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iPhoneJune2007_4107
Yes, it’s you. It’s me. It’s each and every one of us. In fact, it’s seven billion of us, spread out over an increasingly crowded and stressed planet. Writing last year in an article for Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, I noted that during the course 2011, the human population of the Earth would reach a staggering seven billion souls. The January 2011 issue of the National Geographic was devoted to the theme of Population Growth, leading with a cover story titled Seven Billion. What struck me was this was the first even remotely mainstream publication to make the connection between human population growth, consumption, and resource depletion.

Rather than rehash NG’s or my own article, I’ll just go with the short version. Seven Billion people eat a lot of food, drink a lot of water and burn a lot of–mostly fossil–fuel. Well, duh. I’ll revisit that on the cosmic scale. The planet Earth is essentially a petri dish, a closed system with only sunlight and meteorites coming in. So not only is an infinite growth model patently unsustainable on the face of it, we are also in no small danger of filling up the dish, with projected dire consequences.

Lately part of the topic of global consumption and our voracious appetite for resources has been in the news, focusing on Apple computer and their manufacturing pipeline, specifically on the labor practices of their outsourced manufacturing partner Foxconn in China. The story made headlines with major piece in the New York Times and Mike Daisey’s one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, whose most sensational claims ultimately proved later to be utterly fabricated. As a matter of perspective, while dismal by American standards, Foxconn actually pays better and has somewhat better conditions than most of it’s counterparts, and certainly beats being a rural farmer in China. But be that as it may, this is the tip of the iceberg of a complex global chain of manufacturing, labor and commerce that affects our entire civilization; the flow of resources and products mostly flowing from the developing world to the consumers of Europe and North America. Own a smartphone? Computer? Laptop? iPad? You’re in it. In fact of you are much of a consumer at all, you’re in it.

“Unless you are wearing homespun, grow and ranch every bit of your food and have a home-built wind turbine or solar array, you’re like the vast press of us, firmly embedded in a vast global economy.”

Since 2006, I have been the Designer and Art Director of the Wheel Of The Year, an annual institutional calendar for the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, which for the past six years has included a supplement focusing on what’s they’ve been calling the Age of Limits, touching on topics such as sustainability, resource depletion, Peak Oil, climate change, environmental and economic degradation. These are thoughtful people, who are doing their best to look beyond the next election. I’ve been watching the evolving debate from both informed urban living and Native American spiritual perspectives, and have been offering some thoughts on the state and arc of our technological civilization.

I usually have the somewhat advantaged position of seeing what’s going into the Calendar as it’s being put together and can tailor my page or two to fit with the theme and tone. This year after one of the chief organizers of the Sanctuary asked if I would have something for the 2012 edition, I said I did, but was wracking my brain for a suitable hook as I was harassing the Board and contributors on the difference between web-worthy and hi-resolution photos suitable for print. Print date approaching, I was still stewing.

Then a New York Times article caught my attention. The iEconomy: In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, [25 Jan 2012 ] details the issues surrounding the high tech industry, specifically the electronics mega-manufacturer Foxconn and their high profile employer, Apple. Foxconn manufactures for Apple, most significantly, iPhones and iPads, which have been a huge success worldwide. The labor is provided by virtual armies of semi-skilled laborers. I had my hook.

Charles Duhigg and David Barboza write: “Factories in Chengdu manufacture products for hundreds of companies. But Mr. Lai [Xiaodong–killed in a factory explosion] was focused on Foxconn Technology, China’s largest exporter and one of the nation’s biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers. The company has plants throughout China, and assembles an estimated 40 percent [emphasis mine] of the world’s consumer electronics, including for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung.”
Media response has been sensational and critical of Apple as a high profile market leader with stunning profits.
Arun Gupta writes at Truthout.org, “The series’ biggest impact may be discomfiting Apple fanatics who as they read the articles realize that the iPad they are holding is assembled from child labor, toxic shop floors, involuntary overtime, suicidal working conditions, and preventable accidents that kill and maim workers.”
But tech writers are quick to point out that the practice is not limited to Apple but is literally standard business practice in the global marketplace.
Gutpa continues, “As far as labor practices goes, Foxconn is no different than its rivals, and it’s impossible to escape. It assembles electronics for everyone including the iPad’s rival, the Kindle, and the Acer computer I’m writing this on. All that matters is that Wall Street is happy because Apple has more cash on hand than the U.S. Treasury.”

Virtually every electronic device sold in the world is built on the backs of close to slave labor in deplorable conditions, environmental destruction and monumental consumption of finite resources. The tragically short life spans of these products only accelerates the process. You may think to yourself, well I’ll just buy American. Good luck with that. Try getting rid of every electronic device you own, add most of the ones at work.
“Apple may be the poster child for manufacturing abroad, but HP also uses Foxconn heavily. Analysts estimate that Apple will be roughly 40 percent of Foxconn’s revenue in 2012. HP is about 25 percent, according to Fubon Research. No one is writing about HP though even though its supply chain report reads just like Apple’s. Every electronic you have on you right now goes through China. The data center that powers the cloud behind those devices were also made by folks stacked in tech dorms in China. The minerals in the battery were mined somewhere...” – Larry Dignan, ZD Net.

What does that all mean for those of us who have chose to embrace ecological awareness and Earth Spirituality in all its many forms? Our technological, consumer society is consuming the Earth. Welcome to the global economy. The high tech device that I am typing these very words on, a new Mac Pro, is the tip of a resource pyramid with its base spread across the globe. We can’t point our fingers at Apple, HP or Acer and excuse ourselves, we’re all in it. Everything and every one is now connected to a great global material continuum that supports our technological civilization.
Dignan continues, “It’s not just tech. Tech is being thrown under the bus with this debate because it’s sexier. Ever notice how everything you wear comes from somewhere else too. We go to Wal-Mart, Target or wherever and demand cheap chic. You don’t get cheap without inexpensive labor. In the fashion industry the race is on to find more sourcing outside of China. Why? Labor costs are going up. Africa is looking good at the moment. Rest assured that shirt on your back has some exploited labor behind it. In fact, everything you own comes from a supply chain that probably has multiple things you just don’t want to know about. You could swap out Apple in that New York Times story and replace it with almost any American corporate giant.”
Did you have an orange with breakfast this morning? Where did it come from? Florida? California? Mexico? Brazil? Morocco? South Africa? Who picked it? We’d like to think it was a union laborer with a living wage, benefits, a health plan and a paid vacation. But probably not. How did it get to you? Plains, trains, trucks, how much fossil fuel burned added to its cost? What about the shirt you’re wearing? A bit of contortion reveals the label of the sweater I have on this very moment. It’s an Izod, a gift from my mother -in-law. It’s pretty frakkin’ nice. It’s warm. Hello. Made in Thailand, a sunny little patch of the Third World. Union labor? I honestly don’t think so.

Unless you are wearing homespun, grow and ranch every bit of your food, and have a home-built wind turbine or solar array, you’re like the vast press of us, firmly embedded in a vast global economy. I will own up to the fact that as a designer, I am extremely technology dependent, for both the tools of my trade and the infrastructure that supports them. The very Wheel of the Year Calendar I wrote the original article for could not be produced in a timely and affordable manner without our digital tools and the Internet that links me in NY State, Four Quarters in Artemas, PA, our printer in Mercersburg, and Board of Directors Members scattered across the region. We’re all connected, and not just by Facebook, or the ’Net or to the material continuum, but to everything.

In a previous article, Living in the Petri Dish [WoTY 2010] I wrote, “All of these issues are connected. Exponential human consumption of the world’s resources drives us towards overshoot and global warming, especially in the developing world. Rising human populations drive resource depletion of every kind. The pressure to find, develop and burn every last scrap of fossil fuel on Earth is likely to grow ever more intense, at ever greater economic and environmental cost.

“Considering human nature and history, there is a tendency for short sighted governments to solve problems with armies, and I am not certain we can act collectively to avert the impending crisis.”

But in the two years since, it’s emerged that adding to the crisis is the growing conflict between massive corporations and humans. One small bright spot, the web of interdependence created by globalism seems to act as a minor deterrent to outbreaks of armed conflict. Bad for business.

So what do responsible practitioners of Earth Religion do about all this? It’s surely impractical for us to all try to go back to the land. It won’t support us all, and most of us will struggle to reclaim the forgotten skill sets needed. Skill at Angry Birds does not grow beans. We similarly can’t simply pledge to “buy American,” for reasons already stated. We’d be starving and naked in short order, since most “American” corporations massively outsource their resource chain to the global marketplace. Apple is just one of the most prominent.

For starters, there are articles like the ones that provided the “hook” for this essay. I’d recommend you read them, and keep reading. Find out where we are and why. One of the first rules in both Zen Buddhism, as well as Shamanism, is “pay attention.”  You’d be amazed what you might notice. Use these clever tech tools and networks to spread the word. Communicate with each other to seek solutions. Richard Heinburg is Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. He suggests in his report Searching For A Miracle, there is no magic tech out there on the near term horizon to save the status quo. Use what we’ve built to effect responsible change. We’ve entered an era of unprecedented connectivity, and we owe it to the planet and all her species to use that ability to find responsible ways forward. Apple, all criticism included, has begun to aggressively promote an alternative digital ecosystem, dispensing with boxed software, and recently pursuing the creation and use of digital books and textbooks. This could potentially lead to considerably less resource intensive lifestyles.

We can make responsible, informed choices about what we use and consume. As Americans, we can surely consume far less than we do. How much of what you buy do you really need? Corporations spend national fortunes in advertising and marketing to convince us we’re each responsible to support the economy through sheer mass consumption, that we are defined by the height and shininess of our piles of possessions, and not the worth of our characters. Resist. Other ways to slow the wave of consumption is to use less, use quality things that last. I recently purchased a Mac Pro over an essentially disposable commodity PC with the intention of using it professionally for years to come. Perhaps you could consider skipping a model cycle and get the next iPhone.

This article appears in a  slightly different form in the Age of Limits Supplement to the 2012 Wheel of The Year Calendar, published by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

References

Seven Billion, National Geographic Magazine, January 2011.
The Earth is Full, Paul Gilding, TED Talks.
The iEconomy: In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, 25 Jan 2012, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, NY Times.
Retracting "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory", This American Life, WBEZ-Chicago, 16 March 2012.
iEmpire: Apple’s Sordid Business Practices Are Even Worse Than You Think, 9 Feb 2012, Arun Gupta, AlterNet at Truthout.org.
Apple’s supply chain flap: It’s really about us, 27 Jan 2012, Larry Dignan, ZDNet.
Searching For A Miracle, Richard Heinburg, Post-Carbon Institute.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Some have a heavier foot print than others (3+ / 0-)

    although we are all implicated. And yet I hear the words "American Dream" almost everyday. American Dream meaning a single family home and a car in the driveway?

    Good diary. There's a lot here for further reference.

    ❧To thine ownself be true

    by Agathena on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 07:55:55 PM PDT

  •  What You May Not Appreciate About Apple (4+ / 0-)

    Glenn Fleishman has an interesting perspective on Apple and their products over at TidBITS: Incremental Change Wins Apple Big Gains

    Apple makes its money over the long term not just by introducing disruption, which would mean flash-in-the-pan products that spark and then fizzle, but by seeing disruption through into stable releases, each with significant improvements that appear to be incremental to a product’s design and capabilities.

    The value of incremental improvements is key to Apple’s success, and is one of the key reasons that even its most capable competitors seem unable to duplicate more than a fraction of what Apple does.

    The whole article is worth reading because it lays out what Apple is doing differently from everyone else. Apple products are designed to have several years of usability, through several software upgrade cycles. Contrariwise:
    The Low Margin/High Margin Battle -- Firms like Dell, Lenovo, Motorola (clearing regulatory approval to be acquired by Google), Nokia, and Samsung, to name just a few, typically make very little money on each device sold, whether a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet. This low-margin approach requires that they restrict expensive innovation on the devices that make up the bulk of their sales, or they might end up losing money on each unit sold. Because these firms have locked themselves into a race to produce the cheapest product (whether sold directly or via a cell carrier), their products are rarely future-proofed with sufficient RAM, storage, processor speed, graphical processing, and displays. You can of course find exceptions — and they cost more than the majority of the products that these companies sell.
    The other companies have a business model that basically requires them to get their customers to replace their devices frequently; Apple sells products in a way that lets the buyers have something that will be useable over several years while Apple can still make money from software upgrades over that time frame.

    In terms of resource use, this is a difference about Apple that doesn't often get noticed.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 08:03:24 PM PDT

    •  I had seen a bit of that item... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, sewaneepat, highacidity

      on Daring Fireball, and I do agree. I get much more use out my Apple products than nominally equivalent PCs or Android devices. iPhone users comment that they can update iOS on their iPhones while Android users complain that updating Android phones typically requires discarding and replace the entire phone. The poor build quality of most commodity PCs makes them essentially useless in about 3 years, while my apple machines typically maintain. useful service lives of over 5 years or more.

      Spot on.

      What th' heck do I know, I work for a living...

      by SamuraiArtGuy on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 08:14:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  All innovation is incremental (0+ / 0-)

      Some of it by design or option (planned, incremental upgrades) but much of it due to the nature of progress and change itself, and the expectation of consumers that things get faster, cheaper, better, cooler and more abundant.

      If you want to write a letter, you can (A) use a pen, paper and the mail, or (B) send it in an instant by email or electronic messaging from the latest smartphone. Technologically, getting from point A to point B was not going to, and did not happen in a single leap.

      I'd like to elaborate a bit on the issue of Apple design to provide a little counter-point.

      Although I am an Apple user and make that choice partly on the basis of product quality and durability as you suggest (for which I pay a premium I think is a good value since the products last longer), I must point out that in some respects Apple design is less upgradable or repairable than many of their competitors and this sometimes loops back toward shorter useful life and planned obsolescence.

      Apple designs typically have fewer available hardware upgrade options, virtually limited to memory upgrades of MacBooks and MacMini, and memory, processors card or graphics card upgrades of Mac Pros, but virtually no upgrades of any other products which are famously sealed boxes with very poor repairability, and are replaced, not repaired, if broken.

      Furthermore, add-ons are typically limited to plug-in dongles (more crap to buy, outside not inside the box) and lack many of the very basic options featured in competing products such as SD Card slots and the like, which actually facilitate longer use due to flexibility.

      Personally, I do not find this a problem because I option at purchase what I need or accept the limitations or work-arounds required, but other people have other needs or wants better met by competing products which have more options, better upgradability or better repairability.

      Apple's value proposition in some cases, which I find ultimately more attractive, is minimalist design, i.e., giving consumers the choice to buy less (less material, less features, less of what they don't want/need) which can be more sustainable if it meets need/want, which is a better value for those who so chose. Apple has also made a lot of progress on making their products more recyclable and more environmentally friendly, although I would add they were not really a leader in that regard as many claim, many Japanese companies were far ahead of them and Apple has followed.

      Lastly, I think the profitability and success of Apple is based on the concept of a carefully cultivated walled-garden. By design, Apple products are vending machines to buy software content from Apple, and seeds to grow more Apple purchases. In the past this was a disadvantage since options were limited and that is why Microsoft won the desktop war. In the present it is a successful model because it makes consumption of content more simple and user-friendly, and the profitability of that software is much higher than hardware.

      Apple builds a better Coke machine.

      What about my Daughter's future?

      by koNko on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 10:58:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Actually.... (0+ / 0-)

        Apple does support SD cards with some models.

        And, while Apple may have had fewer hardware options, what they do have seems to have worked out better. For example: NuBus, SCSI, FireWire, USB and so on.

        Apple made plug and play standard early on, and while the tech moves on, Apple still tries to not only offer new features, but make it play well with the rest of what they have. Some of these things may have appeared elsewhere, but Apple seems to have a better track record and making them useful without a lot of pain on the end user's part.

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Wed Apr 04, 2012 at 09:45:15 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You're WAY WAY Too Extravagent in Guessing About (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko, nextstep

    sustainable living.

    Unless you .... have a home-built ... solar array
    There is no human individual who ever lived, and no sustainable-living human family or community, that could possibly build a solar array. I'm almost positive there aren't any materials accessible through individual/family scale sustainable living that can generate electricity from sunlight. If there are, I'll bet my house that almost all 7 billion of us have no access to them.

    Even a wind turbine generator needs at minimum access to copper or aluminum ore able to be smelted and drawn into wire. Can you go out in the woods and come back with copper wire?

    And what are you going to run with the electricity you manage to generate? Maybe a hot wire.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 08:08:11 PM PDT

    •  Great points I meant to say! It's Just That (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko

      the problems we face are even bigger than those of us who know about them often guess.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 08:09:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I meant that comment... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko

      specifically to suggest that it was an unfeasible and unreasonable expectation to attempt to utterly separate oneself from the global economy. It is a criticism of the "buy American" argument that gets tossed up against Globalism.

      I certainly can't build one, and I am reasonably familiar with the theory and technology. Which was largely the point I was making.

      What th' heck do I know, I work for a living...

      by SamuraiArtGuy on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 08:19:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Corporations vs. humans, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko

    Apple good guy or bad guy has become a distraction, I'm afraid.

    Even drastically reduced consumption will not change our current course unless we take action on population growth, IMO.  Good to see you (and others) mentioning population as a factor and keeping the dialogue going; hoping governments will start listening.

    Thanks for your work!

  •  Points of debate (0+ / 0-)

    You make some assertions I consider inaccurate that need correction and others I agree with that should be elaborated or amplified.

    Population and sustainability have been a major concern for at least decades and the connection between the two is hardly a recent discovery or topic. Since you use China as bait, I will point out, as but one example, that China's "One Child" policy was formulated on basis that China's population, even at the low level of consumption of that era, was unsustainable and something had to be done to regulate growth because there was virtually no option to consume less when people were already living at subsistence level or below. I will not belabor the point, but even the most cursory research into the topic of sustainability would produce an avalanche of information, including policy, centered on the understanding of this basic relationship. That much of the world lives in denial of these facts even with knowledge of them is another issue, but to assert this is breakthrough knowledge is simply untrue.

    A second point you get right but under-amplify is that everything has an environmental cost, even our mere existence. This is why, throughout history, even in the pre-industrial era, events such as man-made famines happened when populations exceeded natural sustainability (as result of human civilization) and the human response to correct these self-made problems, such as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, has only remodeled and exacerbated the problem by accelerating population growth and feeding humans of the present at the expense of the future by polluting the earth. In simple terms, the number of humans and the increasing consumption of them cannot be sustained indefinitely as we have exceeded the capacity of the environment we live in to "heal itself". We must have fewer people and less consumption, something we all have difficulty understanding and applying to our own lives.

    You assert that virtually all electronic products are produced by near slave labor. This is as inaccurate and sensational as some of the public discourse you take to task for the same reason. It would be more accurate to say that much of what we consume, not merely electronics but in almost any category of goods, the materials they are made of and the services that support the activity, are produced by poor, disadvantaged people, and in many cases child labor and/or slave labor, and a cost to the environment.

    Much of this is correctable and the solution, to a great extent, is something you get very correct but I would sharpen: to balance the economic and social equation we must be willing to consume less and pay more for what we consume. Why?

    These people and these children are working to survive, and the system that employs them at the level abuse occurs facilitates it simply because those involved have the choice to meet the economic objectives of those who control end markets by whatever means they can, or get kicked out of the system and starve while those in a control position move on to greener pastures.

    So, to use the example of Apple et al, ultimately, for the workers of Foxconn to get paid an equitable and livable wage while working a reasonable and sustainable number of hours, Apple et al must be willing to pay a higher price at the expense of their profits (which they obviously could chose to do) and/or pass some or all of the cost along to consumers.

    Which makes the case, as you correctly suggest, for consumers to demand better, more durable products, to use them longer, and to re-think value in terms of what we consume and the ultimate cost. I'm suggesting consumers actually use their brains to THINK and they take responsibility for the the decisions they make, because ultimately, the game Apple et al is playing is to give consumers what they "want" (cheaper, faster, better, cooler) so we must ask "what do we want?"

    Slow-motion doom, or sustainability? Our choice.

    Because you are correct, we are all in this together, we have met the enemy, and it is us.

    T+R for raising a good debate. Fixed your tags to add "ekos" to get it more attention.

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 10:17:04 PM PDT

    •  Spot on... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko

      You followed the logical paths I laid out to essentially the same conclusions and views I hold. Tho' on one quibble, I will say that it is indeed true that the issues of population and sustainability have been on the minds of concerned, informed and thoughtful people for decades. Responsible leaders since the dawn of agricultural civilization have had to sweat population versus food production and accessible resources.

      But lately, and by lately I mean a trend that's been developing over the last 30 years, specifically in public mainstream discourse and the media, there seems to be an almost willful avoidance of these issues in the pursuit of corporate profits and a relentlessly promoted, patently unsustainable, infinite-growth consumer economy.

      And as for trotting out Apple and China as topical hooks - guilty guilty guilty. But it is quite true that their commercial practices are merely examples of global trends – and yes, some tech journalists have overstated the case for sensationalism. But it does give interested people some relevant avenues to dig deeper into the issues. Everything does absolutely have an environmental cost, which is where my petri dish analogy comes from.

      Thank you for the sharp and perceptive analysis!

      What th' heck do I know, I work for a living...

      by SamuraiArtGuy on Wed Apr 04, 2012 at 07:01:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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