E-waste and the Scandinavian lifestyle

I have long admired Scandinavian societies. I remember doing workshops over a number of years in Denmark and being struck at how collaborative a society it was. People were always sharing ideas and work practices, always trying to learn from each other. I spent time in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and occasionally Iceland. These were model societies, I believed.

I’ve spent more time in Norway than in any other Scandinavian country and it is a place I have much affection and respect for. Even before visiting for the first time, one of my favorite writers was Henrik Ibsen. The people are friendly and thoughtful.

Every year, when the global happiness or prosperity index comes out, the Scandinavian countries are nearly always in the top 10. Why can’t the rest of the world be more like Scandinavia, I wondered. What can we learn from them?

E-waste is a poisonous plague on the planet. Globally, we produce more than 50 million tons of it a year. We could build a Great Wall of China every year from e-waste. Every year, we create the combined weight of all Europeans in e-waste. And its weight is doubling every 15 years.

E-waste is even heavier on life systems because it’s full of poison. Much less than 20% of e-waste is properly recycled. A great deal of modern electronics are deliberately designed so they cannot be easily repaired or recycled. The growing e-waste mountains are the ultimate example of planned obsolescence in technology-driven societies.

At 26 kg per person, Norway is the world’s number one producer of e-waste. India produces about 2 kg per person. China, about 7 kg. If the rest of the world behaved like Norwegians, every year we’d be producing over 200 million tons of e-waste. The rest of Scandinavia is no better. Iceland is the world’s number one consumer of electricity. Finland leads the way in the consumption of mobile data, with over 30 GB of data per person per month. (Poor countries consume about 1 GB per person per month.)

When you look at indexes of sustainability, Scandinavian countries are close to the bottom. I used to wonder why we couldn’t all live like Scandinavians but now I realize that’s the nightmare scenario. If all humanity lived like Scandinavians we would have immediate climate catastrophe.

The climate crisis is unquestionably caused by the rich world. The richest 10% are responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions, while the poorest 50% are responsible for 10%. The more technology we use, the more poisonous, life-system destroying waste we produce.

We must learn to live well with less technology. We treat technology like plastic and fashion, something transient, something disposable. A certain amount of technology is essential to living a more comfortable life. However, our embrace of planned obsolescence and our obsession with having new things are a climate-destroying recipe.

Move fast and break things. Obsessive innovation and obsessive growth. We’re breaking the planet. The Big Tech medicine most undoubtedly will kill the patient. We need to go from Big Tech to Little Tech. As little tech as possible that lasts as long as possible.

Can Scandinavia lead the world in repair, recycling, reuse? In using less tech, in holding on to things as long as possible? It certainly has the intelligence and the means. Does it have the will?

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