The Elon Musk of E-waste

My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.

If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.

My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.

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Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.

I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:

Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”

Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

Here I will attempt to gather and decode euphemisms (saccharine words covering up the dismal reality, e.g., climate change for global warming) and dysphemisms (derogatory terms for neutral ones, e.g., warmist for people who acknowledge the facts of global warming) of corporate-speak.

 

“Crop Protection Agents” = pesticides

Example: Philip Morris attempting to use the natural anti-pest properties of tobacco to make the claim that tobacco is better for the environment than food crops (remember the neonicotinoid pesticides that are decimating bee and butterfly populations? They come from tobacco)

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Electric Cars are Not Enough for Life

As the New York Times recently reported, State SenatorScott Weiner’s California Legislature bill to increase density allotments along transit corridors is a much-needed method to solve both housing and environmental burdens. Driving, no matter how you slice it, takes more energy than public transportation, so getting people on high-quality and convenient public transportation, is a sustainability priority.

Unsurprising, however, is that many of the bluechip environmental groups, like Sierra Club, oppose higher density housing zoning near transit centers because their members may be negatively affected by, say, decreased property values from higher density. Such self-serving agendas are understandable, if misguided. Those who got in early in a housing rush, enjoy their peace and privacy, and higher density changes the feel of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a commitment to sustainability, which really means finding a livable way to continue business as usual as much as possible without too much discomfort (like cataclysmic climate change), requires simple measures like smart zoning in order to make it happen. The very notion of a transition town, or a sustainable city is based on accessible public transportation. We shouldn’t fail to see the forest of preventing climate change through the trees of inconvenience. Sustainability means that we all make some small sacrifices now in order to prevent much larger ones down the road.

Sharing the sacrifice is a fundamental principle of democratic societies. For too long, women, people of color, and the poor have had to make sacrifices (living further from work, paying more than half of their paycheck in rent, etc.) while the middle-class and wealthy have serially insulated themselves from as severe costs. Having mixed neighborhoods is a small but important gesture from those who comprise well-funded environmental groups. Overcoming internal resistance to change will allow greater accessibility for those in need of convenient housing. Higher density live/work areas (like any major city in Europe) is smart, low-carbon planning. It is effective because it obviates the need for a car. Sustainable cities are resilient because they have redundancy (more than one way to get to work), flexibility (if one option is closed, take the other), diversity, and slack (abundance, more than enough niches for everyone). California can achieve this much better with more environmentally-sound zoning. One can only hope that the major, private donor-funded environmental orgs can get on the right side of history.

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

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One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

Irma

A good friend of mine, from Austria of all places, found herself in Miami amongst the evacuations.

She posted to Facebook:

Thank you everyone for your sweet messages! Yes – I am still in Miami and not sure if I have a chance to leave before the hurricane hits Florida…All flights are sold out and no gas for cars…I trust that things will turn out the way they should and staying like the hurricane in the centre where its calm and safe. LOVE YOU ALL 

What is striking to me is the ordinariness of the disaster paradigm in an anarcho-capitalist country: I’ll take care of me, if you can’t take care of you, too bad, you may die.

This logic of individual privilege is about as far from “civilized” as I can imagine. It’s the Mad Max world many fear. But the future is here. It’s been here for a long time. Comparing Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s victims, and the response to that of Fukushima Daichi shows that in both cases, those exposed to radiation and surviving, me(e)t ostracization, fear, and pariahdom. Also, after the Fukushima disaster, women, the poor, the disabled, and the old, often had less ability to immediately flee the area than their male, rich, abled, younger counterparts.

So, it seems that willy-nilly, and against the very basis of the US Constitutional Rights, in times of crisis, we have created a system that disadvantages and leaves behind those most vulnerable. In this case of my friend, foreigners.

Of course, this is already a tired story. Hurricane Katrina neatly showed us the racism of America, before the Tea Party and the boogieman threat of an African-American president.

But when I hear from a good friend “all flights are sold out and [there is] no gas for cars,”  it somehow drives home the point of the systematicity of the problem, causing me to balk at the possibility for democracy, equity, and solidarity in a future of empty supermarkets and broken water infrastructure.

Just as our streets are unsafe, and those differently abled, slower, or less normatively predictable (the elderly and children especially), are especially at danger to the road rage that has infected virtually every driver. The barriers of separation have been expertly erected, from cars to climate-conditioned bubbles, have over the generations done their work, seeping into a generalized disconnection from others we don’t know and who we don’t identify as our tribe. Cheered on by the feedback loop of narcissistic social media advertising, our biases get entrenched rather than checked in a predatory advertising free-for-all.

What still amazes me, is the fact that human survival has turned into this constructed Social Darwinism, that shrinks our circle of concern in the face of crisis. Those without family, or broadcast ability, are simply forgotten and left behind.

As it turns out, Lisa found a way out of Miami, on the very last climate-changing flight out of Miami before Irma hit. But I cannot help but wonder about all of those who were left behind, to rot in the rush of countless souls attempting to save their own.

 

Speaking at the Creative Edge Conference

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I’m honored to be presenting on “The Ecological Self: Harnessing the Power of Our Interspecies Nature for Good” alongside Flow author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi this Saturday, May 13th 2017 at the Creative Edge Conference organized by West LA College.

I’ll be speaking during  the Creative Space Session during 10:45am – 12:20pm.

The WEST TALKS, in the spirit of the TED Talk series, aim to expose students and the public to avant-garde ideas that can help transform the notions under which we operate as a society. Creativity, thinking diagonally, will give us the tools to confront the systemic breakdowns we currently face, and allow us to create better alternatives with finesse and elegance.

The Conference is free with RSVP. Click here to download a PDF of the Conference.