Do you remember that feeling when you first unwrapped your latest new phone, tablet or laptop? That shiny, sleek form suggesting science fiction made fact; the gorgeous glowing graphics connecting you to the creativity of the whole world? Go on, admit it, some of you might have even gleefully hugged your beautiful little gadget. Perhaps you lovingly stroked it, or at the very least casually dropped it into conversations for the next week, to the amusement of your friends and colleagues…
Such is the powerful hold of the new generation of electronic gadgets, that few of us are totally immune to their allure. They are addictive, futuristic, almost other-worldly. But of course they are not really other-worldly at all.
One of the successes of their slick design has been to help us forget that these gadgets started life as part of the Earth, in the form of rock, mineral and oil. And that the transformation from subterranean mineral to sleek mobile has involved a staggering amount of land grabbing, ecosystem destruction, pollution and fossil fuels, as well as a terrible human cost in war and poor working conditions. There are hundreds of components in each of these gadgets, using dozens of metals and minerals. The path each component takes from the Earth to be extracted, smelted and processed criss-crosses the planet through complex routes that companies fail – or refuse – to track.
A new report from the Gaia Foundation and allies exposes how the accelerating consumption and wasteful disposal of our electronic gadgets is leading to growing ecological and materials crises. “Short Circuit: the Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth” was launched this week in the Houses of Parliament, alongside the London Mining Network, Friends of the Earth and the Great Recovery project. The report has been produced in collaboration with the African Biodiversity Network and others.
With the number of mobile-connected devices projected to exceed the number of humans on Earth by the end of 2013, the report draws attention to the vast and accelerating amount of metals and minerals that are being mined from the Earth for these gadgets, only to quickly return as wasted and toxic landfill. With alluring marketing strategies that entice us to upgrade after 18 or even 12 months, the consumer cycle is getting ever shorter, and the pressure on the Earth’s materials, ecosystems and communities ever more demanding. Counter-intuitively, it seems that the smaller and sleeker the gadget, the greater the “ecological backpack” of minerals, metals and pollution involved in their production.
The deliberate design for built-in obsolescence is one of the means by which phone and computer companies can ensure an eternally hungry market. Many mobile phones have embedded batteries that cannot be replaced when they die; when computer components break they often cannot easily be removed and fixed; and hardware is frequently not designed to keep up with software. This strategy can be an effective technique to increase sales, but it is hugely wasteful, and requires more and more of the Earth to be extracted, used, processed and polluted to meet this growing demand.
The Gaia Foundation works with communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America on issues around agriculture, biodiversity, climate change and indigenous rights. Until recently, the threat to their territories from mining, and the link to everyday gadgets such as mobiles and laptops was nowhere near our radar. But three years ago we began to notice that more and more of the communities we worked with were simultaneously raising their concerns about land grabbing by mining companies. It seemed that something had changed, and the rate and which this change was happening set alarm bells ringing.
Our research confirmed this suspicion, and the Gaia Foundation’s 2012 report “Opening Pandora’s Box: a New Wave of Land Grabbing from the Extractive Industries and the Devastating Impact on Earth” exposed how, due to a convergence of economic, geological and technological factors, mining was no longer about isolated pockets of environmental and social destruction. With many of the planet’s richest areas for mineral and metal ores already used up, processes to extract them were becoming all the more aggressive and targeting ever more pristine ecosystems. In the case of copper, companies often need to extract ten times the amount of earth as they did 100 years ago, to produce the same amount of metal. To produce a single gold wedding ring now requires the extraction of 20 tonnes of earth.
Short Circuit tells the second part of this story, and brings the analysis closer to home. It shows that our myriad electronic gadgets, and the systems that create them, are major drivers of the growing demand for metal and mineral extraction. The report tells the story of a mobile phone’s traumatic “birth” (involving land grabs, destruction of ecosystems, conflicts, toxic legacies and poor worker conditions); an ever-shorter “life” (fuelled by rapid upgrades and planned obsolescence); to its wasteful “death” (the vast majority of electronic waste is sent to toxic “digital dumps” in the developing world, or ends up in landfill.).
The report highlights not only the lack of recycling of electronic waste; but the lack of designing for longevity and recyclability. With the steady depletion of the Earth’s metals and minerals, and the electronic lifecycle becoming ever shorter, companies face an inevitable crisis in sourcing materials if they do not take action soon. However recycling is only part, albeit a necessary part, of the solution. We must also examine our cultural attitudes to consumption. Useful new initiatives range from the Restart Project and iFixit initiative which empower people to repair their electronics, to ideas about extended producer responsibility, circular economies, the “new materialism”, the gift economy and Transition Towns. All have much to teach us and must be part of the way forward.
It seems that the very tools that supposedly bring us ever greater and faster connection to our friends, family and work are also powerful symbols of our deepening disconnect from the Earth. It is time to join the dots, to reconnect, to close the loop and birth a new relationship to the electronic lifecycle, and our own attitudes to consumption. Coveting our “futuristic” gadgets can instead mean being mindful of the legacy we will leave to our Earth and the generations to come.
 African Biodiversity Network, London Mining Network, Mining Watch Canada, OCMAL, Oilwatch Africa PIPLinks & Climate Revolution. Supported by the EC.
 Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017 http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns827/white_paper_c11-520862.html
 Gaia Foundation (2012) Opening Pandora’s Box http://www.gaiafoundation.org/opening-pandoras-box
 Earthworks (2004) Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment.