The Climate Apocalypse Will Be Google Mapped – The New Republic
weird paradox of modern life is that, although humans struggle to address big
problems like climate change, we’re great at making our lives easier. While the
planet has warmed steadily every year since 2000, it’s become exponentially simpler,
in the twenty-first century, to get somewhere you’ve never been before, find
information on any topic, or order lunch. Some malcontents may gripe that environmental
breakdown is itself a huge hassle, but guess what? There’s an app for that too. Silicon Valley can’t fix the climate crisis, but having solved problems
like food shopping, these captains of industry now seek to help us avoid the manifold
inconveniences of the apocalypse.
when you open Google Maps to plan your travels, the app warns you about bad air
quality hot spots, as well as floods, wildfires, and hurricanes. The air quality
and wildfire warnings are touted as “new” features on the app, although a
company spokeswoman told me they were introduced last June.
write this from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where, today, Google Maps tells me the
air quality is “acceptable,” though it could pose a “risk for some people,
particularly those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.” That doesn’t
seem acceptable to me, but I suppose it’s all relative. A little to the south,
in Flatbush, near Farragut Avenue, the map shows a green dot: Air quality there
happens to be “good” today, posing no risk to anyone. I’m happy for the people
who live or work near the corner of East 26th and Farragut, but
there aren’t many other green dots on this map.
are no wildfires in my area today.
something absurdly dystopian about this, almost like a parody of our
information-obsessed, crisis-riddled world. Information, delivered easily
through our phones, is supposed to solve all kinds of problems now. Mass shooting? Google has an alert for that. Public
transit system underfunded, contributing to planetary collapse? Google tells us
how far we can travel by subway and how much it will cost to take a Lyft the
rest of the way. I use the app for this often, and when I do, I can sense my
anger and stress over insufficient government investment in transit ebbing; as Google
seamlessly solves my practical problem, the bigger picture recedes from my view.
Apps make us feel like savvy individuals winning at twenty-first-century life.
We can do this. We can get to New Jersey. Maybe we can even avoid the pollution
if we steer clear of Newark.
who is molding us into these hypervigilant individuals? Companies who are
contributing to the crisis. Instead of becoming more adept at navigating climate
collapse alone, we need to take collective action to prevent it. Google is not
a reliable ally in this project, to say the least.
Google is hardly the worst corporate climate offender, its operations produce
millions of tons of carbon emissions, and in 2019 The Guardian
that the company had made large contributions to right-wing climate-denier
organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the group that
convinced Trump to abandon the Paris Agreement. In the most recent election
cycle, Google’s PAC gave more than 40 percent of its House campaign donations
to Republicans, a political strategy that anyone serious about preventing
climate catastrophe might wish to rethink. And like all big tech companies,
Google spends big on lobbying, talks big on climate, but spends only a tiny
fraction of its lobbying efforts on climate policy. As recently as last June, Alphabet,
Google’s parent company, opposed—and ultimately defeated—a shareholder
resolution urging the company to evaluate whether its lobbying activities were
aligned with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming.
be fair, the flood warnings, which have been in place since 2018, save lives, as
Google points out.
It’s obviously better not to drive into lethal weather. And more encouragingly,
in the long run, the data Google is gathering to create these warnings can help
scientists and community groups who are working to address the crisis. The street-by-street air quality data, Google points out, can help inform
solutions; for example, pollution concentrated in a spot where a freeway meets
a bridge could inspire a road redesign or a crackdown on speeding in that spot.
has also used its technologies to curb emissions, through “eco-routing,” for example,
helping users to find travel routes with the lowest possible carbon footprint.
These and other serious sustainability measures, including increased use of
renewable energy, have come about partly because of pressure from the company’s
the message these warnings send is a worrying one: The apocalypse is upon us, but
here’s an app to help you keep out of its way. The warnings promote a culture
of individual invincibility and information obsession. Neither of these
qualities will help us stop the climate crisis, and they may even foreclose political
solutions: After all, if environmental crisis is something I can reasonably
manage in my daily life, why take political action to stop it?
information will not help everyone, and the implication that it can is
dangerous. In this sense, the apps confirm environmental justice activists’
worst fears: that in lieu of curbing emissions, the well-informed, tech-savvy affluent
will simply optimize their own lives and pull up the drawbridge while the rest
suffer. Many people have no choice but to live in the most toxic parts of town,
regardless of what Google says. If you live by a truck depot, or by the
Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, you cannot click away the daily assault on your
respiratory system. Not everyone can afford to take a cab when the train
doesn’t come. This app-based approach to the climate crisis treats survival as
a series of consumer choices, but life is more precious than that. It deserves
our collective attention.
perilously, though, the new Google Maps warnings promote resignation: The
climate crisis is happening, and all we can do now is work around it.