Executive Summary - Short Circuit Report

The 2012 report 'Opening Pandora's Box: The New Wave of Land Grabbing by the Extractive Industries and the Devastating Impact on Earth', by The Gaia Foundation in collaboration withour allies, shows how land grabbing for the expanding extractive industries is increasing around our planet at an alarming rate and scale. The report takes a critical overview of global trends, demonstrating that a new global mining land grab is being facilitated and exacerbated by the convergence of economic, geological and technological factors.

Demand continues to be stimulated and promoted by the 'endless-economic-growth' model, in a drunken illusion that our planet's precious metals and minerals are infinite. Whilst this juggernaut continues unabated, irrefutable evidence shows that we are pushing our planet to the edge, resulting in mass species extinction, climate change, water depletion and more.

In addition, the depletion of the planet's more concentrated deposits of ore means that the extractive industries now dig up more earth - affecting ecosystems, plants, animals and water supplies - in order to extract the same volume of metals and minerals as before. For example, copper ore deposits today are typically one-tenth the purity of those mined a hundred years ago. A single gold wedding ring requires the extraction of approximately 20 tonnes of earth, or rather living ecosystems. The economic and depletion crises have stimulated developments in technology which now enable companies to mine deposits that were previously considered economically or politically unviable. Across the global North and South, the extractive industries are delving into new ecosystems and virgin territories, new depths of Earth and Sea, and exploiting the lands of local communities and protected areas.

As 'Opening Pandora's Box' illustrates,the social and ecological impacts of mining are becoming more and more devastating and unacceptable. On our current trajectory, we appear to be willing to allow ourselves to dig the Earth - our Source of Life - out from under our feet. It seems that we have not yet fully grasped the severity of the consequences of our actions for life on Earth and for future generations.

One of the major drivers of this global mining craze is the electronics industry, underpinned by our throw-away consumer culture. This new 2013 report - 'Short Circuit: The Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth' - tells the second part of the story, and brings the analysis closer to home.

'Short Circuit' shows that our myriad electronic gadgets, (and the system that creates them), are stimulating the growing demand for metal and mineral extraction. It invites us to reassess and become conscious of what we really value in life, and to become part of a critical mass for change.

Picture: Shutterstock

In recent years, technological developments in digital communications have led to a huge increase in the personal ownership of mobile devices, in particular, small, portable internet devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. These machines are fast becoming indispensible parts of everyday life. The number of mobile devices is projected to continue to increase - on course to exceed the number of people on Earth by the end of 2013. And this is only the beginning: per capita ownership is expected to reach 1.4 in 2017, representing a total of 10 billion devices.

Today, marketing strategies have created a culture of rapid technology upgrades, so that the time periods between purchasing new items are becoming shorter and shorter. They are often replaced by newer models after 18 or even 12 months, as a matter of course. Their slick designs are alluring but quickly out-dated, their colourful retina screens soon to be replaced by ever-more sharp and tantalizing displays.

This inbuilt obsolescence is one of the means by which electronics companies can ensure a perpetually hungry market. Many mobile phones have embedded batteries that are difficult to replace; when computer components break they usually cannot be easily removed and fixed; and hardware is not designed to keep up with software. Increasingly, it is cheaper to buy the new version than to fix the old one. These strategies are effective techniques for increasing sales. This has quickly become a habit which is hugely wasteful, and requires more and more elements from the Earth to be found, extracted, processed and then marketed - generating pollution at every step along the way, and ultimately ending up in toxic dumps.

The thinner and sleeker the design of our gadgets, the greater the illusion surrounding their real impact, and their true cost. Smaller does not equate to the product being 'lighter' on the Earth, because every new model requires the use of yet more resources and energy and the extraction of more specialised elements.

The materials that make up these gadgets are dug out from the body of our Earth and involve a complex and trans-national supply-chain. A mobile phone is made up of many types of metal, including copper, tin, cobalt and gold. Huge amounts of Earth are displaced and spoilt, biodiversity is destroyed, vast quantities of water are used for processing, and precious fossil fuels are squandered for energy at every stage of its extraction. As a result, enormous areas of toxic wasteland are created and left for future generations to deal with - and this is before the products have even been manufactured. These items are still yet to be made, marketed, purchased, used, and then dumped when the next version hits the market. And so the short circuit continues on, relentlessly...

All those involved in the supply chain - from mining companies to manufacturers, as well as us 'consumers' - either presume that there will be an infinite supply of metals and minerals required to build these products, or choose to turn a blind eye to the reality of the situation. This short-sighted way of thinking epitomises much of our modern economic and financial systems and approaches. In addition, finding these elements from the Earth is becoming highly politicised, with nations vying for territorial access and control of ever more remote areas, with frequently bloody results. Neither companies nor governments are taking serious steps to reduce the need for new mining, nor to improve systems for the recycling of all these metals and minerals.

E-waste, Shutterstock

As a result, the electronic waste (e-waste) produced by these throwaway gadgets is piling up. The vast majority of the world's e-waste currently ends up dumped or burned, contaminating air, water and soil. It is estimated that only a small amount of the world's e-waste is properly handled in recycling processes. Instead, the majority of 'recycled' electronic goods are shipped to Asia or Africa where they are 'recycled' in appalling social and environmental conditions, creating massive pollution, human health problems and water and soil contamination. In failing to create effective recycling systems, we are thus outsourcing our toxic waste and turning parts of the world into 'digital dumps'.

With the lifespan of electronic goods becoming shorter, and the extraction of the mineral and metal elements which make up these gadgets ever more destructive, it is clearly time for the electronics industry to take responsibility for developing a new approach. The depletion of our planet's minerals and metals; the horrific scale and intensity of our capacity to gouge deep toxic wounds in the body of our Earth; the geopolitical scramble for control of ever more expensive and profitable Earth materials; and the volatility of commodity prices, make a new approach not only ethical, but a financial imperative for companies too.

The linear model of 'take-make-dispose', is not sustainable on a finite planet. Designing for recyclability is critical - we must close the loop. In order to do so, we have to face a number of challenges. The manufacturing process for these products must be designed to ensure there is no waste from start to finish. Furthermore, those who manufacture must be responsible for ensuring their products can be completely recycled. And lastly, during the lifespan of each product, its components must be removable, repairable, and easy to take apart for recycling. This new approach to product design must be integrated into effective and efficient recycling systems that can recover our Earth's precious metals and minerals at each stage of the cycle, with a minimum of energy and pollution.

This essential transition is already beginning to happen. Production strategies - ranging from extended producer responsibility to 'closed-loop' or 'circular economies' - are being pursued by innovative organisations and individuals. These have much to teach us and pave the way forward for future creativity and transition.

Printed Circuit Board, ShutterstockSo we do have a choice. We know our Earth's precious materials are finite. They will come to an end. We are therefore hurtling towards a precipice with two possible scenarios: we wait until vital elements for our gadgets run out and we are forced to mine our own refuse as the only source left. Or we have the foresight to change the whole system before it is too late - from extraction to the end of the lifecycle of everything we use. This is entirely possible if we focus our human ingenuity on the challenge.

There is also a bigger challenge here, because from the Earth's point of view, as a living system, we know that we have already pushed her beyond her capacity to maintain the dynamic equilibrium she has been able to sustain for millennia. It was during this period that the enormous diversity of species evolved, from which humans emerged.

It is we humans who have managed to destabilise her climate and create mass species-extinction in a matter of a few hundred years - a split second in Earth time. If the rate and scale of extraction of minerals, metals and water - and the toxification of vast ecosystems continues - the predicted collapse of ecosystems will very likely be triggered also. Then we will be asking very different questions...

We therefore need to address our consumption and the true drivers behind it. The necessary transition is two-fold: we must make changes to the way in which we take from the Earth and produce our gadgets; and we must re-direct our ingenuity and consciousness to minimise the number of gadgets we use, as well as designing systems for re-use.

With a growing global population there simply isn't enough to go around and for everyone to continue to 'consume' electronic gadgets in the way that we do now. Additionally, we would do well to consider the mounting evidence which shows that accumulating more 'things' does not make us happy. Owning more 'stuff' is not the route to a fulfilling and happy life. And this is critical to understand, because the ultimate choice is between the living planet that sustains us with food and water and clean air, or continued rapacious consumption which pushes her ecosystems to the edge. The more we take, the quicker we reach the tipping point.

The answers are emerging daily across the planet. The next generation, who are faced with the legacy of our inertia, are already taking action, as we see from the myriad of social movements across the planet: from Occupy, to Food Sovereignty, to the growing community resistance to mining everywhere. It is when enough people stand up and take action that things change.

The aim of this report is to inspire us to take action - wherever we are in the system. Once we can see the true costs behind electronic items, which have become so integrated into our lives, we can re-evaluate their value and make informed choices.

Initiatives and insights such as 'The New Materialism', the Gift Economy and Transition Towns, are part of the next era. They are all expressing ways in which people, communities and organisations are taking practical action to improve our quality of life without depleting the Earth's gifts and pushing our planet beyond her limits.

We invite you to join the dots, to close the loop, to insist on the redesign of the lifecycle of electronic products and to think twice before you buy: do you really need the new model of this gadget? Can you repair it or share your electronic products? Above all, how can we all reconnect with the Earth processes that sustain all life on Earth, not just our own?

This is our vital task now, for the sake of the children of the future

You can download the full report here