community, their concerns are sometimes easily dismissed, particularly when they clash with the sector's economic interests. This attitude can create an echo chamber, sidelining environmental concerns and perpetuating a cultural hegemony that resists environmental change.

Attribution of blame: Externalising cause of environmental harm

When faced with the environmental consequences of technological advancements, some IT professionals may attribute blame to external factors.

The rapid pace of technological change, shifting consumer demands, or the complexities of regulatory landscapes can be cited as impediments to the feasibility of green IT.

Additionally, rather than addressing these issues head-on, there is a tendency within the IT sector to blame those who are adversely affected for their plight.

Adverse effects, such as increased carbon emissions or e-waste, are sometimes ascribed to the personal or business choices of others – businesses, consumers, or even entire communities.

This deflection of responsibility allows IT professionals to sidestep accountability, reinforcing a narrative that the primary onus for environmental harm lies outside of their control or influence.

By framing the issue in this manner, the IT sector can deflect scrutiny from its practices and policies, perpetuating a cycle of blame that hinders meaningful progress toward more sustainable and responsible technological development.

Minimising, denying or distorting consequences: Culture of denial

The IT sector sometimes exhibits a culture of denial, routinely minimising or denying its environmental impact. High energy use, e-waste and carbon emissions are frequently underplayed, with IT professionals implicitly or explicitly disputing the severity of these issues.

They also tend to counter critics’ claims with contradictory evidence, downplaying the environmental damage of their actions. This approach includes discrediting opposition groups as misguided and dismissing their concerns as exaggerated or baseless.

Such attitudes can perpetuate a culture of unresponsiveness towards environmental issues in the IT sector, allowing harmful practices to continue and sidelining the pressing need for environmental responsibility.

Moral engagement: Promoting environmental ethics and championing sustainability

Despite the presence of these disengagement challenges in IT, many progressive tech organisations and dedicated IT professionals are adhering to ethical standards and championing green IT initiatives.

Leading companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google have pledged to use 100% renewable energy by 2030, and industry leaders such as Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Lisa Jackson and Elon Musk are advocating for environmental sustainability.

Their commitment to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables is setting new ethical benchmarks in the tech industry.

More IT leaders who demonstrate commitment to sustainable practices and incorporate them into their mission are integral in fostering this shift. Also, by encouraging moral engagement, they can embed a culture of environmental responsibility in the overall IT sector.

Actionable steps and recommendations

Bandura's theory of moral disengagement reveals pathways for IT leaders to encourage moral engagement and drive environmental sustainability practices. Key steps include:

  • Conducting environmental audits to evaluate and improve the current impact of operations.
  • Integrating sustainability goals into core strategic business metrics.
  • Creating dedicated sustainability units and roles for focused action.
  • Implementing environmental responsibility training for all staff.
  • Promoting open forums for discussing environmental concerns.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders, including partners, customers and environmental groups.
  • Recognising and rewarding sustainable practices.

Towards a sustainable future

In 2024, moral engagement will be crucial for IT managers and leaders as they navigate the challenges posed by climate change and environmental responsibility.

Joining forces within the industry, sharing best practices and learning from each other will be essential for overcoming instances of moral evasion about sustainable IT practices.

IT professionals can also look to academic research on sustainability and responsible management for ethical insights and apply them in the industry.

While moral disengagement can lead to the misuse of resources, sustainable IT practices are a moral and strategic necessity that can position a company as a responsible leader in the IT industry. This involves rethinking IT's role in addressing climate change and actively pursuing sustainable solutions.

IT professionals at every level in the hierarchy have a duty to align IT innovations with environmental sustainability, contributing positively to future generations.

As leaders in innovation, IT has the potential to drive significant change, using technology for good and pioneering a sustainable future.

* This article is based on ongoing sustainability research at Wits University and serves as a call to action for the local IT industry to address climate change and other sustainability challenges.