Technology and Child Safety

I recently read an article on ComputerWorld, Children mine cobalt used in smartphones, other electronics, that had me thinking yet again about how people in rich countries tend to ignore the needs of those in poor countries. The picture at the beginning of the article says it all, but the details will have you wondering whether a smartphone really is worth some child’s life. That’s right, any smartphone you buy may be killing someone and in a truly horrid manner. Children as young as 7 years old are mining the cobalt needed for the batteries (and other components) in the smartphones that people seem to feel are so necessary for life (they aren’t you know).

The problem doesn’t stop when someone gets the smartphone. Other children end up dismantling the devices sent for recycling. That’s right, a rich country’s efforts to keep electronics out of their landfills is also killing children because countries like India put these children to work taking them apart in unsafe conditions. Recycled wastes go from rich countries to poor countries because the poor countries need the money for necessities, like food. Often, these children are incapable of working by the time they reach 35 or 40 due to health issues induced by their forced labor. In short, the quality of their lives is made horribly low so that it’s possible for people in rich countries to enjoy something that truly isn’t necessary for life.

I’ve written other blog posts about the issues of technology pollution. One of the most recent is More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t. However, the emphasis of these previous articles has been on the pollution itself. Taking personal responsibility for the pollution you create is important, but we really need to do more. Robotic (autonomous) mining is one way to keep children out of the mines and projects such as The Utah Robotic Mining Project show that it’s entirely possible to use robots in place of people today. The weird thing is that autonomous mining would save up to 80% of the mining costs of today, so you have to wonder why manufacturers aren’t rushing to employ this solution. In addition, off world mining would keep the pollution in space, rather than on planet earth. Of course, off world mining also requires a heavy investment in robots, but it promises to provide a huge financial payback in addition to keeping earth a bit cleaner (some companies are already investing in off world mining, but we need more). The point is that there are alternatives that we’re not using. Robotics presents an opportunity to make things right with technology and I’m excited to be part of that answer in writing books such as Python for Data Science for Dummies and Machine Learning for Dummies (see the posts for this book).

Unfortunately, companies like Apple, Samsung, and many others simply thumb their noses at laws that are in place to protect the children in these countries because they know you’ll buy their products. Yes, they make official statements, but read their statements in that first article and you’ll quickly figure out that they’re excuses and poorly made excuses at that. They don’t have to care because no one is holding them to account. People in rich countries don’t care because their own backyards aren’t sullied and their own children remain safe. So, the next time you think about buying electronics, consider the real price for that product. Let me know what you think about polluting other countries to keep your country clean at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Green Doesn’t Mean Pollution Free

There is a misconception about green technologies that I hear more and more often. The idea that a green technology is necessarily pollution free simply isn’t correct. I’ve been giving the notion a great deal of thought and haven’t been able to come up with a single green technology that is free of pollution of some sort. In fact, I have come to wonder whether some supposedly green technologies may actually produce more pollution than the technologies they’re supposed to replace. Yes, I realize that this is a radical position, but hear me out before you make a decision for yourself (and I would welcome discussion on this particular issue).

I’ll start with the simplest green technology that I could come up with. Years ago my wife gave up her drier for a clothesline. Not only do our clothes last longer and smell better, but she gained some important space in the laundry room, our costs for drying the clothes are smaller, and using a clothesline is definitely green. However, is a clothesline pollution free? It isn’t for several reasons.

 

  • The clothesline we use is plastic covered metal wire, which means that manufacturing it generated several kinds of industrial waste and hydrocarbons.
  • The hooks used to support the clothesline are made of metal, which means yet more industrial waste.
  • The posts used to support the hooks are made of treated lumber, so they contain toxic chemicals.
  • The posts are also painted, which means more toxic chemicals, along with industrial waste and potential hydrocarbons.


Using the sun to dry your clothing is a green technology. There are few continuing pollution sources when using this approach, yet, it can be easily argued that the clothesline will eventually require replacement, as will the posts and the hooks. The posts will last longer if I continue to paint them, but that means continued pollution in the form of toxic chemicals as well. So, this green approach to drying clothing does generate a small amount of pollution—it isn’t pollution free as advocates would have you believe. (However, it is demonstrably better than using a drier.)

After thinking this issue through for a while, I did come up with some ways to reduce the pollution generated by drying clothing outside, but never have created a solution that is completely pollution free and still provides the desired result. Here are some of the changes I considered:

 

  • Use black locust posts and cross beams that require no painting and are naturally resistant to decay.
  • Use natural fiber clotheslines that don’t generate as many pollutants during production.
  • Avoid the use of hooks by tying the clotheslines directly to the cross beams.


Even with these changes, however, the simple act of drying clothing generates pollution. For example, I have no source of natural fiber strong enough to support the clothes on my property and even if I did, I have no way of turning the fibers into clotheslines. In short, drying clothing generates some amount of pollution in the form of industrial waste even with the best planning. I’ve been able to use this same approach to consider the pollution generated by burning wood instead of propane to heat the house (despite my replacement of the trees I burn to maintain the size of the woods) and other ways we try to be green. Humans simply generate pollution for every given activity no matter how benign or well considered.

So, now you need to consider how this information translates into other green technologies. When you look carefully at my arguments against calling a green technology pollution free (as has been done in the hype generated in the news lately), you quickly see that many green technologies generate considerable pollution. Most of the articles I read on the topic are woefully inadequate and some are downright inaccurate. For example, I read an article from Scientific American that tries to paint solar cells as relatively pollution free. The article does consider the burden of fossil fuels used to construct the solar cells, but doesn’t consider the content of the cells themselves. For example, when you talk about the silicon used to create a solar cell, you must consider the heavy metals used to dope the silicon in order to make it into a semiconductor.

Unfortunately, while I do know that toxic industrial waste is produced when creating solar cells, there is a terrible lack of material on just how much. It’s a dark secret that you won’t read about anywhere. The article also doesn’t consider the emissions produced by the manufacture of plastic housings and metal castings used for solar panels. So, while using a solar panel does reduce locally produced pollution, I have to wonder whether the technology doesn’t simply move the pollution to another location—the place of manufacture. It makes me wonder whether our grandchildren might not consider solar technology as an ill conceived maneuver designed to make everyone feel better at the expense of toxic output that is even worse than the technology it replaced. In fact, I have read an article or two about this particular issue already—we may be making some places in China uninhabitable in order to clean up our own country.

Of course, these are simply musings of mine that I’m choosing the share with you. My point is that we need to consider the potential ramifications of theoretically green technologies that we embrace and consider the full cost of each. There are many technologies, such as the use of ethanol in gasoline, that many people have already questioned as being reckless. You can find a lot of articles questioning the use of ethanol in places such as the New York Times, Scientific American, and Environmental Working Group that say ethanol is a wash at best and potentially worse than simply using unadulterated gasoline from a health perspective. I have an open mind when it comes to green technologies, but I’m also cautious in saying that we’re making progress because so far, I’m not seeing much real progress. Let me know your thoughts on the green revolution at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.