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..


Unknown said…
Do not let me be first!!! This is a serious post and requires serious comments but alas i cannot say that i am innocent. We have a house full of technology and smartphones. Yes, i did watch the link and i feel personal shame. I can only thank you for making me aware and think seriously about how we can do our bit. I do know that when my phone plan is up and do not get a replacement. Why? There is nothing wrong with the old one. Yes, i know that the new one does this and that but i dont need to do this and that. This week a device (im not going to tell you on the grounds it will incriminate me - but it goes round and round) went kaput!! and hubby pulled the circuit board out of it and re-soldered a little dooby found under a magnifying glass and Ta Da, its going round and round again. I swear its only used in emergencies for drying work clothes on week nights. Promise.
Unknown said…
Goodness, his posts are a meaty read.
Jo said…
Lynda, you have a gem of a husband:) And yes, knowing things, not always pleasant or convenient is it? But the alternative is what? Living in happy ignorance? Yes, well, now I put it like that it seems like a very reasonable alternative...

But really, neither you nor I really can live with that, can we? I think the time has come for us in our society to be proper grown-ups and learn to be responsible for dealing with our own messes.

And yes, you need a clear head to deal with The Archdruid Report. Makes me regret giving up caffeine, such as there was in a cup of tea!
Jo said…
PS, none of us are innocent, re your first sentence, but on the other hand, all of us are innocent in that none of us wants any of this to be the consequence of blogging with friends. We haven't been given all the facts by the companies that make our electronics, because I guess that wouldn't be a great sales pitch - Buy our ipad! Only a few habitats have been destroyed by it, and only a few communities affected by radiation toxicity.. it's all good!
Anonymous said…
Noooo, I don't want to know. They're so white and come in crisp white boxes.

OK, I will do better. Although I don't change for change sake.
Anonymous said…
Good GRIEF that was a long post! I had to skim a bit as I only have so much time to get through my early morning posts and I think his post might take me half of that time just to do it justice. I am SO with you on technology, on our throw away society and on not valuing our modern day commodities. "Just throw it away" isn't even spoken about as masses of valuable resources are thrown into landfill each year because we have become so very lazy, incredibly shallow and desperate for the latest greatest and more enthralled by the purchase and the power of owning than we are by the device. I found a really interesting link the other day via a fellow blogger. I know that this is more technology, more waste (as he doesn't mention the "leftovers" after his process is complete but perhaps those rare earths, minerals etc. could be more easily isolated from what remains after this process? Either way it made me think that there are SO many more inventive minds out there that could be turned to better use other than how to make an interface look even more amazing than the last one and how to squeeze the last few dollars out of a gadget hungry population. By necessity we are frugal with our technology. We don't have the money to be fickle but then, we wouldn't be if we did. As part of some research for the course that we took last year in Graphic print prepress, we had to find out how to sustainably "trash" old phone and laptop batteries. There are quite a few places that you can drop them off but unless you go hunting, you aren't going to know that. The mass population is going to be allowed to continue on undervaluing resources by our throw away mentality so long as it is an allowable option and consumerism is the cornerstone of our current government (and sadly, their alternative) so it's up to us to spread the word and make sustainable technology a more socially acceptable alternative. Here's that link
I feel virtuous that one in three smart phones I've had has been new (the other two 'hand me downs'). Of course, work gives them to me new, no choice there.

The laptop I write on has a damaged hinge, the BF thinks I should replace it. I'm fine not to, whilst it works (though poorly with Google Chrome).

My parents went to get a cartridge for my uni laser printer. UNlikely they can find one - it's at least 10 years old. Two toner drums in all it's life! As a student $400 for a printer was a lot, but it paid off, as I seldom had pricey ink to buy... Anyhow, they replaced it, cause the toner was possibly unavailable - but when a young'un at a big box store tells my brother who relays it second hand to mum, how much confidence does one have? If it's out of their use for it, I need to find it a good home.
CJ said…
It makes very uncomfortable reading, I'm not at all happy with the direction things have been taking. Our disposable society is not sustainable, I hate the attitude that things should just be thrown away and new ones bought. Although I have a laptop, I only have a very small, very basic, very old phone, and my other half's computer is an old re-conditioned one that works absolutely fine. We buy as little as we can, but of course we are still guilty of contributing to this horrible destruction of parts of the planet. It can't go on like this, and I hate the out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude of the big companies. It's all very sad and extremely worrying. A great post, well done for drawing our attention to this. Although it's not pleasant, it's something everyone should face. This is what we are doing to the world. CJ xx
Mimi said…
Fab post Jo. I find it ironic, that for all the heightened awareness on the issue of dangerous work practices in third world countries, the benefits of recycling and the impact of the human race on the planet, that we are more of a throwaway society than ever before. I actually find it offensive to be lectured by anyone under 30 on 'saving the planet'. My generation, and the generations before were 'saving the planet' before it was a catchphrase. Making do, recycling, repairing, and making our own used to be the norm. In the race to have more, be better than our neighbours, and have a celebrity lifestyle, we've kind of lost the plot. It's a bit the same as paying to work out at the gym, but complaining about having to take the wheelie bin up a steep driveway on garbage collection day. Just contradictions....all the time contradictions. And talking and wailing and beating our chests in indignation, but not doing anything? I struggle with it, frankly. Thanks for a thought provoking post. Mimi xxx
Anonymous said…
Well I'm one of the "old ones" from the make do and mend era.
While we do buy electronics, we don't buy into the everything new society. We use a land line,
don't have any cell phones or other devices.

We mend whenever we can, recently Christmas Day) the microwave broke, it took a $7 part to fix it.
My husband is a great handyman.He fixed the cordless kettle when it threatened to die...and when it does I will not buy another one as they a poor performers, I have an old stainless steel one,from a thrift store as back up.
I no longer but new appliances as they are all junk(in my opinion) I buy old ones at thrifts or do with out.
Now,while all that sounded like I'm so virtuous, I do buy items that are important to me, like sewing machines.I know everyone has different needs, so my sewing machine is someone else's laptop.

I admit I didn't read the article. I already know how badly we are destroying our home, so I have to censor what I read or I'll really become a hermit.
Jo said…
Lucinda, you are right, change that does not come from conviction does not 'take'. Also I think there has to be a sense of the essential rightness and joy, even, of the alternative. I cannot tell you how much happier I am to have a laptop with a great salvage story and a bunch of human kindness, than one which I bought at Harvey Norman..

Fran, thanks for that link - yes, an incredibly inventive mind. I do wonder how much electricity it takes to produce a litre of oil, let alone the embedded energy in the machine itself, but even so, a much better use for plastic than throwing it in landfill.

CJ, I find for myself, that taking even the small steps that I write about here to get out from under the stranglehold that large corporations have on our lives means that I can say, "not in my name" which makes me so much happier!

Mimi, I am with you on the throwing away thing. Let's make and buy what will last and keep it forever and hand it down to our kids. How many heirlooms is our generation going to be passing down?

Marieann, I love 'old ones' who make and mend. You have so much to teach the rest of us, and you learnt to live very sensibly when you were young, and thankfully, people like you still do. I am also in awe of people who can use sewing machines:)

And I completely understand not wanting another depressing story in your day..
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,
Yeah flip phones are the way to go. One week between charges - even longer if I don't travel out of the area. Plus, receiving emails on the go is a real hassle which I don't wish to be burdened with. The things that we own tend to own us you know?

Seriously, there is so much stuff that can be brought back to life for a second use it is a bit sad. I've built all three sheds here now solely from recycled and seconds materials. I could have built the house here from that stuff too, but wasn't allowed by the system and had to simply cop it on the chin. Most people that I've met favour brand new stuff, but they forget that something is only new once and I appreciate things that were carefully and lovingly constructed and maintained. Maintenance and repair are skills and are hard though - did you check out the industrial overlocker which I purchased and restored a few months back? Good stuff, and there is so much more stuff like that out there.
Cheers. Chris
Jo said…
Chris, I don't have a flip phone, but a very old, tiny non-smart phone that must be at least 10 yo. It works very well, and it was free!

I have enormous admiration for anyone who can build anything themselves - so far my efforts in that direction have been to hang my own pictures! But I love to see buildings made of reused materials. They have a charm that cannot be equalled, quite apart from ethical considerations. Here's to wombling and DIY!
Jo said…
PS Chris, forgot to say re flip phone, you are clearly on the cutting edge of fashion!
heather said…
Guilty as charged. Also trying to change my brainless patterns of consumption, and teach my kids better.

I just wanted to second Chris's observation that fixing things is a real skill, and hard. Almost all of the people I know who really know how to fix things, actually take things apart and diagnose problems and make or buy the correct parts and put them back together without any pieces left over, and then figure out why it's STILL making a noise and pick the right grease or whatever... almost all of the people I know who can do that are old guys. What happens when they "go"' and take all that skill and experience and fearlessness with them?

I try to watch closely and ask questions whenever something is being taken apart, and I do love to wander Home Depot and see all the loose parts that I never really realized you could buy to replace little broken bits instead of buying whole new whatevers, and the tools that I just wonder what their special function is, but that's no real way to learn. Nothing compared to the lifetime of hands-on know-how my dad or my father-in-law has, and which hubby and I were encouraged to educate ourselves "above" by those same loving fathers. So many people, including me, are so helpless when it comes to fixing just about anything.

But you know what? I have this fearless neighbor, whose husband is also not that handy, and when something breaks at their house, she gets on YouTube and figures out how to unclog the dishwasher draining tube or take the drum out of the washing machine and remove the penny(!) that was causing that terrible noise. And she buys or scrounges whatever parts she needs and has had quite a few successes. Emboldened by her example, I have so far fixed my carpet cleaner and patched a window screen using the YouTube method, and my husband, with my encouragement, has unclogged the propane line to our grill and done something to the garage door opener to make it stop opening itself. Tiny, baby accomplishments, I know, but things we would have either replaced by buying new, or called a "guy" to fix in the past. My point is that my good neighbor's nerve and her good example have had ripple effects. Just as your blog does, Jo, so please don't stop pricking our consciences.

--Heather in CA
flip phones are back? yay, i'm ahead of the curve when really, I was so behind it!!!
(and I only got the flip phone because/when my ancient nokia really truly died)
your thought about 'knowing the stories behind our stuff' made me think of the four corners show that aired last night about the terrible slave labour in Australia that is used to pick and pack the fruit ad veg we buy. shocking and appalling.
Jo said…
Heather, you are so right about the fixing thing. Ex-hub is the world's most practical person and can fix anything, and I am... not. So I left it to him for 23 years, and now I am all aaargh about all the things that are breaking around the house. I need to be as brave as you and your neighbour. What I love about all you wonderful people who comment is that you motivate and inspire me right back:)

e, you are a fashionista too:)
My gym buddy told me about that four corners program today, and it is now on my list of things to watch. Am I surprised? Not at all. I was already planning my campaign to ditch the supermarkets, now I will have to step it up..
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Too funny and thanks! Three cheers for wombling!


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