IF ONLY THE MAGICAL ETIOLOGIES of consumerism were true — oranges grow in the produce aisle, milk flows from the dairy case, shirts and shoes emerge online. However, a deeper look into the origins of these products is sure to darken your view. Take, for example, the cell phone. Its battery and other parts have likely been manufactured in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, China, an area once known for its fertile, hilly farmland. The Shenzhen landscape has been bulldozed flat; the rain runs black with acid and, despite recent experiments with electric taxis, and state propaganda promising the greening of the city, it is often not safe to breathe outdoors. The air inside the enormous complexes, where cell phones, tablets, and other electronic devices are assembled for a variety of brands — including Apple, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Motorola, and Nokia — likely isn’t any safer. Migrant workers from the countryside reside in company-provided dormitories. Their performance is measured in seconds. The only way they can make a living above a subsistence level is by taking on illegal amounts of overtime. One worker perished of exhaustion after a 34-hour shift. At least 17 workers committed suicide in 2010 and 2011; one, as I write in late July, as recently as a few days ago. China’s overall suicide rate is high compared to other countries, but the factory owners’ decision to string nets around the upper stories of these industrial complexes indicates a different kind of business as usual.
Beyond this grim point of origin, your phone is likely to have a troubled afterlife. Use it in public in confined spaces and you’ll be sure to get attention from other people: you’ll be keeping them distracted when they would like to concentrate and awake when they would like to rest; your conversations at a distance will take precedence over their face-to-face conversations. Even if such “mental pollution” does not trouble you; your physical health will be answering to your phone. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology issued a report this spring describing how cell phone signals can disorient bees and may be the primary cause of the widespread catastrophe of colony collapse that has been progressing since the 1970s. Sad for the bees, you might think, and you may even realize it has been a while since you have seen a honeybee. Some might argue that constant non-ionizing radiation next to the brain does not conclusively cause brain cancer or change brain glucose metabolism (counter to a recent announcement from the World Health Organization), but you and your fellow animals nevertheless need to eat to live: honeybees fertilize 70 percent of the 100 crops most often used for human food.
Finally, when a cell phone is traded in for a new one, consider where the plastic, lead, and lithium of the old one will go; someone is going to arrange for the outdated phone’s disposal — you may even yourself take the time to deliver it to a recycling center, but where and how will the recycling come about? If you take your old phone to a responsible organization, you could help reduce the disastrous environmental and human consequences of mining throughout the world; if you let it fall into less scrupulous hands, it may end up dumped in Nigeria or back in China.
Everything comes from somewhe...