Citizen activism for more sustainable tech

What can an individual do to make the most sustainable choice when buying a new laptop or smartphone? Don’t buy. Hold on to your device for one more year.

“As an individual, there is very little you can do,” scientist Josh Lepawsky explains. “I know that that can be a depressing thing. But if you think about going into an electronics store and you’re going to buy a new phone or laptop, you have a pretty large array of choices around models and specifications and price ranges and what not. It would appear that you have a wide variety of choice. But when it comes to the underlying materials that all those models and makes and brands are made of—or the underlying labor conditions—they are so similar as to make the idea of consumer choice as a path forward to a more sustainable relationship with electronics, basically meaningless. So don’t think that consumer choice is going to mitigate. The most environmental device is the one that you already have. So keep using what you have as long as possible. Pass it along for reuse to friends, family, other organizations.

“What does matter is organized consumer action, and organized citizen action. And that might sound abstract. But—at least in Western Europe and in Canada and the US—so much in our lives—without really thinking about it—is ordered as a consequence of historical organized citizen action to have better conditions. For example, in Canada you’ve got Health Canada, and in the US the Food and Drug Administration, that regulate things like pharmaceuticals, like food. That didn’t just appear out of the altruism of law makers. It came out of organized consumer action in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Pharmaceuticals and food are multi-billion-dollar industries and we found ways to regulate them in ways that lead to a safer—not safe—but a safer material world. If we can do it in those sectors, we can do it in other sectors. Another sector is the automobile sector. Not that long ago, automobile safety was completely voluntary and controlled by an industry consortium, an oligopoly of three or four car manufacturers. But organized consumer action advocated for regulation that eventually became things like the National Transportation Administration in the United States. And as a consequence of regulations that came out of that, you cannot buy a car without, for example, working seat belts. That wasn’t always the case.

“It’s important to think of ourselves as citizens and to work together as citizens to effect change. That is how the biggest social shifts have historically happened. And those historical shifts are, for a lot of us, so taken for granted, so in the background … that they are part of the infrastructure of daily life. They’re so mundane that they disappear from the sense that the world was ever any other way. Very powerful sectors (food, pharmaceuticals, cars) have been forced to change—in certain ways—how they manufacture the things that consumers bring into their daily lives.”

I asked Josh, if a citizen group came to him and asked what should they focus on in order to get more sustainable technology, what would he reply? “Material simplicity for manufacturing,” he said. “Putting hard caps on certain kinds of chemicals being used at all. There are certain toxicants that should be regulated out of use altogether.”

The tech industry has thrived by creating unnecessary complexity in both its product design and in the processes and systems it installs within organizations. 1,000-plus substances are used to make a smartphone. To make that smartphone vibrate requires rare earths such as neodymium, terbium, dysprosium, along with cobalt and tungsten.

Ask yourself: Do I really need all these materials, with all their mining, their waste and other harms, to live a just and happy life? Respect Earth’s materials forever.

Josh Lepawsky chats with Gerry McGovern

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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