Another Bad News Sunday
My dear friends, this is the dark side of our ubiquitous electronic devices.
Complete and utter devastation of a once magnificent piece of Mongolia. A huge and completely unsustainable city built on the Mongolian steppes just to supply the tiniest part of an ipad or smart phone. And this is one tiny component of an enormous web of similar horrors world wide.
Unfortunately our lap tops, ipads and smartphones did not just pop out of a nice clean factory somewhere with no back story. The mines which supplied the many components for our devices are not the ones we see in Australia with health and safety inspectors and workers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and environmental regulations which, though not great, at least exist.
The rare earths needed to make smart phones come from the mines of Northern China whose miners die with heartbreaking frequency in unregulated work conditions. Or from mines controlled by Congolese war lords with truly brutal conditions and appalling human rights violations. The mines produce large amounts of radioactive tailings and require toxic acids to process the rare earths, and these toxic wastes all need to be processed safely to avoid contaminating surrounding communities and countryside. Needless to say, this is not always a priority for mining companies, or governments such as North Korea which are sitting on large reserves of rare earths. And radioactive waste. How exactly do we process that securely anyway? Anyone?
I don't mention this to make you miserable and feel guilty. I think we need to know the stories behind our stuff. Because if we don't, how can we make informed decisions about what we will and won't stand for?
For thousands of years nomadic herders have crossed the Mongolian plains. It has been their homeland, their life, their livelihood, and they found a way to flourish in that harsh and beautiful environment which would have preserved it forever. Then we decided that we NEED smartphones. And now look at it.
This article was brought to my attention by a commenter (thanks Kelvin) on this week's Archdruid Report, my weekly fix of big picture commentary on the state of the world. Now, the Archdruid is no armchair theorist. When any of us begins whining and wringing our hands in the comments, his first question is, "And what are you doing, right now to tackle this problem?"
So here are some thoughts. First, I do not think it is reasonable for me to wreck other people's habitats or their health so that I can have new electronic devices. What to do? I still want to write to you all and have a way to contact my teenagers when they are out and about.
The good news is - the world is already awash with electronic devices. I am typing to you now on a perfectly functional second hand laptop, salvaged by IT superhero Chris, who makes it his business to rescue the still useful electronic devices he comes across in his line of work that would otherwise be sent to landfill, and reconditions them to be reused in the community. He is a star! All of us here at Chez Blueday have second hand phones from various sources, all of which also work perfectly well.
My next thought - we need to treat the devices that we do have as if they were precious and irreplaceable. Because they are. They represent an incredible collection of resources, and lives, livelihoods and habitats were impacted by their manufacture far beyond what we can see.
When they break - let's fix them. Let's not do that old worn out calculation - will it cost more to fix than replace? It will literally cost the earth to replace it. Let's give some work to a local technician and have our electronics fixed and good to go another few years. When they are irretrievably dead, they can all be recycled - so those rare earths can be re-used instead of mined out of the Mongolian plains.
And let's keep the cycle going. Do you have a drawer of old phones or a cupboard with unloved laptops or ipads? Find someone who would love to inherit them and pass them on. Maybe keep an old phone or two for when the smart phone dies. Have you seen the latest fashion trend? Yes, flip phones are back. I have never owned a smart phone because a)ridiculously expensive and b)many people seem to be owned by their smartphones rather than vice versa. I do not want to be that person. I am the person in the waiting room with the book.
So let's have a conversation about what our devices do for us, and whether they are worth it. All of it..