The planet has limited resources. A lot of people need and want those resources. So, what’s my fair share? How big a slice of the pie can I take without it meaning that someone else has to suffer? I want happiness for myself and my family, but the big question underlying the No Impact Man project is whether you can achieve that without causing too much suffering for others.
My last post was about the millions of still-working cell phones that will poison the planet as people toss them in landfills and incinerators in favor of their new iPhones (you can also read a long article about e-waste here). Don’t get me wrong. I want an iPhone (and I could get one, according to No Impact rules, if I could find one second hand). But the question, when buying iPhones or anything else, is how do my actions as a consumer affect the rest of the world? When am I taking more than my fair share? When am I causing suffering? In other words, just because I want to get an iPhone, should I?
For me, during the No Impact project, with its various rules, there is no real conundrum. I just do as the rules tell me. I probably couldn’t get a used iPhone anyway, and I can’t buy new. Later, though, when the project is over, I’ll be back to the war between my desires and my conscience. That’s why I’m thinking so much about the iPhone—because I both want one and feel I shouldn’t get one.
Buying gadgets—iPhones, TVs, computers—has a huge impact on the planet and on other people. To wit—and let me warn you that this is the part in the horror movie where you need to close your eyes—four million people have died in a war that is, at least in part, a struggle to control the world’s supplies of an essential ingredient in most of our electronics, a metal called coltan, 80 percent of which lie beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In his article entitled “A journey into the most savage war in the world,” published in the Independent on June 5, 2006, Johann Hari wrote that the war in the Congo is:
“…the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace…
“This war has been waved aside as an internal African implosion. In reality it is a battle for coltan and diamonds and cassiterite and gold, destined for sale in London and New York and Paris. It is a battle for the metals that make our technological society vibrate and ring and bling, and it has already claimed four million lives in five years and broken a population the size of Britain’s. No, this is not only a story about them. This – the tale of a short journey into the long Congolese war we in the West have fostered, fuelled and funded – is a story about you.”
Am I saying I will never buy another electronic device? No. But I am saying I want to be conscience of the effects of my consumption, and that it should probably not be particularly conspicuous. Given that the planet does have limited resources and my use of them does have the potential to contribute to unhappiness, I’m back where I started: what is my fair share?