More than 1,000 substances go into one smartphone

“There are more than 1,000 substances that go into one smartphone,” Katie Singer states. “Each of those has its energy-intense, toxic-waste-emitting supply chain. It’s an international supply chain.”

Coltan is one of the 1,000 substances. “Coltan is mined mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Katie explains. “It’s actually a combination of columbite and tantalite. When it’s refined to a powder, it holds charge. It goes into batteries in smartphones. More people have been murdered over coltan than in any conflict since World War II. We’re talking about more than ten million people.

“When we’re manufacturing electric vehicles we say that these are ‘green and clean’ … However, when we say that, we have not recognized what goes into manufacturing them. If we could recognize the full life cycle of extraction and energy use and worker hazards, then we would not be able to say that something like that is sustainable. We would not be able to say that it’s green or clean or zero-emitting or net neutral or carbon-neutral or anything like that.

“I’m interested in taking responsibility for myself,” Katie explains. “That’s a basic thing I like to do in my life. And right now that means becoming aware of my impacts as I use computers. And at the same time I recognize that I can’t really function in this society if I don’t use a computer. So, that’s a conundrum that I live with.

“At the United Nations, I met Mr. Soumya Dutta who co-founded India Climate Justice. And he explained to me that in Bangladesh people use per year 300 kgoe (kilograms of oil equivalent). In India, people use 600 kgoe per year. In the United States, the average person uses 6,000 kgoe per year.

“The most significant thing I’ve done is question my assumptions. I started hearing 25 years ago that using a computer was green and clean. And I started saying: Really, is that true? And then this information has come to me just from asking: Is that true?”

One assumption that Katie questions is the need for constant ‘innovation’. “When we put yet another generation of access networks in, like if we got to 5G, for example, that will just create another layer of intense energy use and raw material extraction. Why not keep what we have in good repair? Keep the fourth generation? So, again, our thinking needs to change so that we can make use of what we have, and we can teach young people to become good mechanics and to repair what we have. Miguel Coma has written about how 5G is great within a factory but that we don’t need to distribute it around a city, for example, or a neighborhood. There, what we have is sufficient.”

One assumption I’ve long had is that new technology is better. But is it? We have reached a point where we have more than enough technology. We don’t need faster speeds to save the climate. We need the opposite. We need slower speeds. Slowing down will be good for our physical and mental health and good for the climate. Move slowly and repair things.

Katie Singer chats with Gerry McGovern

Electronic Silent Spring, Katie Singer

Katie's website

@KatieESinger

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