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Left to your Own Devices

category international | environment | opinion / analysis author Thursday January 28, 2016 06:00author by Pink Panther - AWSM Report this post to the editors

This article looks at the way capitalism and consumerism are destroying the resources of the planet, while critiquing mainstream environmentalist responses to this destruction.

Coltan. Sounds like the name of an evil king in a cheap sci-fi movie, doesn’t it? In fact, it is a mineral that has electricity conducting properties. Without it the Samsung device I am typing this on and the mobile device or laptop you are reading this on would not exist. Most of the world’s supply of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of it comes from cheap or child labour rounded up by various militia armies who mine it so they can buy weapons and other supplies according to a 2003 UN Security Council report and various human rights organisations.

Lithium is also an electricity conducting mineral but it is also very good at storing it. That’s why this mineral is used to make batteries, such as the one on the device you are using now. Where does the majority of the world’s supply of it come from? Australia and Chile according to the US Geological Survey in 2015. Chile’s record as far as extractive industries is concerned has been far from impressive in terms of wages and conditions. This was highlighted by the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in which 33 workers became trapped after a mine explosion. Although that one was not a lithium mine, it does highlight the generally poor standards that exist. In China, one of the other major lithium purchasers, the number of miners killed is often in hundreds every year.

There are other minerals that are mined elsewhere that go into your mobile devices but they’re not as important. No matter where they are sourced whole ecosystems and environments are wiped out to enable these minerals to be extracted, transported by road or rail to the nearest port then transported to a factory in China. Odds are if your device is an Apple it will have been made via a Taiwanese company called Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd (commonly known as Foxconn). Their Chinese factories use cheap labour that is so brutally exploited that suicides among its workers have caused a scandal. If not, chances are that the devices will have been made by prison labour.

Once manufactured, your device will be exported around the world and marked up to astoundingly ridiculous prices. According to TIME magazine 24/9/14 the total cost of manufacturing an Apple 16GB iPhone 6 is about $USD200.10. The standard retail price for an iPhone is around $USD649 or so without a contract to a wireless provider. Other companies like Samsung and Huawei don’t charge as much but that is usually because they are bullied into putting bloatware into their products. Bloatware is built in software or apps that aren’t actually necessary or wanted but which takes up lots of memory and drains battery power like crazy while running in the background.

If that does not shock you then think about the environmental destruction being caused to mine the coal, build the hydroelectric dams and drill for the oil needed to both transport the minerals and the completed electronic devices and to generate the electricity needed to charge up or plug in all those devices. Those cell phone towers used to send signals to your mobile device also rely on those environmentally unfriendly forms of electricity generation.

Finally, we come to what happens when the device is rendered useless by changes in the networks or operating systems or if you smash it in frustration. It becomes E-waste. E-waste is not as easy to dispose of as one might think. Most landfills will not accept E-waste and the devices that end up being dumped contain all sorts of toxic chemicals that pose a major threat to the health and safety of landfill workers, recyclers and others involved in the disposal of e-waste.

According to a 2011 report by the academics Wath/Dutt and Chakrabarti, who did a case study of conditions in India, the environmental impact of various items that make up e-waste

Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, video cameras, and more) leads to lead, barium and other heavy metals leaching into the ground water and release of toxic phosphor.

Printed circuit board (a thin plate on which chips and other electronic components are placed) leads to air emissions as well as discharge into rivers of glass dust, tin, lead, brominated dioxin, beryllium cadmium, and mercury.

Chips and other gold plated components lead to hydrocarbons, heavy metals, brominated substances discharged directly into rivers acidifying fish and flora. Tin and lead contamination of surface and groundwater. Air emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons

Plastics from printers, keyboards, monitors, etc leads to the emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons.

Computer wires leads to hydrocarbon ashes being released into the air, water and soil.

Trying to recycle or dispose of e-waste impacts on everything from what we eat to the air we breathe, as its waste products infiltrate our environment. From the extraction of the minerals used to make high tech devices to the disposal of e-waste the exploitation of workers and hazardous working conditions dominate the industry. Even when workers can afford to buy and use the high tech products their labour produces the apps and other features are mostly determined by what corporate elites dictate at a price based on blatant profiteering rather than what they are actually worth.

What can we do about all this in the short term?

For a start we can opt to purchase our high tech products from businesses that don’t get their coltan and lithium from conflict zones or countries that ignore basic workers’ rights and safety standards.
We can even set up enterprises or collectives that recycle e-waste in a more environmentally friendly way.

According to an article published on the BBC website on July 17, 2013, new businesses like Neverware are being set up in the United States which are recycling old computers by installing wireless systems in them which upgrade automatically. This saves money on having to replace computers, reducing e-waste and helping to meet the needs of cash strapped organisations like schools.

However, a much simpler way of dealing with the negative side of technology is for people and organisations to give away older technology to those who would otherwise have limited or no access to high tech or the Internet. In a decent society the simple act of giving away that which we don’t need or want, might be how much of the economy would operate. We don’t need to wait for wholesale change to begin doing some of that.

The ugly side of technology raises important questions: Some of the measures I’ve just sketched might help but is it possible to reform the current system to the point where the environment can be saved for the wellbeing of everyone? If the current system can’t be reformed what desirable alternative is realistically possible?

The high level of technology that has been achieved, grew out of an earlier period of capitalism that developed industrial capacity, firstly in Europe. This came via the exploitation of colonies and through the wide scale destruction of the world’s environment from Peru to Nauru and Nigeria to Burma. The supposed alternative of state directed industrialism that held sway in the former USSR and Soviet bloc was just as, if not more destructive.

So it is capitalism and its authoritarian pseudo-alternative that got us into the current perilous situation. That centuries-long history is not a good basis for thinking the same system can get us out of trouble now. At the same time it should be acknowledged that there are a lot of well-meaning people who are trying to make things better. Thousands of dedicated people put in time as workers for NGO’s and single-issue groups that focus on environmental issues. From time to time their efforts achieve success. However there are a few problems with this kind of reformist activity.

Firstly, these organisations, no matter their initial good intentions when established, are often heavily bureaucratic and top-heavy, with structures and working methods that imitate the corporations and governments they lobby against. The young people wearing coloured jackets and holding clip-boards on your local street corner probably haven’t met the well-paid head honcho of the organisation they are either volunteering for or being paid minimum wage for. The leaders of these organisations have no difficulty shifting from for example being co-leader of the Green Party to being a boss at Greenpeace. In such circumstances, the government is hardly going to feel worried about dealing with these establishment-friendly figures. The nature of these organisations also tends to result in either passivity or limited, symbolic actions. They encourage us to donate money to them or click an online petition, which is easily ignored and salves our conscience for 5 seconds while we go back to whatever else we were doing, safe in the knowledge that ‘I’ve done my bit’. Some even think this equates to ‘activism’.

Secondly, the corporations and governments can actually handle certain appeals for ‘change’ without being too effected. They like the idea that we engage with them as consumers. By doing so, we willingly position and perceive ourselves as buyers of their products. They undertake ‘greenwash’ whereby they give the impression they have made some alteration, while in fact they are still destroying the environment. Using the power of advertising and billions of dollars of influence, energy companies and other multi-nationals can get their way while we buy into their claims and remain consumers. In the case of governments, they are occasionally prepared to back down on a certain issue but it often means that while they do that in one sector, they are doing little in another.

There are some fundamental problems with the mainstream environmentalist and consumer action oriented approach. By seeing environmental destruction as a series of single-issue campaigns, the underlying system that has produced these problems remains unchallenged. Capitalism manifests itself in different ways, but ultimately there is an underlying set of behaviours and structures at work and a bottom line based on profit. Logically a unified system requires a unified theoretical response, not a piece-meal one involving rushing around putting out small fires while the pump producing the fuel continues to be left on. This relates to the second problem that a consumerist outlook ignores the question of production. Dealing with the consumption of goods by choosing to buy telephone A instead of washing up liquid B puts us on the receiving end. In a world where the workers are not in control of and do not own the means of production, the vast majority of us will never be able to make the basic changes required to manage the world more responsibly. We won’t be able to make the rational choices as to what really benefits people environmentally. Our masters don’t want us to look at ourselves in that way. They want us to keep watching TV, using their phones and eating their products.

Assuming we don’t have to deal with some post-apocalyptic nuclear waste-land, most people will still want to be able to use a reasonably high degree of technology in a future non-capitalist society. This may involve a decrease in production, some difficult compromises and an ongoing but reduced degree of environmental problems. However, with the workers of the world in control and able to plan production, distribution and consumption on a rational basis, we will be better able to ensure we all have a decent future. Whether that involves coltan, we can’t be sure yet.


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