This is a reflection on Pope Francis’ new Encyclical Laudato Si addressed to every person living on this planet and added to the official Catholic doctrine. I hope my reflection is beneficial to you, but I (and the Austin CNM) encourage you to read the document yourself here.
I was seduced by technology in high school. In fairness, teenage males at the Science Academy of South Texas (which is every bit of what it sounds like) are pretty much doomed from the start. I was in school during the time that computer geeks lovingly refer to as “the clock speed wars.” Every day new breakthroughs were being discovered, new technologies were being introduced, and new records were being set. My high-school buddies would drool over computer benchmarks the way most teenage boys drooled over… other things. Science fiction was being built right before our eyes! They were building the future! And I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
Every once in a while someone had the audacity to ask, “But does anyone need a Gigaflop processor? What would you do with a Gigaflop anyway?” That question never bothered me back then. You needed the Gigaflop processor to build the Teraflop processor. After high school came college, and then I started working for a major computer designer. I’ve been on the front line of pushing the limits of electronics for almost a decade now. I’ve seen technologies shrink, paradigms shift, and expectations grow.
So last week I sat at my desk in the heart of the Silicon Hills while I read from Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s new Encyclical on the environment:
114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.
I couldn’t agree more! Pope Francis spells out the problem with our technology in shocking clarity. We have put too much faith in it. We believe we can achieve anything through technology, and that gives us power. We trust the rule of the free market to be our infallible moral compass. We’re building one global kingdom alright, but our new kingdom is being formed by the desires of the consumer, not the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis has dubbed this new 21st Century religion the “technocratic paradigm.”
109. The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. … Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth .… They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.
If you’re Catholic, I hope you are already put off by the idea that technology might be usurping religion. However, Pope Francis’s letter is actually addressed to all people. Why should non-Catholics be concerned about these great leaps forward? To put it bluntly, we are oppressing the poor, and we are killing the planet. Here in Austin, the Silicon Hills, we don’t have to look very far to see the fruit of this technological paradigm. Let me look at the industry I am most familiar with, the silicon industry. I can see the high costs of our “technocratic paradigm.”
First of all, everything in our industry is predicated on constant consumption. We depend on consumers to constantly upgrade and replace their electronics to fund our constant research and upgrades. That is why modern electronics are designed to undergo planned adolescence. The average smart phone is designed to be replaced every two years. Laptop life cycles, we hope, last only a little longer. But keeping up with this constant production puts a lot of stress on our common home.
Every piece of modern electronics you own (your phone, your laptop, your microwave) is made of rare materials [gold, tin, tantalum, tungsten] that have to be mined out of the earth. For most of its history, the silicon industry didn’t really even know where the mines were. Our focus was solely on getting the material quickly and cheaply. Buyers would purchase the materials from third-party sellers in Africa.
As the century turned, concerned people began to realize the third- party sellers were getting most of these raw materials from war zones in the Congo. The environmental impact of these mines is completely uncontrolled. Obviously, it’s hard to enforce environmental regulations in the middle of a war. The social-human costs are even more dramatic. Advocates now estimate that 90% of these mines are being controlled by violent militias. These militias have been connected with war (obviously), child soldiers, and prostitution. In turn, all of these are now connected with the electronic device you are replacing every two years.
The socio-environmental impact of constant electronic device consumption continues during the manufacturing process. Silicon manufacturing is an extremely expensive, ultra high tech, and highly secretive process called “fabrication.” In the industry at large, fabrication often takes place in very poor Asian countries. A recent study found that 97% of electronic companies do not pay their factory workers a living wage even in these economically disadvantaged markets. Also, the fabrication process involves many toxic chemicals that, if not managed carefully, can lead to very dangerous work conditions.
Finally, we need to consider the end of the product’s life cycle. More discarded electronics, of course, means more electronic waste. Because electronics contain valuable materials like gold and palladium, there is incentive to have these materials recycled. Unfortunately, this recycling process often occurs in economically disadvantaged countries [are you seeing a trend?] in Africa and Asia. Advocates have grown concerned that these countries lack the infrastructure for sophisticated, safe recycling techniques.
A recent study by Greenpeace has found that electronic recycling most often uses primitive methods like burning or breaking up the device with highly concentrated acid to recover materials. These methods often cause toxic chemicals to leak out into the environment, poisoning local people and wildlife.
You probably noticed that many of these environmental costs occur in poor countries far removed from the consumer. This makes it easy for the industry to hide the costs of constant technological replacement. But I hope you can now see that from cradle to grave, the electronic life cycle is not sustainable. This is why I am so thankful the Pope is using his stature to call Catholics to consider the sustainability of technology. But what can be done? Is the Pope asking us to turn away from technology?
No, of course not. Encylical Laudato Si calls for a change in mindset. We must recognize that the economic decisions we make are ethical decisions and how our lifestyles affect our common home is a moral concern. This includes the technology we produce and consume; technologies are not neutral. That’s one of the Pope’s key points. As a “technocrat” who has been in the computer industry for about 8 years, what I want you to understand is that once you make that change in mindset, we must change the way our industries operate.
Thankfully, in my industry there is already a company proving that a more sustainable and ethical model of production, use, and recycling can exist. I have blogged about it before; the company’s name is fairPhone. FairPhone will release its second generation smart phone soon. The bad news is that its phone will not be sold in the United States. The good news is that fairPhone has made substantial improvements to all the sustainability issues I have mentioned. This proves that great strides can be made without everyone giving up his “smart” devices.
FairPhone team members have worked to trace all their minerals back to the original suppliers. They have reduced their phones’ dependence on conflict mines and are pushing towards a completely conflict- free phone. They have done this without moving their mines out of the Congo, and so they continue to provide economic stimulus to Africa; they are doing it through partners that respect the dignity of workers and the sacristy of the environment.
FairPhone works more closely with its factory workers in China in order to improve factory safety as well as create an environment where factory workers can voice their concerns. Fairphone is working in Ghana to reduce the amount of e-waste in that country and to ship more e-waste to Belgium, where the infrastructure exists to recycle it correctly. Most surprisingly, FairPhone has designed its next generation of phones to be repairable or upgrade-able so users don’t need to replace them as often. There are many more examples of initiatives this company has taken on its website.
My purpose is not to promote a single competitor [whose product is not even available to most of my readers]. My purpose is to show that if these changes are being made by a single small competitor, then there is no reason they can’t be made by the much more powerful companies that dominate the market. As I alluded to earlier, the years I was in high school are often referred to nostalgically in my industry as the “clock frequency wars” because during this era, the major companies were constantly pushing to prove they had the highest clock speed (the highest performing) chip on the market. I believe it’s time to usher in the era of “the sustainability wars”– the era when the major competitors compete to build products and supply chains that have the most beneficial impact on the environment and the global poor. Imagine what ideas that kind of competition could unleash. But the sustainability wars can only be initiated by conscientious consumers.
Pope Francis would remind us that we shouldn’t leave all environmental protections up to the free market. As a society we have a right and responsibility to draft laws that make sure that industries make just decisions. From the government side I have another example of hope for my industry. In 2010 part of the Dodd-Frank Trade Act mandated that all electronic companies at least report who is supplying their raw minerals. The law gave the electronic companies until 2014 to set about ways to track minerals and comply with the reports. Intel was the first company to meet the Dodd-Frank requirements when the deadline was reached in 2014. Most other companies still reported that the ultimate suppliers of their raw materials were indeterminate.
Some studies have shown that already the percentage of conflict- free suppliers is increasing. That is only a small step forward, but it is a step forward. It shows that we as a nation can help keep the technology industries accountable for the impacts they are making. We need more regulations like this, and we need to make sure that they are enforced. Again we know what needs to be done, but this can only be initiated by voter demand. So the real question is: What demands do you have for industries and your government?
I guess what initially excited me about technology is its amazing ability to change our lives. Technology has the power to change the way we communicate, the way we think. Technology can change our culture and our paradigms. Technology can create a new world. That is what I wanted to be a part of.
And all of that is still true. But with this profound power comes profound responsibility. How is technology affecting our lives? What new world are we creating? Pope Francis wants us to slow down and consider those questions carefully. My challenge to you this post is to imagine the world you want to build and choose the kind of development that will get us there.