This morning, I had a great cup of coffee. Aside from the caffeine kick, it supplied me with a small dose of self-righteous satisfaction to know my beans were grown on an organic, Fair Trade, female-run, nano-lot plantation in Guatemala. It tasted even better because I knew they were roasted right down the street in Providence—the barista told me as he steamed the non-GMO milk from happy cows in nearby Vermont.
In past decades, there has been growing consumer demand for market transparency. Modern design curricula are also increasingly concerned with sustainability issues and ethical sourcing, particularly concerning materials and product lifecycle. More and more, it has slowly become the social norm for designers as “creators of stuff” to claim responsibility for (and even capitalize upon) environmental and social impact whenever choosing to introduce something new into the world. But even as we run hackathons to revolutionize recycling, bump up prices to prioritize local manufacturers, or bioengineer new plastics from carbon-sequestering algae, we do it all without questioning the origin and makeup of the smartphones perpetually in our pockets, our project files safely stored on slim MacBook Pros.
While mining practices for the rare earth metals used in the manufacture of electronics are unmistakably detrimental to both environmental and human wellbeing, consumers have yet to demand the same level of transparency, corporate responsibility, self-restraint, and governmental regulation as they have when it comes to other “essentials” like food and clothing. Why haven’t our expectations carried over to technological and digital consumption, which is arguably more essential than ever?
In a broad comparison, the product lifecycle for an electronic device (anything with an integrated circuit) can be divided into pre-consumption and post-consumption. As illustrated in the diagram above, pre-consumption starts with mining and moves through processing, manufacturing, transportation, and retail before it ends up in our hands. All these elements must be taken into account when calculating impact and resource expenditure, which Jasmine Soltani describes as “embodied energy.”1 Post-consumption can involve the device going straight to the landfill, reentering into retail if repaired, or reentering the manufacturing process if recycling occurs.
1. Jasmine Soltani, ITP Thesis Week 2018: Manifest Energy
The immense issues surrounding e-waste and exported recycling take place in that latter segment of the lifecycle, but here I’m interested in analyzing the pre-consumption phase—this psychological space is where the most successful behavior-change has occurred within the food industry, and I believe interesting parallels can be drawn or solutions adapted.
The supply chain transparency we have begun to expect—and sometimes require by law—in the food industry began by educating and raising awareness about the pre-consumption systems: farming/growing, processing, packaging, transportation, and distribution. The relevant concerns range from nutrition and health (What are trans fats, and how do pesticides affect my body?) to carbon emissions (What’s the difference between oranges from Spain and Florida?) to social equity (Who picked these tea leaves and what are they getting paid?) to flavor quality (Do my tomatoes taste like styrofoam because they’re engineered to last longer on shelves?). The more intently and ubiquitously these questions are asked by consumers, the more these values become ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist. And by the time a new norm is established, the original principle may become indiscernible from social capital and aesthetic trend; do I even need to define my arguments against hormones in genetically modified milk, or am I just the kind of person that recognizes the perfection of unadulterated nature as I sip a latte?
Just like the hidden emissions2 and gallons of water3 associated with each agricultural product we consume, the technology sector is full of costs that we don’t see at the point of user acquisition. 2. Food & Agriculture Organization, Tackling Climate Change through Livestock
3. Los Angeles Times, How what you eat demands more water than you think it does
4. Kate Crawford & Vladan Joler, Anatomy of an AI System In describing the anatomy of an AI system, for instance, Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler remind us that “each small moment of convenience—be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song—requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data.”4 Despite the food system’s own complexity, demand for “farm-to-table” simplicity and transparency is now so common that it’s fodder for pop culture parody,5 and yet there is no “mine-to-pocket” equivalent. 5. Portlandia Series Premiere (2011), Colin the Chicken
6. Huffington Post, How Intel eliminated war from its supply chain
7. Motherboard, Everything That’s Inside Your iPhone
Removed from the decentralized and vast international network of middle-men involved and a lack of enforceable regulations in place, even the big corporations producing our electronic devices aren’t fully aware of mining conditions associated with their source metals. Intel spent four years investigating before they were able to confirm their tantalum was not from Congo,6 and Apple claims to not have known their tin was from a notoriously dangerous Bolivian mine until an investigative reporter published a book about it.7 So what accounts for this disparity?
Several psychological and historical factors come to mind first. Since agriculture is often considered the defining feature of early civilizations’ transition from the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there is a traceable path back to “simpler times” when food production may have been less complicated or corrupted by the technology and economy of modern times. This nostalgia is easily leveraged when popularizing the idea of agricultural sustainability, equating ethical practice to notions of lost purity. In contrast, production of electronic devices has only been possible in relatively recent times following the Industrial Revolution, and the practice is intertwined in our cultural narrative with the anthropocentric pride of human progress, innovation, and modern convenience.
8. The Atlantic, E-waste: The Gobal Cost of Discarded Electronics
This narrative is more easily leveraged when convincing us to constantly discard, replace, and upgrade our old models—not to mention planned obsolescence and higher costs of repair.8
This psychology might also make us overlook the fact that much of these extracted resources are non-renewable—or at least not designed to be returned into the production cycle, much less back to the earth’s crust. Whereas agricultural land is cyclically arable and we also have a historical awareness of famine and hunger, mines are linearly depleted and we ironically have little fear of scarcity; artist Ingrid Burrington identifies that “computation is generally not perceived as something that could ever ‘run out.’ One of computer history’s most persistent and prevailing myths is that computational power will eventually give way to limitless human ingenuity and development.”9 9. The Creative Independent, Sand in the Gears
10. The Verge, China can’t control the market in rare earth elements because they aren’t all that rare
In fact, what makes “rare earth elements” considered to be rare is the difficulty and risk associated with their mining. In his book The Elements of Power, David Abraham describes the repeated process of dissolving ores in acid and filtering out the small percentage of viable metals, all of which creates a toxic and uninhabitable extraction site.10
Consumer ignorance is another cause for the disparity, which is exacerbated by the complex network of players in the system. The metals that make up any circuit board or electronic device are rarely listed or made widely available at the point of user interaction. 11. 911 Metallurgist, Metallurgist & Mineral Processing Engineer
12. Global Witness, The Dodd Frank Act’s Section 1502 on conflict minerals
When Brian Merchant was gathering research for his book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, he had to work with a metallurgist11 to pulverize an iPhone to metal dust before analyzing its material constitution. A 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill12 requires public companies to disclose the source of 3TG metals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold), but this legal requirement doesn’t necessarily translate to public fluency. While Cheetos are processed so heavily that the original flavor and form of cheese and corn are hardly identifiable in the end product, FDA regulations require that the ingredients and nutritional breakdown are visible right on the packaging. Transparency does not automatically lead to healthy or ethical means of production, but the availability of that information empowers consumers to make intentional choices and begin taking responsibility as a force in the economic market.
Another form of ignorance falls under the category of “out of sight, out of mind,” as applied to continued energy harvest after the technology is brought to market and integrated into daily use. 13. Climate Care and Custom Made, Infographic: The Carbon Footprint of the Internet
14. The New Republic, Breaking Up Amazon Won’t Solve Its Climate Problem
15. The New York Times, Power, Pollution and the Internet
16. Water Footprint Calculator, Data Centers, Digital and Water Use
Often the “smarter” an electronic device is, the more it requires back-end and on-going energy to be useful. While we can calculate the carbon footprint of foodstuff before it’s ready to consume at our table, the energy it takes to process caloric energy and unlock nutrients becomes our own bodies’ burden. With our network of always-on devices, however, each WiFi connection, auto sync, and charging lithium ion battery is continually sourcing energy from electric grids that likely run on fossil fuels.13 The reliably magical and seemingly immaterial Cloud is still just a hyperscale, automated computer farm, with Amazon Web Services (AWS) making up half of the massive and growing cloud computing market.14 The whole internet exists at the click of a mouse thanks to constant powering and maintenance of worldwide data centers; in 2012 The Times reported that digital warehouses used an equivalent energy output of 30 nuclear power plants15 and in 2014 the US Department of Energy reported the nation’s data center cooling systems collectively consumed 165 billion gallons of water.16
Slowly there has been demand and acquiescence of data giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google switching over to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
17. The Guardian, ‘Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025
18. Environmental Protection Agency, Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
19. Quartz, Every Google search results in CO2 emissions
20. Forbes, Your Web Use Leaves A Carbon Footprint, Here's How You Can Reduce It
Their action is necessary if we want to change the global trajectory of IoT carbon emissions, which is projected to reach 14% by 204017 (that's how much the entire transportation sector contributed in 2010).18 And whether it’s Joana Moll’s statement-piece visualizing the emissions associated with Googling19 or Jack Amend’s startup selling carbon neutral website advice and certificates,20 there are artists, journalists, and entrepreneurs operating outside the inching timeline of corporate responsibility. As consumers, designers, and citizens, we can attempt to visualize the invisible, quantify the intangible, and incentivize the blissfully ignorant—all of us who are daily blinded by pixels and lured by the siren song of convenience and constant connectivity.
This “out of sight, out of mind” psychology also makes unwitting western consumers complicit in the poor mining practices of faraway countries. Hyping local is a great strategy for sustainable food lifecycles, and often helps to solve the pre-consumption problems embedded in transportation and invisible labor. While we’re more than happy to support our regional economy and immediate community by purchasing seasonal produce at the farmer’s market, key metals in our devices are invariably sourced outside of the United States—not because our own continental crust is devoid of ore, but because we can afford to adopt a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude; mining is ugly and damaging to both the environment and its workers, irreversibly altering the geology and ecology of regions where the earth is dredged up and emptied out. In 1985, the EPA reports to congress that “...only a small percentage of the mined rock is valuable, vast quantities of material must be handled for each unit of marketable product. Much of this material is waste.”21
21. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Wastes from the Extraction and Beneficiation of Metallic Ores
22. Mining Technology, The false monopoly: China and the rare earths trade
23. The Guardian, Death metal: Tin mining in Indonesia
Like a modern-day extension of western Imperialism, wealthier nations that require a steady stream of rare earth metals bankroll mines across the world. Bolivia’s Cerro Rico was known by the 16th-century Spanish Empire as The Mountain That Eats Men (and oftentimes small children, who can access narrower areas in the mine). According to Merchant’s book, “between four and eight million people are believed to have perished there from cave-ins, silicosis, freezing, or starvation.” While illegal rare earth production has been compared explicitly to the blood diamond crisis,22 the concept of “conflict free” has not been as thoroughly established and regulated within the tech industry like “fair trade” has been in the food industry. While third-wave coffee roasters are proud to advertise personal relationships with their growers in South America, freelance miners sell directly to a tangle of smelters and processors acting as middle-men. Many levels of influence removed from the companies buying up rare earth metals, one Indonesian miner captured the absurdity: “It’s silly. We are the ones producing the tin but we don’t use it. We don’t have handphones.”23
Most of the proposed interventions about this subject target the post-consumer portion of the lifecycle, which includes producer buy-back, manufacturer export limits, offering repair-reclaim options, and properly regulated recycling programs to create jobs in developing countries.24
24. The Verge, Why failing to recycle electronics leaves gold mines untapped
But if these psychological and knowledge barriers are addressed for the pre-consumer phase of electronic lifecycles, what kind of preventative measures and complementary change can we hope for? When we look at the recent history of sustainable practices in the food industry, we see consumers reacting to new information and norm shifts by choosing new sources that they feel ethically comfortable with, demanding better standards from their current sources, or by just doing it themselves.
The nature of ore extraction and processing means that there is currently no reasonable DIY tech-equivalent to urban farming, community gardens, and backyard plots. But there is also the option to buy and use less electronic devices altogether. 25. ENDS Europe, Electronic goods’ life spans shrinking, study indicates
The market has engineered obsolescence that shortens the life of our devices,25 nudging consumers to buy more replacements in a shorter amount of time. So part of the responsibility falls back on regulators—but as we become more educated about the hidden and outsourced costs of each device on the shelf, we must put weight on these factors each time we make a personal decision to acquire new technology.
Demanding better sources is a method that more clearly aligns with our approach to sustainable food. Recently there is an optimistic buzz around “smart mining” enabled by advances in AI and Big Data, touting benefits to productivity, safety, accountability, environmental performance, and community.26 26. Visual Capitalist and Natural Resources Canada, Visualizing the Potential of Smart Mining
27. Apple, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report
28. Friends of the Earth Europe, Mining for smartphones: The true cost of tin
Indeed as we consider what makes “better mining”, the definitions will likely include measures like health & safety regulations for workers, fair compensation, elimination of child labor, and waste containment. There have even been cases of past success, with Apple in 2016 responding to media scrutiny by getting all its smelters to agree to regular audits27 and Europe’s Friends of the Earth campaigned for legislation requiring companies to report raw material usage as well as human impact,28 campaigner Julian Kirby explaining “Millions of us love our smartphones […] mandatory company reporting would set us on track to also being able to love the way they’re made.”
But is smarter or better mining ever really good? Well-regulated extractivism is still extractivism, and perhaps even more nefariously integrated and normalized. 29. Visual Capitalist and GoldSpot Discoveries, How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Mineral Discovery
No matter how safe or optimized it becomes with automation, mining for commercial ore is permanently altering the biosphere for the sake of the world economy. While more and more money is being spent on mineral exploration, the success rate of discovery has declined. Ironically, advances in Big Data and machine learning will give us the capability to systematically analyze geological data, more quickly and accurately identifying potential deposits in the earth.29
It seems that all the tools we’ve fashioned from the earth only make it easier and more tempting to justify our continued commodification of natural resources; the more we have and hold, the more we want and take. As human civilization progresses in technological advancement, it regresses as a responsible inhabitant of the earth. While the equation is not inherently logical or inevitable, the momentum has snowballed in this direction since the Industrial Revolution. As the ecofeminist historian of science Carolyn Merchant wrote so piercingly about shifting 16th century attitudes: 30. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980)
“If the new values connected with mining were positive, and mining was viewed as a means to improve the human condition […] constraints can change to sanctions through the demise of frameworks and their associated values as the needs, wants, and purposes of society change. The organic framework, in which the Mother Earth image was a moral restraint against mining, was literally undermined by the new commercial activity.”30
31. Fast Company, Nanosys: We Can Replace Some Rare Earth Metals
32. New York Times, Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’
33. Environmental Humanities, Eileen Crist, On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature
A small proportion of scientists has placed their hope in researching advanced composite materials that might eventually replace rare earth metals acquired by mining.31 Daunting as it may seem, similar strides have been made in the food industry where problems of sourcing have been tackled in the lab; at the time of writing, plant-based Impossible Burger signed a distribution deal with Burger King.32 When discussing solutions in the Anthropocene, innovation is a controversial approach—should we engineer ourselves out of the mess we’ve been engineering the planet into all along? Can more human ambition be the remedy to excessive human ambition?33 When it comes to the current mining practices tied to electronic manufacturing, it seems like a gamble worth taking.