When Earth Day rolls around each year, I can’t heEarth in human handslp but think of the picnic scene from Mad Men.  After Don Draper chucks his empty beer can into the pond, Betty snaps the blanket, dumping their litter across the grass, before trundling the kids off to the family car (12 MPG, leaded gas, with no emissions control).

Mad Men‘s magic was culture clash, the shocking contrast between the oblivious then – sexism, homophobia, humans as ashtrays – and our enlightened now.  What makes the picnic scene so memorable is the gobsmacking environmental thoughtlessness of that era, in which the only things green were money and envy.

And my, how far we’ve come.  We reduce, reuse, and recycle. Some of us compost, and others glare at the poor souls who still occasionally litter.  We spend extra money for energy-efficient vehicles and appliances.  We tend to buy local and organic, and we worry about chemicals in our food and water.  Most folks are concerned about climate change and believe we need to change human behavior to slow it.  In short, we devote significant thought, time, effort, and resources to be environmentally responsible.

At the same time, we remain completely oblivious to the swirling plumes of data exhaust we emit every day, and the toxic accumulations of data in the landfills of our devices, servers, and cloud accounts.  When it comes to data pollution, guess what – we’re Don and Betty.

What’s the big deal with a little data?

Whenever we do anything online, we launch a stream of data out to the Internet.  And we do a lot online, every day – actually, every minute.  That’s fine, but we need to be aware of the risks and realities of our data exhaust.  These data emissions reveal to the world a world of information about us, and the data does not go unnoticed.  Industries are being built to analyze and monetize our data, often without our consent.

The answer is not to unplug from the world – instead, it is to be conscious, cautious, and less cavalier about the data we emit.  This includes being aware of the data repercussions of IoT devices.  Is it really worth it to have an Internet-connected Home or Echo device that responds to verbal commands, yet at the same time captures recording data on our every request (plus some false positives)?  If so, fine – but our decision should factor-in the privacy, data security, and data retention implications.  And do we really need a $400 Wi-Fi-enabled juice machine in the kitchen that transmits data on when and how much juice we consume?  Maybe we could instead simply eat an apple and some spinach.

The solution to data pollution ain’t dilution.

Similarly, whenever we do anything with computer devices, on or offline, we create content and metadata that accumulate.  The volumes of residual data are astounding, and not without risk to ourselves and our organizations.  The value to us of such redundant, obsolete, or trivial information is negligible, and the privacy, data security, and litigation exposures for these digital landfills are both real and significant.  Plus, the rapidly increasing power of data analytics means that huge volumes of legacy data are mineable.  There’s no safety in volume.

A better way.

What if we were as aware and diligent about data pollution as we now are about the environment?  What if we became “Data Green?”  After all, a generation from now, it’d be nice to think that how we deal with our data is no longer a Mad Men picnic.