With Steve Jobs stepping down as the CEO of Apple on account of a neuroendocrine tumor in his pancreas, we should all take a hard look at the impending launch of the iPhone 5 and our cancer-causing, environment-trashing, socially destructive electronics habit (do they have an app for that?).
I myself don't have cancer (that I know of, knock on wood), but my family, like most others, has had major and life-changing brushes with the disease, and I've personally had close calls with melanoma in the past. Like everyone else, I'm worried about cancer. That's why I'm so frustrated with the glaring blind spot in public discourse about Steve Jobs' battle with cancer and its symbolic connection to his leadership of the world's most financially successful manufacturer and retailer of highly-toxic personal electronics. Most media coverage of Jobs' resignation is focused on questions about the future success of Apple and in the short-term, the launch of the new iPhone 5, the latest lineage of a now seasonal product line that epitomizes our society's toxic electronics consumption.
In case you didn't know, the iPhone in your pocket, and any older versions gathering dust in your e-waste bin, contain rare earth metals, 95% of which are mined in China, with lax regulations and no protection for workers. The processing of rare earth metals releases thorium, a radioactive byproduct that has been found in soil concentrations 36 times higher than normal in farm land adjacent to rare earth refineries. The China Post has a harrowing article detailing high rates of cancer, farmland pollution and other human health impacts near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia, home to the world's largest deposits of rare earth metals:
"Farmers living near the 10-square-kilometer expanse in northern China say they have lost teeth and their hair has turned white while tests show the soil and water contain high levels of cancer-causing radioactive materials.
'We are victims. The tailings dam has contaminated us,' Wang [a local farmer], 60, told AFP at his home near Baotou city..."
There are other reasons to be concerned about the social and environmental impacts of iPhones and similarly frivolous gadgetry. The UK's Guardian newspaper has a good article here. And it's not just the rare earth miners, refiners, local residents and farmers who suffer from our Apple addiction. In recent years, Chinese newspapers have begun investigative reporting into the working conditions inside Apple's manufacturer contractor factories, places that some have labelled "hell factories." Foxconn, one of Apple's largest contractors experienced a rash of suicides last year that prompted a Chinese Liberal newspaper to sneak one of its own reporters into the factory, posing as a worker:
"During his 28 days of investigation, Liu Zhi Yi was shocked to discover how the factory workers live in a sort of indentured servitude. They work all day long, stopping only to quickly eat or to sleep. They repeat the same routine again and again except on public holidays. Liu surmised that for many workers, the only escape from this cycle was to end their life."
I could go on about how the "hell factories" are also powered by the world's dirtiest coal but that would be a moot point relative to the account above. Hopefully the takeaway message and question is clear: Do you really need a new iPhone (or a myriad of other electronic devices for that matter?)? Now that you know the impacts of an iPhone, is purchasing one consistent with your personal or organizational values? Sincerely ask yourself that question the next time you find yourself near an Apple store or similar electronics retailer. Every phone upgrade, every new gadget we purchase (iPads 1 & 2, flat-screen TVs, you name it) has environmental and social impacts that will live on long after we die, and that we can't absolve ourselves from. We need to embrace a mindful frugality when it comes to purchasing electronics.
Steve Jobs' fight with cancer is tragic, and it should serve as a powerful reminder of the carcinogens we are pumping into our environment every single day, increasing the chances that anyone of us could develop some form of cancer, especially when we make it a habit to change our phone every year or two.
Personal pet peeve: While electronic communication has a role to play in building an ecological revolution, I can't help but feel that environmentalists are some of the worst offenders in touting new gadgets. If you're a person ostensibly working for the protection of the environment and human health, you shouldn't be a tech booster. Be the change you want to see in the world! Make sure your phone is produced as sustainably as possible, if it ain't broke don't fix it (or buy a new one), and when it finally does die, make sure it's recycled responsibly.