Forget about Saving the Earth, We Better Concentrate on Saving Ourselves

Earth from space, profile

Saving the Planet?

I can’t stand when I hear people saying that we need to “Save the Planet.” The people who are propagating this meme to the general public are usually media people who don’t know megatons from megaliths. We cannot save the planet because the Earth is not in danger. We are. As an amateur scientist and professional technologist, I am too aware of the science regarding end of the world scenarios and anything with the real potential to end the world is beyond our ability to stop, save for the one that we are bringing on ourselves; our ability to create, manufacture and destroy the environment for the sake of profit.

It is theorized that during the Cretaceous period, approximately 65 million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the Earth in the Yucatan peninsula. This ten kilometer piece of space debris, weighing nearly a trillion tons, moving at nearly 10-30 kilometers/per second (20,000 – 60,000 mph) and with the force of 100 million megatons of energy, (more energy than all the nuclear weapons on Earth today) created a crater nearly 150 kilometers across, blasting tons of earth and rock into the atmosphere. This impact in turn caused seismic events, created tsunamis and initiated volcanoes which added to the blanket of ash that reduced the temperature of the Earth all over the world.

This major reduction in temperature caused the demise of 70% of all plant life on Earth. There is controversy as to whether this killed the dinosaurs immediately or whether it took another 300,000 to 1.8 million additional years to cause their demise. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for over 145 million years and in the relative blink of an eye, they were gone. But the Earth is still here. Such an event today as the Chicxulub (pronounced CHICK-soo-loob) impact would end all higher life on Earth in a matter of years due to starvation.

There have been at least six other known major extinction events that occurred on Earth, as near as our science can tell. This means that nearly 90% of all life on Earth has been destroyed several times in our planet’s four billion year existence.  There are million of species that remain on Earth today filling every niche and environment possible. The Earth is resilient and life returns again and again. Individual species are another matter entirely.  I say it again for those who can’t handle the truth, the Earth is not in danger, we are!

How did I get here, again?

As a technologist, I am fascinated by the effect of technology on the human species and the human condition. Recently there were three catalysts that made me think about this again. The first was receiving an email regarding electronic waste or e-waste and its dumping on the African continent as well as its illegal trade in Chinese communities. Wayne Hicks, a leading member of the BDPA posited the idea that something should be done about the dumping of toxic e-waste on the shores of Africa and he asked the question: Does BDPA need to take a public stand on the issue of e-waste? After some research, I applauded Wayne Hicks interest in this controversial issue and agreed with his question. A more definitive stand is required.

The second catalyst was a program produced by ABC Television News called ‘Earth 2100‘ that premiered June 2, 2009 at 9:00 PM.  This show talked about a possible future in the next 100 years that would show the eventual decline and fall of the human species. It was during the viewing of Earth 2100,  I heard one of the wisest things I have heard said in years and at the same time the scariest. It was spoken by Van Jones, Founder of Green for All, during the early part of the Earth 2100 show. He said “People are complaining about the economic crisis we have right now? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You know, if we continue down this suicidal pathway where we basically turn living stuff into dead stuff and call that economic growth, this will look like the good old days.”

I don’t personally know Van Jones, but he and I would be kindred spirits because I am in totally agreement with this statement and wonder why our economy is continuing down such a final and disastrous path. Van Jones is the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). This science fiction documentary could very easily become science fact if humanity continues down this slippery slope of denial and adherence to our failing economic models. And like global warming it will be ignored because it is unpopular until it is too late to do anything about.

The third was a catalyst that I had considered about 10 years ago when I created a game that discussed how mankind would one day wage war over the limited resources and the failing ecosystems of the future. When I created this game, I thought it seemed like a logical, but unfortunate, progression. Humanity has never done well with scarcity and the future promises, that we would eventually market ourselves to death, selling products we do not ultimately need, creating an engine of economic prosperity that does not take the maintenance of the future into consideration. Well, I was not alone in this idea and it appears that the Center for a New American Security had also considered this premise and created their own “Climate Change War Game” to see what the future has in store for the ever-combative, ever short-sighted human species. You can download the materials for this game. These three catalysts lead me to thinking about this again and asking why is there any question as to what needs to be done.

I was reading about natural law theory and realized that humanity, or at least those in charge of the path that humanity is taking as a whole, had forgotten natural law theories.  To quote Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.:

“What do we mean by “natural law”? In its simplest definition, natural law is that “unwritten law” that is more or less the same for everyone everywhere. To be more exact, natural law is the concept of a body of moral principles that is common to all humankind and, as generally posited, is recognizable by human reason alone. Natural law is therefore distinguished from — and provides a standard for — positive law, the formal legal enactments of a particular society.

To sum it up, then, we can say that the natural law:

  • is not made by human beings;
  • is based on the structure of reality itself;
  • is the same for all human beings and at all times;
  • is an unchanging rule or pattern which is there for human beings to discover;
  • is the naturally knowable moral law;
  • is a means by which human beings can rationally guide themselves to their good.”

I reference this because I feel that certain concepts have simply been forgotten in the name of profit. The concept that things happen at a certain rate and no faster is known by farmers, geologists, paleontologists and astronomers (and assuredly lots of other occupations that cannot force nature to occur at any rate faster than it does naturally). They never forget these natural law theories because it is part of the underpinnings of their craft. Farmers cannot force plants to grow any faster than they do (yes they can alter their size, appearance, output but nature determines their overall development rate, for the moment). Geologists and other earth scientists cannot make tectonic shifts take place any faster, indeed they are hard pressed to predict them at all, paleontologists study ancient cultures and don’t expect to see drastic shifts in the nature of those cultures overnight, nor can astronomers who have to work with the speed of light as their limiting agent, see the universe as anything other than a picture whose images are displaced by millions or even billions of years between when we see them and what they may actually look like now. Light may be the fastest thing in the known universe, but even it must bow to the nearly immeasurable distances of inter-galactic space.

It’s Economic Development

Bringham Canyon Mine is the largest open pit copper mine in the world—deeper than twice the height of Chicagos Sears Tower.   (Photographed on assignment for, but not published in, Utah: Land of Promise, Kingdom of Stone, January 1996, National Geographic magazine) Photograph by James P. Blair

Bringham Canyon Mine is the largest open pit copper mine in the world—deeper than twice the height of Chicago’s Sears Tower. (Photographed on assignment for, but not published in, “Utah: Land of Promise, Kingdom of Stone,” January 1996, National Geographic magazine) Photograph by James P. Blair

Our business models, our economic models, our advertising models, and the manufacturing model that we are propagating all over the Earth, in the name of democracy and free trade, are failing to remember natural law. With the advent of the Industrial and Manufacturing Age, we have compressed time to the point that we can only make money at this new and accelerated rate. Everything must happen right now. Dividends must be maximized; profits must be realized without delay regardless to the cost of human suffering or long-term loss. We must continue to extract resources from the earth, create new, cheap and potentially toxic processes for refining those materials, and in turn, take those refined materials and assembly line the creation of those products that we then must advertise and sell as quickly as possible for a profit. And that is where we curiously, as a society, stop watching that device or product.

The manufacturers no longer take responsibility for that product once it leaves their hands and comes into yours. We forget the other half of that product’s lifespan. That product is used. If the manufacturer built into it a pre-programmed obsolescence date (which, whether they admit it or not, most manufactures understand that their product has a limited lifespan) that product will stop working and will likely be unable to be repaired due primarily to its cheap cost of manufacturing.

This poorly manufactured product is likely created with a process that has deadly by-products during its creation, and those by-products are likely still with this product when it is time for it to be returned to the other half of its existence, as a waste product. Deadly plastics whose by-products include dioxins or poly vinyl choloride (PVC), heavy metals such as lead, selenium, cadmium, barium, and mercury are used in the creation of high-tech products and can leech back into the environment when disposed of improperly. If you are interested in seeing what toxins might be in your community at large, you can use a web-based service called Scorecard.

So how is it that a product that was conceived of by a business, the natural resources harvested from the earth, manufactured in a factory, advertised to the consumer, sold to that consumer, used by the consumer, disposed of by the consumer, in the tens of millions, possibly even billions, should only be a cost to the consumer, when the corporation that created the need for the product in the first place walks away with all of the profit and the consumer (and its attendant government) must deal with all of the costs for the disposal of that product and its potentially deadly side-effects.

Let’s take a quick look at natural for a second. In nature, everything is part of the cycle of life and death. When anything dies, nature has a process, which recovers the natural elements of that organism and returns them to the environment from which they are ultimately derived. It is eaten, broken down, waste products are produced, which are then broken down again either chemically or physically until it is able to become part of the cycle of living things again as part of a plant or animal.

Mankind has failed to take a note from nature’s handbook and build our own devices on a similar path of intelligent design. (And for the record, I am not espousing “Intelligent Design” that religious ideal that there is a greater intelligence in the Universe that we are not aware of.) I am simply noting that nature has managed to work both sides of the creation and destruction cycle by including a transformation element to convert the living back into the component materials from which it is ultimately derived. Mankind has failed to include such a transformation element and it is coming back to us in the form of deadly byproducts of electronic waste.

A Problem of Scale

This is a question of the scale of the problem. We are addressing the disposal of technology at a linear scale. This means a small percentage of the human race is attempting to deal with our waste management and the problem is left to this tiny segment of the population. But we are manufacturing technology at an exponential scale, increasing our need and dependence on technology and its increasing affect on how we do business. And the more technology we create, the more technology that is necessary to manage it. Unless, we as a species, begin handling our technology collectively, we will be overwhelmed by the waste products created today in the name of economic prosperity. Some may say this has already become the case as our oceans become more polluted by environmental run-off from factories, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers necessary to feed our populations.

How many computers are there on Earth today?

There are currently nearly 1 billion computers in use today. Forrester Research indicates that by the year 2015 there will be 2 billion computers in use. The source for this data is IDC, the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets. IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker gathers PC market data in 55 countries by vendor, form factor, brand, processor brand and speed, sales channel and user segment. The research includes historical and forecast trend analysis as well as price band and installed base data. It took 27 years for there to be one billion computers, it will only take seven or eight to reach two billion. How fast will we reach three billion?

How many cell phones are there on Earth today?

John Jackson, consultant wireless analyst at Yankee Group, indicated that in 2006 that the global market, with 1.8 billion mobile devices, will have 49 million new smart phones by year end. Yankee expects the number of smart phones to double again, to 98 million, in 2006, while the number of cell phones worldwide creeps ahead to 1.85 billion. With number like these, you can expect that in 2009, the number of cell phones will exceed 2 billion cell phones.

How many game consoles have been created since their inception?

Since 1983 there have been over 1 billion game consoles from all of the manufacturers sold worldwide. These numbers do not deal with accessories or components outside of the actual device. We are not going to even address: monitors (CRTs, plasma, LCD, and televisions of all types but you can assume there are at least as many monitors as there are computers), fax machines, which were extremely popular for at least twenty years in the US, radio technologies including clock radios, boom-boxes, internal home stereo systems and enhanced car stereo systems, old style telephone systems that are being replaced by Voice over IP telecom systems, large scale mainframe, mini-computers and server systems that are becoming obsolete faster and faster.

Not Rocket Science

For the BDPA, whose chapter leadership shows little or no interest (at least as far as their news group link showed) in pursuing the question of electronic wastes, I say, shame on you. I understand you have other issues that need addressing. Equality of your membership in the workforce is definitely a worthy cause that I salute. But I say to you this: If you have no other causes for which your organization will fight for, why should anyone consider your primary cause worth fighting for. The shores of China or East Africa may be far away from you now, but when this current trend of ‘economic development’ is done, America may find itself a ‘second or third world nation’ and suddenly find e-waste stealthily being sent to its shores in poor urban communities where the bulk of the next generation of BDPA’s members may find themselves relegated to, due to the poor standard of living that people of color have to contend with in America. This is part of that being able to pay attention to natural law that we were discussing earlier. A paleontologist may be able to point out to you that as empires lose power over time, they lose the ability to protect their population from stronger or more vigorous empires who take their place. This may mean as the United States grows less powerful, more powerful nations may take to doing to us, what we currently do them under the guise of economic development.

Get your leadership to draft a letter, sign it and send it to your Congressmen, your senators, and to the President if necessary. There are thousands of you (as you are fond of saying in your literature) so use that power to be the change you are looking for. While you are at it, get the creators of all of this technology that eventually becomes e-waste to discuss a plan to make technology that can be returned to the Earth, reused, or recycled in a responsible way because that way lies the future of all of us. Find those corporations that understand that we need to do better and use them as a standard for the creation of more organically considered technologies. We need to get people to see that economic growth divorced from Natural Law will be the death of all of us. Not right now, but in the future that is rapidly approaching us.

This is the letter I plan to send to our local government representatives. I doubt that the scale of the problem will register but they cannot say they were not informed. I have included links that will help you find your representative for your local area. Most can be reached by email but for those that have snail mail addresses, I have included links for those as well. If you feel this letter finds some accord with you, feel free to send your own copy to whomever you think will listen.

The White House (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The White House (courtesy of Wikipedia)

A Letter to Your Representative

To the United Nations, United States Congress, US Senate, and the President of these United States:

We the Undersigned, in the month of our nation’s independence July of 2009, find it reprehensible that nothing is being done to prevent the creation of potentially toxic electronic devices without a viable and safe means of disposal of said technologies. These technologies are being created in the millions annually, purchased in the billions over a decade and disposed of in the hundreds of millions every year. These technologies are showing up on the shores of our neighboring nations as well within our own landfills and poisoning the land and the water as well as killing populations everywhere, all in the name of progress, economic growth and gross domestic product.

Please don’t bother telling us about the economic engine of the world being powered by the creation of new technology and that businesses have a right to create technology that people need. Most people don’t need the technology that is being created at the rate that it is being created. The concept that we should be creating technology that lasts should a part of a well-considered plan to future generations. No one should need a new cell phone every two years. This is irresponsible and wasteful. That need to buy new technology constantly is driven by the very effective use of advertising to convince the populace that new technology should be purchased as quickly as possible, whenever possible. This should be seen as a crime against humanity.

To add insult to injury, those technologies are being manufactured with planned obsolescence in mind, so that technology such as cell phones, which are created in the hundreds of millions, for example, without a plan for their eventual disposal find themselves being sent to third world nations under the guise of “technology exchange” but is more  a euphemism for ‘technology disposal and dumping.’ If it were only cell phones it would be a reprehensible practice but it is cell phones, computers, computer monitors, televisions, telephones, fax machines, copiers… Do I need to go on? Millions and millions of these devices are being created without a plan or a method of disposal or reuse. The cast offs are sent to third world nations without any understanding of how those technologies will be harvested for what little value remains in them. They are likely burned and their plastic housings will release dioxins and other poisons into the atmosphere. The heavy metals within them, those that cannot be harvested for value, like gold, will make their way into the soils and remain there indefinitely, poisoning the land and the water, making those areas potentially un-inhabitable. The current locals who are forced into this slave labor by crime cartels or economic desperation will eventually die, exposed to toxic smoke, heavy metal poisoning, pollution of their ground water or food supply. This is happening right now, not a conjecture, clearly just a fact.

Not an American concern, you say. Not your problem, you say. We don’t have control over businesses that are not in the United States, let alone those that are. If you claim you want to reduce health costs, you might want to consider that many of those health issues can be traced back to manufacturing processes, by-products of manufacturing, or to the disposal of those products at the end of their unnaturally short life spans. If you, as representatives of the people, want to make the world a better place, then it is up to you to review the information regarding e-waste and for that matter, all waste processing and see what can be done to improve those processes, reducing the deadly by-products and work to ensure that the true cost of manufacturing is laid at the feet of everyone involved.

Corporations should also carry the burden of dealing with the toxic by-products even if it increases the costs of their products. It might also force them to make those products last a bit longer and keep them out of the waste cycle, poisoning our air and water supplies. America is a big country and we can hide the bodies of our manufacturing dead for a long time before it becomes an issue to us. We can deny it is a problem almost indefinitely. The operative word is almost. We have seen the effects in China and other nations that are attempting to keep up with the standard of living of America and other first world nations. Such trends cannot continue. We must help them become citizens of the new millennia without the extravagant waste that was part of the American Legacy to the world.

You are right; it is not an American concern. It is a world-wide concern. Everyone needs to be involved. Greed and short term profit are the key operating forces in this orgy of manufacturing genocide. What are you going to do about it, representative of the people? You can keep sitting there and we will replace you with someone that eventually will give a damn. We all keep talking about saving the planet, but the Earth has experienced at least six extinction level events where over 90% of all life on Earth was extinguished and it has survived with tens of thousands of species remaining. If we make the Earth uninhabitable for ourselves, the Earth, living in geologic time, will simply replace us with something else, hopefully more intelligent and capable of planning for the future.


Thaddeus Howze
Paladin/CEO: Have Flash Drive, Will Travel
Hayward, California, USA
Earth, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy

Links for further reading:

Environmental Protection Agency as a general source of information regarding the environment and our place in it. The definitive source of all things environmental in the US.

The Futures Group: A young think tank out of Singapore with some avant-garde thinking showing our connectedness and concerned about the future of Singapore. On their site they link the Map of the Decade Illustrated created by the Institute for the Future. They have also made a collection of the IFTFs previous maps and other thought-work available at the List of IFTF and other maps.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent, nonprofit research group with over 40 years of forecasting experience. The core of our work is identifying emerging trends and discontinuities that will transform global society and the global marketplace.

Green for All: A green work organization that is studying the potential future of green jobs in the US.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board is the State agency designated to oversee, manage, and track California’s 92 million tons of waste generated each year.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance provides innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

Worldometers: is part of the Real Time Statistics Project, which is managed by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers with the goal of making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world. Chief project coordinator is currently Sir Thomasson.