Home

Tech’s Ethics: Sustainability

Published 10/03/2019

The Earth is a limited resource. It might not seem like it at times, but materials will eventually run out. Considering how many materials technology consumes, both in its production and its usage, and as we come to rely more and more on that material-hungry technology, those materials are going to disappear sooner than we expect. We’re talking everything from the minerals to make your devices to the energy consumed by them, the sustainability of tech is an increasingly pressing issue.

The difficulty of the debate surrounding sustainability is no generation seems to want to be first. Every other generation passed the buck so why can’t we? The same goes for countries. New world powers like China and India look at the historic (and historically irresponsible) pollution of long-standing powers like the United States and Russia and wonder, “Why don’t we get a turn?” But someone has to take responsibility at some point, and the tech sector could perform a noble good by doing so.

Minerals

Numerous precious minerals go into the making of any complex device. Gold is used for its high electrical conductivity, its non-corrosive properties, and it’s pliability. Cobalt, an extremely energy-dense mineral, is used in all lithium-ion batteries. Silver is an incredible thermal conductor. Platinum and palladium, among other things, are used in all the required catalytic converters in cars. Even old tin, in addition to making friends for Dorothy, is widely used in superconducting magnets. It takes an incredible amount of resources to produce one device. (Per one study, it takes 28.6 kilograms of raw materials to produce a single smartphone.) All of these minerals are in high demand. And all of these minerals are running out.

That’s the problem with our small, limited, little blue planet. It’s finite. Everything on Earth has a limited supply. Not only that, but the more scarce a resource becomes, the more dangerous it becomes to mine. That puts workers and communities in danger. And the more dangerous it becomes to harvest, the more expensive the minerals themselves become. (When people might die, they tend to want to be paid more.) Those costs get passed on to the consumers.

So what to do? The rational answer would be to slow down, but that can never happen. People love their gadgets too much, and there’s a very real economic reason to keep growth going as long as it can. Without growth you slide quickly into an irrecoverable deflationary spiral. Just ask Japan.

So it seems the best we can do is hope for technological solutions to these technological problems. Better and less destructive mining methods. Increased automated monitoring of worker safety. Perhaps even space-based solutions, harvesting minerals on other planets. (Maybe even in other solar systems, who knows?) But without some sort of technological solution, the materials will run out, and then we’ll be stuck.

Energy Usage

Consider just one recent technology sweeping the globe: cryptocurrency. As a broad overview, the purely digital currency is put into circulation by computing the solution to a really hard math problem. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but the important part is really hard math problems are being solved all the time for no other reason than to generate cryptocurrency. Nothing good comes of these solutions other than that, and it’s debatable whether even that is any good.)

What does it take to solve a really hard math problem? Well, basically it takes a ton of computing power. And the emphasis there is on the “power” required. It takes a lot of energy to mine for bitcoin. It takes as much energy to mine bitcoin as it does to power the entire country of Ireland for a year, approximately 22 terawatt-hours. That’s a lot of energy for a currency whose internal value is only propped up by darknet markets, money laundering, and other illegal activities. It’s potentially the greatest waste of energy in the history of mankind should the bubble ever pop.

But technology requires energy. It requires massive amounts of energy, in fact. The digital economy, for example, uses a tenth of the world’s electricity. And with renewable energy only just now becoming a viable option (and a long way from full implementation), our current energy infrastructure is also going to become increasingly stretched thin. Just like with the minerals used to build the tech, the fuels used to create the energy that tech uses are going to become more scarce, more dangerous and destructive to mine, and more expensive.

Again, it might be up to companies to come up with innovative solutions. Some sort of vastly superior solar panel or wind turbine could make an incredible difference in the viability of renewable energy. Or companies themselves could take the initiative and go carbon neutral like Google is doing by the year 2020 (supposedly) and using only recycled materials in all of its products by 2022 (we’ll see). Whether it’s companies or governments or individuals (or all 3) making changes, we’ll have to do it sooner or later before we run out of fuel.

Planned Obsolescence

One of the major contributors to scarcity in our world is the well-known practice of planned obsolescence. If you haven’t heard of it, planned obsolescence is when products are specifically designed to have a limited lifespan, which causes the consumer to buy a replacement at some point.

Think about light bulbs. Bulbs we buy last for a couple years before needing to be replaced. But there’s no reason that they have to last this short. A light bulb in the Livermore, CA fire station first turned on in 1901. It still lights up today. The reason that bulbs burn out is because light bulb companies wanted to sell more light bulbs. So they were engineered to burn out after a thousand hours or so. But they could’ve run for over 100 years, as we’ve seen.

Or consider printers, which is planned obsolescence of a different strip. Instead of making printers fail, printer companies have taken the clever tack of making printer ink insanely expensive. We’re talking $8,000/gallon. (Not that people buy gallons of ink, but compare that price to a gallon of milk. Just slightly more expensive.)

And it’s not just physical design at fault here. Increasingly, mobile device manufacturers are releasing software updates that make legacy devices functionally useless. Apple, for example, regularly updates iOS and drops support for numerous devices at the same time. Some devices are only a few years old and in perfect working order, but the software makes them obsolete.

The more our devices fail, the more devices we buy, because as consumers we’re device addicted. The more devices we buy, the more materials we use and the more energy as well (thanks to the various manufacturing processes). Every new device we buy has a real environmental impact. And with so many people buying so many devices, those impacts really start to add up.

Conclusion

So what can be done? Well, the overpopulation people would channel their Ebeneezer Scrooge and tell us to decrease the surplus population. It would have an immediate impact – less devices being bought, less resources being consumed, smaller footprints across the board. But who really wants to advocate for population limits? Human life is an incredible gift and everyone should be free, even encouraged, to have big, happy families.

Our best bet seems to be technological solutions to these technological problems. With minerals, we can invent better ways to mine them, better ways to refine them, and more efficient ways to utilize them. With energy usage, the same thing applies. Better and more effective sources of renewable energy will take the burden of our overwhelming non-renewable energy grid. And with planned obsolescence, we can combat the very real danger of people not buying new devices not by making devices fail, but by making new devices that people want. Maybe that’s not a feasible solution and without planned obsolescence the purchasing of new products would dwindle. But in that case, maybe we need to fundamentally rethink the structure of our economy. That’s a bit above our paygrade, but it’s certainly something to think about.