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Life Arts    H2'ed 5/25/21

Writing from the Internet: an article about nature and technology

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One of these biodegrades.
Photo credit: Mark Stebnicki and Kari Shea

When I acknowledge the land on which I live and writeas Indigenous People have taught me to doI feel grateful to that ecosystem. I feel included in it. And so, I say thanks to the land called Northern New Mexico, which has sustained me for thirty years. I thank my parents and grandparents for giving me life, and the land called New York City, where I was born.

Today, I write from the Internet; and so, I thank it for allowing me to share my observations.

The Internet does not have a soul or a spirit. It is not a living creature, not a home or a neighborhood or a country. It is not water, land, metal, air or fireand yet we use each of these things to manufacture and operate and discard the Internet's parts. These parts do not absorb carbon dioxide, like a tree, or biodegrade (like living creatures do) when they die.

The Internet provides machine-to-machine communication. It is the largest thing that humanity has built. Its electricity use, fossil fuels, extracted and smelted ores, greenhouse gas emissions, use of chemicals, its toxic waste, worker hazards, fire hazards, degradation of wildlife habitats, impacts to social structures and local authority over environmental and public health policies (its impacts to democracy) are proportionate to its sizeand yet most of us users do not see these impacts.

Could we make the Internet's workings and impacts visible?

Behind the screen, every computer has transistors that process and store data, provide memory and apps. A smartphone uses transistors for GPS, low power microprocessors, sensors, transmitters and receivers (for cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals) and noise filtering microphones. Transistors are made from silicon, an element not found in nature in pure form. Manufacturing silicon typically requires pure quartz gravel; a carbon (such as petroleum coke, a byproduct of the Tar Sands, or Blue Gem coal, like that mined in Columbia); and hard, dense, moist wood (like that found in the Amazon rainforest). These three things are transported to a smelter that operates at 3000 degrees Fahrenheit (1649 degrees Celsius) for six or seven years at a time. [1] Because interrupting delivery of electricity to a smelter can blow it up. it cannot be powered by solar or industrial wind facilities, which provide intermittent power. Smelters are powered by coal, nuclear and/or hydro power.

A silicon wafer is one of the most highly refined artifacts ever created by humans. [2] Photo credit: Maxence Pira

Copper traces serve as conductors for a circuit board's signals. After the construction sector, the electronics industry is the world's largest consumer of copper. [3] Photo credit: Chris Ried

Young people, typically from rural areas, often aiming to send money home to their families, swipe circuit boards in Chinese factories with solvents like n-hexane. N-hexane causes leukemia and neuro-muscular diseases. [4] Copper, which serves as conductors for the circuit board's signals, is usually mined in Chile. For every kilogram of copper mined, at least 210 kilograms of waste are generated. [5]

Coltan and cobalt, for mobile devices' batteries, are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More people have been murdered over coltan than any other single event since World War II. [6] Lithium, also for batteries, takes water from communities and farmers. [7] Discarded lithium batteries can contaminate water supplies. [8]

Computers' raw materials and manufactured parts get transported between continents on container ships powered by dirty bunker fuel that pollutes the oceans. [9] They're transported on airplanes and trucks and trains (think of the energy and extractions embodied in each of these great vehicles) that need airports, highways and railroads. This is big business. One smartphone has more than 1000 substances, each with its own energy-intensive, toxic waste-emitting supply chain. [10] Looking at a laptop's cradle-to-grave energy use, 81% will be consumed during design, mining, smelting, shipping of raw materials, manufacturing of chemicals and assemblybefore the end-user turns the laptop on for the first time. [11]

The Internet is not sustainable. It depends on ores and fuels that took billions of years to form. Devices become obsolete within a few years. New software that's incompatible with "old" hardware and can lead consumers to buy new computers. Most electronic parts are not replaceable or recycled. At the end of their usable life, computers and batteries should be treated as hazardous waste.

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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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