audience at a concert, all holding up their smartphones
PHOTO: Gian Cescon

The coronavirus is indicative of a sick Earth, a stressed and stretched Nature. In our pockets, in our hands, beside our ears, lie devices that contain the stories of how and why the Earth is so sick, of how we have in the last 40 years, partaken of a mad and frenzied party of over-consumption, resource depletion and crap production.

Coronavirus is not Armageddon. We will recover from this one. Armageddon is in our hands. We plan for Armageddon every day with our wanton waste lifestyles, with our voracious appetites for the trivial and the transient. We have become so bored. We demand distractions, non-stop entertainment, we snack endlessly on junk food and fake news with gadgets we can’t wait to throw away.

We are not simply living beyond our own means, we are living beyond the Earth’s means. We are living beyond its capacities. And when I say "we," I do not mean poor people in poor countries with large families. Their pollution footprint is quite small. The prime wreckers on this Earth live in North America and Europe. We are the uber-wasters and destroyers.

A typical smartphone will contain up to 60 materials and elements, including tin, iron, plastic, lithium, silicon, copper, nickel, alumina, silica, potassium, graphite, manganese, aluminum, tantalum, gold, silver, lead, magnesium, bromine. Producing these materials results in lots of solid and liquid waste. This waste builds up onsite in enormous dumps, sometimes several square kilometers in area. Often, these materials are mined in countries that have poor or nonexistent safety standards.

Sixteen out of the 17 rare earth materials can be found in a typical smartphone. These materials are by definition rare. To get them often requires going to places humans have rarely gone before.

“We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before,” Dennis Carroll, an expert in global pandemics states. “In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection.”

Since the first smartphones were launched in 2007, some 10 billion have been manufactured. Less than 20% of these are recycled and when they are, the process is usually to dump them in poor countries where they will be smelted in open pits.

Smartphones can, of course, be truly useful. The WHO website went from 55% mobile visitors pre-coronavirus to 70% now. Yet, too much of the smartphone’s story is one of abuse of the Earth and its poorest people in the cause of willful overconsumption and planned obsolescence.

The Earth cannot cope with us Europeans and North Americans. Our appetites are far too voracious. We must slow down. We must stop consuming the Earth like it was a Big Mac or a Coca Cola. We must stop the waste.