Thursday, October 30, 2014

Upgrading to Depletion

The past few years have seen an awesome explosion of smartphone users and mobile technology. The remarkable adoption has been led, in large part, by Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems (OS's). As these OS's improve in security and functionality, they require hardware to improve in lockstep.

One unfortunate result of this pervasive expansion and evolution is an ecological burden placed by the mining and extraction of rare-earth elements. Setting aside the details of the ecological damage for this article, let's look at at how cellphone upgrade cycles promote excess consumption, in turn stressing demand for rare-earth elements. 

As you read through these concepts, pay attention to the interconnectedness of the factors. The issue at hand is complex. In this short article I don't attempt to address all factors, nor to offer more than a cursory overview. However, as you contemplate these individual ideas, my hope is that a broader perspective begins to emerge in your mind. 
    • Always Improving In order to maintain a competitive edge in the market, OS developers must continually improve their products functionality and security. This leads to ever increasing demands on hardware.
    • Less Capable As the OS is updated, it becomes increasingly less capable of running older apps which were written for a prior version. Similarly, if older OS's aren't updated they become less capable of running new apps.
      • A phone is only as good as the apps it runs, so maintaining a thriving marketplace is important, and a primary source of income. Attracting developers to build desirable apps for the OS requires that the hardware and OS run smoothly.
      • In the case of Google, phone manufacturers need to tweak Android updates to work with their hardware. Google recommends that they do this for 18-months after a phone's release. Because phone contracts tend to be 24 months, the eroding capabilities of the phone drive consumer desire to upgrade by the time their contract is up.
    • Price As market penetration approaches saturation in western markets, price is increasingly a factor.
      • To provide cheaper phones, manufacturers build lower-range phones. Naturally, this implies a shorter period in which the phone will function well.
      • In an attempt to penetrate lower-end markets and build a thriving app store, Microsoft recently began providing Windows Phone OS without license fees to manufacturers. This is bringing the price down to a point where smartphones are affordable in largely untapped emerging markets, such as Africa. Not only with this increase production, but foster the mentality that smartphones are cheap enough to replace if anything goes wrong.
With this brief explanation of the cell phone upgrade system, we have a preliminary understanding of a piece of a complex system that promotes excessive consumption and production of rare-earth metals. Expand your perspective by subscribing to future EcoMerge posts. You can also deepen your knowledge of rare-earth metal related issues by visiting

Saturday, August 16, 2014

But I'm Not a Scientist..

Man, oh man, it sure seems that it is all but impossible to approach certain topics from a non-partisan standpoint these days!  Discussion on anything from favorite football teams to whether you prefer light or dark chocolate seems to have a political slant.  Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, or at least the chocolate part is .  A while back, I had a conversation with a friend that touched on this, and they said something that has been ringing in my head ever since.  My friend (We’ll call her Alice, since I don’t remember who it actually was) said that the dangerous thing that seems to have happened is that people have begun taking their beliefs as fact.  This idea troubles me.  Fact shouldn’t be subjective.  Fact isn’t moral or amoral, and it most certainly isn’t Republican or Democrat.  A fact is something that has been proven to be true, without room for argument.  As long as you are alive, or at least not in a coma, you will wake up every day.  That is a fact.  Do you want another fact?  The sun is bright.  There is no one that can dispute either of these things.  I suppose that since we now have facts on the table, we should have an example of something that is construed as a fact, but in truth it is not.  Many people seem to believe that marijuana is bad for you and should remain illegal throughout the nation.  This is not a fact, it is an opinion.  You could easily make the argument (that would be closer to scientific fact), that alcohol is leaps and bounds worse for you than marijuana ever could be. 

Let’s bring it back to the set of facts that I’m writing about.  And yes, I mean facts, not opinions disguised as facts.  Over the past few years, we have encountered one of the warmest spring/summer’s on record, massive droughts cover much of our country, and as a contrast to the droughts, the Midwestern states just wrapped up a winter that set records for having the most days (53!) below zero, which brought no shortage of snow.  When was the last winter that there were more days below zero in Minneapolis? 1874-75.  Scientists worldwide agree that the world as a whole is getting warmer, and in many places the winters are getting colder, both of which will have drastic effects on virtually every species on the planet.  There are some people that say that it’s just part of another natural cycle for the Earth,  and yes, the Earth has always gone in cycles, and there is bound to eventually be an intense warmup & cool down, which will probably lead to another ice age. But even though there are cycles to our planet, it is foolish to believe that for everything we have put into the atmosphere that we have not altered the natural cycle.

Over the past few months, there have been a number of high level policy makers that have gone on record as saying that they can’t comment on climate change because they’re not scientists.  If you take this at face value, it seems like one of the most astute and pragmatic things that any of our elected officials have ever said.  I never like to be the bearer of bad news, but sadly, that’s not quite how they meant it.  What should come as no surprise is that instead of meaning this as a rational statement to find solutions and consult actual scientists about possible solutions and future actions, it was meant to delay legislation and serve as an excuse for inaction.  “I’m not a scientist” also means that “I’m not going to vote for that piece of environmental legislation, even though I know it probably helps solve the problem, and I’m not going to vote for it because I’m terrified of the 24 hour news cycle, and that I would look like anything less than the most extreme embodiment of my party.”  Ok, that last quote I made up, but that’s what these politicians are really saying.  Anyone with a reasonable and grounded mind can see the writing on the wall.

I applaud these policy makers for being able to at least begin admitting that they don’t have all the answers, even if it was motivated by excuses on par with those given by 3rd graders.  So let’s not get cynical about it, and pat these politicians on the back.  They’re admitting that they have a problem, which if you’ve ever been in rehab, you know that is the first step for finding a solution.  In this case, the next step is asking the people that actually are scientists what is happening, and what factors are contributing to this. 

Right or left, Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter which way you lean, the time for action is now.  Real, live, actual scientists all around the world are pressing for change and trying to talk sense into many of these politicians that write our policies.  The environment, and it’s well-being should not be a political stance.  Not caring about the environment, and willingly trashing (pun intended) all legislation that supports it is not a conservative value.  However, it is completely stupid and terribly shortsighted.  Politicians always like to hold press conferences where they can talk about how they just want to leave this country a better place than it was when they got here, so their children inherit a stronger tomorrow.  Let’s start calling them out on this.  If they truly are more worried about tomorrow than today, about their grandchildren’s livelihood than their current ability to hold a job, they need to start passing environmentally friendly legislation. 

Hopefully by now, you’re saying to yourself something like “Yeah, damn right, politicians!  Start passing legislation that improves the air we breathe instead of advocating for more coal mines.”  So the next step is action.  And this is where it gets a little tricky.  While I understand that the popular thing to do in this country when it comes to protesting politics is to make a pretty sign, and go chant some slogan in front of some semi-important building.  Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that doesn’t work.  At all, ever.  So let’s do something that matters.  What makes this country turn? Money.  What do these politicians care about almost as much as getting reelected?  Money.  Go out and make a statement.  Instead of buying a fancy crossover, or SUV, buy a Nissan Leaf.  Instead of buying a few dozen bottles of water at Costco, buy a few reusable Nalgene’s.  Make a statement with  your purchases, and the companies that curry for political favors will notice, and then hopefully, they’ll start passing that awareness on to our politicians in Washington.

Actions, Reactions, and Far Reaching Effects Part 3

As human beings, we have a diverse set of beliefs.  There are different religions, cultures, and superstitions.  This is not the problem.  The problem is that when it comes to following through on these beliefs and superstitions, specifically things like pangolin meat being a delicacy and believing that their scales have medicinal tendencies, we often turn a blind eye to what species are affected by them.  Justification will come in the form of either ignoring the problem all together, or believing that the superstitions or beliefs outweigh the animal’s right to life.  As human beings, we tend to be empathetic and care about the plight of species like the pangolin, but as soon as a long held cultural belief comes into play, we become unaware and numb.  This trend needs to stop.  We cannot be compassionate and responsible only part of the time.  We cannot search for growth and education, while refusing to admit that old habits need to go.

When we consume with the level of reckless abandon that we have been, hundreds, if not thousands of species all around the world are hurt.  I’d like to believe that when it comes to this chain of consequence, we don’t do it intentionally.  It seems more than a little malicious and non-sensical for any of us to have any sort of vendetta against interesting creatures such as the pangolin. But regardless of intent, just because an animal’s meat is considered to be a delicacy, or its outer coat to be pretty, we don’t have to consume it.  There are plenty of things in life that are much better off, for all species involved, when the need to consume or own isn’t there. 

The fact of the matter is this: Virtually every species in the world plays an important part in their own eco-systems.  Frequently they are links in these systems that we don’t respect the importance.  There is a delicate balance that the Earth has built in these ecosystems, and we seem to be disrupting them at will.  Whether they are funny looking, tasty, pretty, or part of regional belief systems, every species plays an important role.  For us as humans, to be so terribly short sighted with our selfishness and think only of our own desires, is irresponsible. For every species that we lust after and consume at will, we are interrupting a vital part of this planet that we live on.  Instead of consuming with reckless abandon, we need to practice self-restraint and view species like the pangolin from afar.  It will be better for everyone, both pangolin and human, in the long run.  

Actions, Reactions, and Far Reaching Effects Part 2

Let’s talk about pangolins.  I’m sure that there is nothing else that you would rather talk about right now.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet that your appreciation of this awesome little species id what brought you to this blog.  If it isn’t, and you’ve just stumbled across it, you should keep on reading.  If it’s right where you want to be, you should also keep on reading.  This is the second in a three part series that focuses on human consumption and the far reaching effects of it.  In the first part of the series, I wrote about the mindsets that surround over consumption, in this post I will tell you about a species that is rapidly disappearing due to said consumption, and in the third and final part, I will attempt to motivate you towards being more self-aware of how your desires for consumption (don’t lie, we all have them), end up having far-reaching and often unintended effects.

So anyways, back to the pangolin.  Pangolins are pretty cool little creatures.  They are part of the same family as their larger cousin the anteater, and much of their life is spent in the same fashion as the anteater.  They almost exclusively eat insects, and they live on a few different continents.  If you’d like to learn more about pangolin’s as a whole, check out this awesome website, that my classmates put together:

Sadly, extinction is right around the corner for these guys, but they are not unique in the sense that they did nothing to bring this struggle upon themselves.  There are species all over the world that face similar problems.  Every continent and every country have a few.  I am not the type of person that can be described as a bleeding heart, but I don’t think that species like the pangolin have done anything to invite extinction.