By David Clerkin
Western history has often been portrayed from the perspective of the West. In particular, it tells a story of Europe coming out of the Dark Ages, conquering the New World and undertaking an Industrial Revolution that ushered the world in to the modern age. Thankfully, over the last half-century scholars have broken this narrative open and revealed the human and environmental costs these events required. Despite these breakthroughs, however, in the history of technology a linear narrative of expanding triumph continues to dominate. This is especially true regarding the computer and one of its central components: the microprocessor. At the beginning of the twenty-first century in the United States the story of the microprocessor was one of innovation and progress, obscuring the global exploitation and environmental consequences relied upon to bring microprocessors to the West and dispose of them when they are obsolete.
Writing concerning the microprocessor has typically touted the technology’s power and positive impacts on society. Reflecting on IBM’s 1964 microprocessor-based computer, a 2014 article in the popular tech magazine Wired focused on the range of uses it enabled: computers were now available for science, business, or anything requiring complex calculations. Further, the universality of the microprocessor allowed computers to be adapted to different tasks without needing new hardware, as well as allowing outside developers to create software for the computers. As microprocessors became smaller they lead to further technological innovations such as home computers, smart phones, and home video game consoles. These machines factored into a narrative of innovation by computer companies and progress for all humanity. Intel, the creators of the first microprocessors, credit themselves for continuing to improve the design and deliver “previously unimaginable gains in productivity and connectivity.” This connectivity was not just good for business either: Wired also suggests it unleashed a creative revolution allowing levels of personal expression never seen before.
Intel also entered the environmentalist conversation, viewing their product as a key to sustainability. In their 2007 report “Advancing Global Sustainability Through Technology,” Intel posited that the microprocessor has been a success for the environment by reducing emissions through increased productivity. They further promoted their own policy of using renewable energy, reducing hazardous materials, and increasing recycling at their manufacturing facilities in the U.S. Absent from the report is any mention of the conditions where the minerals needed to manufacture their microprocessors come from, or where they will go after use. Exploring these aspects of the microprocessor reveals a much different picture.
Microprocessors require a number of rare earth minerals in their construction and one of the major sources for these is Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) produces some 30% of these minerals, but control over the mines is contested: of 13 major mines in the country, 12 are controlled by armed groups. Conflict between these groups, largely over control of the mines, from 1998-2003 during the Second Congo War caused an estimated 5.4 million deaths. Despite a cease in official hostilities conflict continues with around 1,500 deaths per day due to the profitability of the mines, with profits of up to twenty million dollars a month possible. These profits stay in the hands of the armed groups controlling the mines however. The miners themselves earn extremely low wages, often not even 10% per day of what the minerals sell for locally. They are further heavily mistreated by the armed groups. Abuse, extortion, murder and rape are all common occurrences. After mining, the minerals are transported out of the country to be smelted overseas. Three major smelters, two in the US and one in China, refine the bulk of the minerals and while US firms have made some effort to avoid minerals from the DRC, China has not. This results in the minerals inevitably becoming mixed in the supply chain before transport to the U.S. and Europe where they are manufactured into microprocessor chips.
The microprocessor’s story continues after use as well. Every day Americans throw out nearly half a millions items of electronic waste. Most of this material ends up in landfills, creating environmental concerns due to lead, mercury and other toxic materials. Some 20% of electronic items are recycled however, with 80% being then shipped to developing countries. The U.S. is one of the few countries not to have ratified the Basel Convention banning the export of hazardous material to developing countries and one of the popular destinations is China. The town of Guiyu especially receives millions of tons of electronic waste each year. 60-80% of the residents there engage in electronic recycling, often in the form of family run workshops. After recycling what remains is dumped on surrounding roads, fields and streams leaving very high levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminates in dust, soil, rivers and groundwater. These environmental consequences result in human impacts: Guiyu boasts the highest level of cancer causing dioxins in the world, causing elevated rates of miscarriages, and local children, even when not involved in electronic waste recycling, possess elevated blood lead levels. This is not limited to Guiyu either, throughout China electronic waste processing has created a “toxicological nightmare” threatening human, animal, and plant life. The consequences of this nightmare are not evenly distributed, however, but primarily affect the most vulnerable. In Guiyu most of the work is done by migrant workers coming from poorer inland provinces with few options, and children often help their impoverished parents in breaking apart electronics by hand or baking circuit boards, both of which release toxins. Far from a benign story of innovation and progress then, the microprocessor becomes a symbol of the perils of the Anthropocene.
In this story of man’s triumph, the costs of the microprocessor are left outside the frame to create only a picture of technological process. This narrative of innovation and social advance rests on a long tradition of the Western obfuscation. Looking past this narrative, we see an object that reveals a great deal about our present condition in the Anthropocene. Technological advancements are not just a process of thinking and development situated in the most advanced nations, but also a global process of exploitation of human and natural resources with wide-reaching consequences. Millions have died in procuring the base elements of the microprocessor and millions more suffered poisoned bodies and environments. While the wide-reaching benefits of technology cannot be denied, the monumental costs must also enter the equation if we are to truly understand the Anthropocene.
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