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.”

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.

Los Angeles and the Methane Crisis

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There seems to be a proliferation of instances of catastrophe which Ulrich Beck long predicted in his work on our contemporary risk society. Certain events, like the continued unabated spewing nuclear radiation from TEPCO’s Fukushima Daichi plants, are world crises which have global impacts, even though technically the jurisdiction for dealing with such a problem is national, in this case, falling to the Japanese government.

If TEPCO had been an entirely nationalized company, the Japanese government would be directly beholden to its people–and the rest of the world–to take responsibility for swiftly taking action in cleaning up the plant.

Los Angeles is currently experiencing a similar such state of emergency. SoCalGas, a private corporation, has since October 2015 had a major leak at their methane plant in the middle of Los Angeles County.

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This gas leak has caused nose bleeds, mass evacuation of over 2,700 homes surrounding the area, and still, is months away from being cleaned up. While some residents have demanded that the facilities be closed down, the sensible environmental health thing to do, there is great resistance by the company to do so.

The effects of SoCal Gas’s refusal to divert their full energies to stopping the flow of methane into LA’s atmosphere is that residents have been experiencing a sharp uptick in “nosebleeds, vomiting, hives, headaches and respiratory illnesses.” But instead of seeing this as a problem of the commons, one where politically active people are speaking for the thousands or millions in LA affected but for whatever reason not available to be politically involved, attendees to a recent meeting were instead “asked to keep track of what they’re spending,” so they might be at some far-off future date financially reimbursed.

But does money buy environmental health? The answer is decidedly “no.” Environmental health is an aspect of environmental justice, meaning that often times those most vocal about existing problems are but the tip of the quickly melting iceberg. Such a piecemeal squeaky-wheel solution is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has called the “inverted quarantine” of privatized health. Rather than considering the commons, such approaches attempt to move away and protect oneself from public harms that effect all. This is the very opposite of environmental justice. The able-bodied, financially-able, time-flexible, flee the scene of the crime and protect themselves from disaster. And who can blame them? The problem is, that when there are public disasters-=disasters that harm everyone in that area (or according to that metric)–but private solutions which leave those worst off out in the cold (or out in the methane, as the case may be), what then? Unless there are public political bodies mitigating against the systematic degradation of all citizens’ health, regardless of their income, education, or political or economic acumen, then we truly are living in barbaric times.

With only a little exaggeration, LA County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich has dubbed the crisis a “mini-Chernobyl.” Such a descriptor unintentionally gets at the heart of the crisis.

One of the main differences between Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl was that the USSR took care of Chernobyl by cementing it over in 4 days, while nearly 5 years later Japan and TEPCO have been passing the accountability buck back and forth without decisively stopping the harmful flow of radiation.

In a risk society, when things go wrong, quick and bold action must be taken. Waiting to see what will happen, or trying to make a buck despite the crisis, is an unethical approach to grievous accidents that could mean the deaths–directly or indirectly–of countless human lives now and in the future.

 

 

 

“I am pro-coal,…

“I am pro-coal, and I am pro-coal miner. I will fight President Obama, the EPA, the Senate and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs.”

“In West Virginia, where coal is king, Senate candidate Natalie E. Tennant, a Democrat, quickly turned on Mr. Obama when asked about the regulations.” (From http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/1/new-epa-rules-could-burn-coal-state-democrats/)

I understand it’s all just politics and rhetoric, but what a backwards thing to say. When a Democratic candidate for the Senate says that she is “pro-coal” at a crucial time when coal mining is patently a non-sustainable way of life, she is only proving her unelectability and lack of moral compass. Sure, West Virginia is an ur-coal state, but there is a way to be “pro-coal miner” without having to be “pro-coal” and posturing like she will defend her nest from all of the nasty predators wanting to hurt her constituency. It doesn’t have to be purely adversarial, politics. Tennant could have framed it as, “we know that there is a limited amount of coal, and we are concerned for the health-risks coal-mining poses to our beloved citizens. Therefore, we will lead this change to sustainable and healthier energy production by making sure that any coal mine that is shut down happens with funds for the training and retooling for every worker to immediately get started on a new and exciting job that replaces that which was given up.”

But then of course, we could also follow the tack of challenging why jobs are some sort of inalienable right, or that everyone in fact needs to work a full-time job in order to have a full-time life.