For Further Consideration

more-from-less-9781982103576_lgWith the most unlikely of titles to catch my attention in a long while, I gave HOW THE IPHONE HELPED SAVE THE PLANET a chance, and am glad for it. The author is the cofounder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, so I was inclined to assume it was an essay titled ironically and give him the benefit of the doubt. Which led to some surprises in the essay, which then led me to read the pre-publication press for the book to the right. Let’s hope that Mr. McAfee is on to something true:

The more than 2 billion iPhones sold since Apple launched it exactly 12 years ago have done a lot of good for their owners, but it seems like they’ve been bad news for the planet. Building that many devices requires a lot of metal, plastic, glass, and other natural resources. Some of them, including cobalt, are mined by hand, reportedly sometimes by children, in desperately poor countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others, like rare-earth elements, are in comparatively short supply. A project of the European Chemical Society found a “serious threat” that humanity could run out of many of these elements within a century.

All those phones also require a lot of electricity, most of which is generated by burning fossil fuels around the world. By one estimate, a data-hungry user’s smartphone can consume as much electricity in a year as their fridge does. The “digital economy,” of which the iPhone and its kin have become an integral part, uses about 10 percent of the planet’s total electricity. Steve Jobs advised us to “make a little dent in the Universe,” but it feels like the devices introduced by his company and others have made a big dent in the overall health of our planet.

But some important measures don’t support this gloomy view. Total electricity use in the US, for example, has been essentially flat for almost a decade. For decades prior to the Great Recession, plastics consumption in the US grew more than 50 percent faster than the overall economy did, but since 2009 the situation has reversed, with plastic use growing almost 15 percent slower than the economy as a whole.

For most other natural resources, the growth rate of consumption hasn’t just slowed down; it’s actually gone negative. Year after year, the US is generally using less total steel, copper, gold, fertilizer, water, cropland, timber, paper, and other physical building blocks of an economy. And there’s not much evidence that markets think shortages are looming; prices for rare-earth elements, for example, remain far below their recent peaks.

These changes have not come about because of globalization or outsourcing. The US remains an industrial powerhouse, responsible for about 25 percent of the global economy. So what’s going on? How is it that the country changed course and learned to tread more lightly on the earth over time?…

Read the whole editorial here.

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