Sunday, 17 March 2013


Oxford University Press, 2012, 246 pages, $44.80 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

There is a reason why the typical electronic product warranty lasts only 12 months, say Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller in Greening the Media.  Most digital devices are designed to “break  or become uncool” after just a year, requiring regular product replacements or upgrades.  The profits of the big electronic brand names (Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Amazon, Microsoft, e-Bay, Motorola, Philips, Samsung, Toshiba, etc.) depend on this business model of “rapid and planned cycles of innovation and obsolescence”.

In the process, this swiftly-changing technological fashion season “consumes, despoils and wastes natural resources”, with attendant toxic risks for the makers, users and disposers of this allegedly green, post-industrial technology, on a scale that rivals the old smokestack factories of industrial capitalism.  The ‘clean and green’ fa├žade of today’s information and communication technologies and consumer electronics hides their insidious ecological impact.

Computers, printers, mobile phones, data servers, televisions and other screen-based gadgets account for 3% of global greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle, as large a climate footprint as carbon-dirty global aviation.  Google’s data server in Oregon, for example, uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 200,000, and total global data server electricity consumption doubles every five years, billowing carbon at massive, but invisible, rates.

Digital flat screen televisions, with their higher resolution and slim profile, can use three times the electricity of their cathode ray tube forebears.  Reading on-line for half an hour has the same environmental cost of the printing of one newspaper.  At current growth rates, electricity consumption by all electronic equipment is projected to rise to almost half of total global electricity demand by 2030.

Microchip production also exacts a poisonous toll, through gases, acids, solvents and other chemicals (a mobile phone contains two hundred chemical compounds), on the planet’s people.  Behind the stylish First World brand name lie the poisoned Third World workers of the off-shore totalitarian manufacturers contracted to gain competitive advantage by seeking out low-cost countries where “state incentives, weak labour organisation and protection, minimal environmental regulation, favourable exchange rates, low wages and sparse human rights enforcement” make for fatter First World profits.

Additional injury results from e-waste disposal, fifty million tons of it every year, mostly via discarded mobile phones (130 million trashed annually in the US alone), televisions and computers.  To avoid the profit-harming higher costs and regulatory oversight of recycling in wealthier countries, over 80% of e-waste is exported to Asian, African and Latin American sites, dumping regions where pre-teen girls recycle the junked goods, although ‘recycle’ is a misnomer as just the valuable metals like copper are salvaged whilst the electronic carcass is dumped in landfill with toxic chemicals and heavy metals contaminating agricultural land and saturating the food chain.

Although the authors’ diagnosis is acute - profit maximisation through unremitting growth in consumption is the engine of capitalism, both post-industrial and industrial, which rides roughshod over the human and natural world - their prescription (not assisted in its persuasiveness by an overdose of academic ‘media studies’ theory) veers towards the chimerical fantasy of how a “radically reconfigured notion of environmental accountancy and auditing … can imagine a transformative role for markets in a future of environmentally sustainable media industries”.

Their vanguard of green but market-constrained accountants are valiant but doomed in their quest to fit  the square peg of ecological sustainability into the round hole of capitalist growth.  The authors’ sincerity, however, for examining media technology “with an approach predicated on a deep regard for workers and the Earth and an equally profound disregard for technological hype” remains undimmed but, if the capitalist market can’t honour these values, then the vital industry of information and communication should be socialised and put in the hands of the world’s digital citizens.

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