Bill Mollison “one described modern technological agriculture as a form of ‘witchcraft’”, or a “kind of war against the land”. (1) The technologies of much of modern agriculture, as Mollison explored, are driven by the chemical fertiliser and pesticide industry, the main companies of which (some of the largest in the world) started out in the chemical weapons business ( see for example 1, 2, 3). While it could be argued that it is perhaps better that such companies are at least superficially supporting life rather than continuing to encourage wars to be fought so that they can sell items actively designed to kill other humans, it is clearly not the most effective way to grow our food if we wish to live healthy lives.
In a way, it is easy to find a solution to this problem: stop buying food which is grown using chemicals, or better yet, grow your own chemical-free food. This option is, of course, easier for some than others, depending on your situation. But the technology we use does not stop with the food we eat. How can we utilise technologies to help us in our work while ensuring that they are not damaging the ecosystem around us?
h3Falling Under the Spell
Mollison’s talk of “witchcraft” might make more sense when we consider our cultural encouragement of certain technologies. How do we allow things to exist and be used which also cause harm to our environment and thus, ultimately, ourselves? Some say that it all comes back to the “first human technology”, as R. Buckminster Fuller put it (4), that mysterious phenomenon known as language. Many have written about the connection between how we use our language and how we have become disconnected from the natural elemental forces which nevertheless continue to surround us, as I have explored elsewhere on this site (see 5, 6). While language may not be the only cause of this disconnection it is interesting to note that phonetic language, especially in its written form, does have some kind of power which it seems important to recognise and ensure we are using in the right way.
Don’t believe in magic or witchcraft? That’s ok, you don’t need to. As David Abram points out in ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ (5), the connection is here already in our day-to-day language. When writing a word we speak of the sorcery involved in conjuring it; or how to ‘spell’ it.
What is useful about this conception is that it enables us to see language as a tool, like all technologies, which we can use in different ways. If we see that we are not achieving the desired effect we can change how we use the tool; equally, if we are exposed to others using language in a way which we feel is not beneficial to us or to the world we can choose not to give our energy to whoever is using it in this way. Advertising is a prime example of how language can be used to foster possible detrimental behaviour patterns such as buying excessive amounts of things which ultimately cause damage to the world. Therefore, part of our use of appropriate technologies in permaculture should probably include ways of responding to or ignoring advertising, and choosing our own words when we wish to promote something with conscious attention and care.
The Stories of Our Stuff
Annie Leonard has provided a lot of insight into some common patterns of excessive consumption, beginning with her 2007 video ‘The Story of Stuff’ (7), in which she explores the production chain and the potential harmfulness of many of the materials used in our everyday items. In 2011Leonard followed this up with ‘The Story of Electronics’ (8), which exposes the planned obsolescence inbuilt into many electronic items, or what she calls “designed for the dump” (8). Such planned obsolescence is probably only viable if the producers also use the power of language in advertising to try to make it seem as though the newer machine is a better one: “When you’re trying to sell loads of stuff, it makes perfect sense” (8).
However, as Leonard explores, even with this viability included it is only really profitable for electronics companies to do this in the short term. This is quite encouraging as it means that we as consumers have a lot of power to change the paradigm simply by changing our own stories.
Leonard travelled to Guiyu, a region in Southeast China “which may be the electronic-waste capital of the globe” (9), to find out what happens to electronic items when they get “recycled”:
“Workers without protective gear sit on the ground smashing open electronics to recover the valuable metals inside and chucking or burning the parts that no one will pay them for” (8).
Being mindful of mines
At the other end of the electronics life-cycle, there is the extraction process involved with creating the products in the first place. The harmful effects of mining, in general, have been well-documented (see for example 10, 11); however, perhaps less well-known are how the mining industry is directly related to our daily lives.
Take gold, for example. Where gold occurs naturally in the ground, there is also usually “considerable amounts of arsenic” (12) naturally present in the soil. When the gold is extracted this arsenic is dumped, thus causing a saturation of the soil with this poisonous substance (12).
Many mines of gold and other metals use cyanide (the same chemical used in the gas chambers of concentration camps in 1930s Europe) (13) to separate the desired metals from the earth; the waste cyanide then has to be disposed of. According to NGO Earthworks (14), the biggest four mines in the world account for “86% of the 180 million tonnes [of toxic mining waste] dumped into water bodies each year.” (15).
Of those four mines, three of them are gold and copper mines, located in Indonesia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea. The largest open-pit mine in Australia is also a gold mine, the Boddington Goldmine in Western Australia, also the tenth-largest gold-producing mine in the world (16).
If you do not wear gold jewellery you may feel that you are not encouraging these detrimental processes, however, while gold is used in many luxury items it is also very commonly used in – yes, you guessed it – the electronics industry. In fact, “A small amount of gold is used in almost every sophisticated electronic device” (17).
Changes already happening
So what can we do about this?
Many electronics companies, as Leonard mentions, are already beginning to recognise that sometimes, consumers care more about their health and the health of those around them than about always having the latest gadget. For example, Apple Inc introduced a recycling program to take back old electronic items (18), and also have “environmental responsibility reports” (19) on their website in which they detail the toxic materials they have stopped using in their products.
Ethical shopping website Ethical Consumer (20) can be very helpful to use when choosing electronics products, with product tables of ratings out of 20 within the categories of environment, animals, people, politics, and product sustainability (see for example 21). However, even the current winning laptop – the VeryPC Thinbook from the Very Innovative Group (22) – scores only 10 out of 20 (21).
In terms of companies who seem to hold the environment and human rights as at least as important as profit, there seem to be only a few.
So far there seem to be just two main companies involved in creating electronic devices which are ecologically in balance:
– Fairphone (23), who “aim to create positive social and environmental impact from the beginning to the end of a phone’s life cycle” (23). They made “the world’s first modular phone”, so if there is a problem with any part of the phone you can replace it rather than having to buy a whole new phone (24).
In terms of materials, they have the goals to “source materials that are less hazardous/toxic”, “increase use of recycled and/or renewable resources” and “source materials from mines that empower vulnerable communities or have better sustainable resource” (24).
The Fairphone also scored 15 out of 20 on the Ethical Consumer website and is the winner out of all the smartphones they rated (25).
In terms of laptops, there’s
– Iameco (26), who produce “a sustainable, ecological, high-performance computer, free from the harmful chemicals and heavy metals built into most computers” (26).
Their computers, like the Fairphone, are modular, and “despite being equally powerful…use a third less power than a mainstream computer” (26). Currently, Iameco is advertising a desktop computer and a laptop and claim that a tablet will be available later this year.
A New Way
The above hardware represents a real shift in the way we are relating to our technology and the consumer patterns of modern society. However, as Leonard puts it, “We are never going to just shop our way out of this problem”(8).
This is especially true when you consider that the Fairphone has a waiting list of around 1 month if you want to but one, while to order an Iameco computer you have to email them and wait for a reply – which may be off-putting to consumers accustomed to buying something they can own at the click of a button.
Choosing ethical brands can help in the short term but in the long term, we need to be a part of creating a new way of relating to ourselves and the world in order to encourage technology which is not just sustainable, but even regenerative. Even the top ethical hardware manufacturers are only trying to “source materials that are less hazardous/ toxic” (25) than the ones currently being used by most companies; what about materials which are not hazardous or toxic at all?
It’s great that more and more companies are recycling their materials so that they do not end up in “e-waste dumps” (8) like Guiyu, but if we still continue disposing of our materials, won’t the valuable minerals just end up eventually deep under the ground, meaning that we have to mine them out again?
These are questions which it seems can only be answered by transcending the current paradigm entirely. Perhaps if we really believe that mines are detrimental to the environment and to humans we need to be creating technology which doesn’t use any mined materials. Such technologies are already being experimented with, from road tarmac made from a type of algae (27) to a kind of plastic-like fabric made of kombucha (28).
Of course, people have been trying to synthesise gold for centuries with little success (18), so perhaps we need to be creating new ways of conducting electricity which does not use precious metals at all. We could maybe look to the work of Nikola Tesla as an example of this (see for example 29) or to the variety of “free energy devices” (30) which exist, though none seemingly which function well enough to be in general circulation…Yet.
So much of our modern technology is so useful to us, and we can continue using it in order to find effective results for our work. Phones and laptops clearly already exist, so going back and pretending they don’t may have only limited value in ecological regeneration. However, it seems important to recognise the “spells” which are being woven all around us, and if we do not like them, to start changing our behaviour.
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