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Life Arts    H2'ed 10/13/20

Dear Greta Letter #3 Behind Our Screens: An invitation to learn a smartphone's true costs

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Dear Greta,

In 2018, when I met Soumya Dutta, co-founder of India Climate Justice, he spelled out my privileges as a U.S. American. (I think you know what he shared, but I did not.) "In the twentieth century," Mr. Dutta explained, "the human population increased four-fold, from 1.6 to 6.1 billion people. During the same time, global energy consumption increased between twelve and sixteen-fold.[1], [2] Whenever one unit of energy is produced and consumed, water, land and other bio-resources are also consumed; and hazardous waste is generated. In other words, because of cars, electricity, air conditioning and televisions, the average person now uses over four times the amount of natural resources that our grandparents consumed. Meanwhile, in 2020, six billion more of us are alive."

I added two items to Soumya Dutta's list: because of cars, electricity, air conditioning, the internet and smartphones, the average person now uses over four times the amount of natural resources that our grandparents consumed.

"Actually," Soumya Dutta continued, "referring here to 'average' people is not correct. According to the World Bank, the average Indian consumes about 630 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per year. The average Bangladeshi consumes less than 300 kgoe. The average U.S. American annually consumes over 6000 kgoe.

"To provide every global citizen with a decent opportunity for a healthy life (starting with clean water and toilets), poor countries with the lowest emissions might need to increase their per capita energy consumption. To reduce human-imposed burdens on natural ecosystems sufficiently, people who consume excessively will need to reduce their energy and water consumption by at least 70%[3] and eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions completely."[4]

Soumya Dutta got me wondering how I could reduce my consumption by 70% and eliminate my greenhouse gas emissions.

I challenged myself to reduce my consumption by three percent per month. I stopped using a clothes dryer. I used my solar oven more often. My husband and I planted a bigger vegetable garden.

But then I built a new website about the internet's footprint, and I upgraded my desktop computer: I increased my media consumption.

If we call awareness of the internet's energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions "Step One," I was at Step One. But I could not figure out how to reduce my footprint. No one can do this alone. We will need every internet user's participation.

Behind Our Screens

Before its end-user turns a smartphone (or any computer) on for the first time, robotic machines must design it. Miners must extract ores. The ores must be washed, then shipped to smelters. Refined materials and manufactured solvents and bent plastics must be transported to assembly plants. Packaging must be designed and built. The final product must be transported to its end-user.

Each station in this international supply chain consumes energy and emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) and toxic waste. Miners and assembly workers often endure hazardous conditions. Rivers and lakes get polluted by "tailings" (emissions from refining ores). Oceans get acidified by cargo ships' bunker fuel.

Every smartphone includes 1000+ substances,[5] each with its own energy-intensive, toxic waste-emitting supply chain. When I learned this, I began listing the substances:

The Case: Aluminum alloys, bromine (for flame retardant), magnesium, nickel, plastic, tin.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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