In my talk to a group of international post-grad students, there was a section about consumerism in relation to climate change. I critiqued our addiction to more stuff and to the latest thing and advocated a simple life that used less of the earth’s resources. At the end, I invited questions. The first question was, “Can you show us your phone?”
What could I do? I knew he’d got me. Reluctantly, I had to pull my iPhone out of my pocket. Yes, I could say it’s only an iPhone 4; I could say it wasn’t the latest model when I got it; I could say it’s not mine, it’s provided by my church. But I still felt a fraud. I’ve always known there are more eco-friendly phones on the market. There are certainly cheaper phones. There are simpler phones – do I need a smart phone? In fact, do I need a phone at all?
Last week there was a piece in The Guardian by Steve Hilton, who runs a Silicon Valley start-up and hasn’t had a phone for over three years. Hilton writes that at the end of his first week without a phone he felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. He questions the way everyone is forever anxiously checking things and says that he finds something menacing in our need to be connected and contactable all the time. He says that people are incredulous when they hear about his phone-free life, saying, “But how do you live?” The most common response, though, is, “How fantastic that must be. I wish I could do that.”
Do I wish I could do that? Part of me does. It’s only two years old, but my iPhone is approaching the end of its natural life. I have to re-charge the battery at least once a day, and that’s with hardly using it. The memory is too small to update the operating system. I object to this built-in obsolescence. Amnesty International alleges that thousands of children, some as young as seven, are doing back-breaking work in terrible conditions mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt is used in the lithium batteries in our phones (and other devices) and half the world’s supply comes from DRC. By having a phone, I am the rich man for whom these African children work like slaves. It’s not the only way my consumption of stuff causes others to suffer, but it’s one way.
Maybe I don’t need a smart-phone. Maybe I don’t need a mobile phone at all. I don’t keep checking things on it. Emails only come via wifi and I’m not perpetually logged in to Facebook or a news service. I use a paper diary. If you phone me and I’m with someone, I’m not going to answer – it’s rude. But the maps are useful. Having all my contact details on it is very useful. Having a camera on me all the time is handy. Texting is the main way my son, at university 350 miles away, keeps in touch with me. And what about emergencies? Somehow we used to cope, but the world has changed and the world expects us all to have phones in our pockets.
Asking if I need something by weighing up the pros and cons in terms of my convenience, is the wrong question, I think. The real question is about the justice of the level of my consumption. The real question may be about the price paid by others for my choices, answered in attending not to my needs but the needs of seven-year-old cobalt miners.
What would you do?