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.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.
“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.”
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.
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.