Sustainable Consumption, Conflict Minerals & the Need for Speed

Watching TV the other night, I caught a mobile phone commercial pushing 4G speed. A bunch of semi-scruffy dudes tailgating and staying ahead of breaking news (the other team’s mascot has been stolen) 40 seconds faster than their friends. Or maybe it was 140 seconds. Either way, I couldn’t see why we’d want to encourage these slugs to do everything faster and faster. Do they need the bandwidth? Is the best way to finance the rollout of 4G to convince Joe and Jane Normal that they need faster email, better video etc on their smart phones?

Let’s say we really do need to do everything possible on our smart phones as fast as possible. How fast do we start running into bandwidth issues, degraded quality of service and the need for more investment? Are we, on a planetary basis, better off if we all become global, mobile data hogs? Is there a different investment and finance model that would leverage 3G, start rolling priority accounts to new 4G networks now but perhaps reduce the growth rate of consumption of new smart phones and fiber optics over the next decade? I would think there is still plenty of growth to be found from new subscribers in low-income populations around the world and late-adapters everywhere.

I’m not suggesting the mobile carriers forgo growth. For one thing, faster and more reliable communications networks are a good thing. Access to speed is important too, be it for emergency responders or corporations. Investment in communications infrastructure is a continual process, with or without advertising hype.

Growth also implies trade-offs, however. For example, the speed and immediacy of text messaging have real safety and business value. The availability and prevalence of low or no cost text messaging may also be contributing to an increase in traffic accidents. Far too many drivers are confident in their ability to text while driving in a safe manner, despite numerous studies proving that they are mistaken.

When it comes to smart phones, bandwidth is not the only issue, there’s a little problem with conflict minerals as well. Gina-Marie Cheeseman via Sustainable Industries  notes that our everyday electronics make widespread use of conflict minerals, meaning forced and/or child labor, amongst other things (http://sustainableindustries.com/articles/2011/11/dont-phone-it).

Shouldn’t our thinking around smart phone growth factor in resource scarcity and conflict minerals? Aren’t there reasonable growth plans that emphasize revenue streams that don’t increase the planet’s resource depletion rate or prop up the atrocious regimes from whence conflict minerals derive?

I’ll freely admit that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon on the topic of smart phones. I don’t want to read books, watch movies or video chat on my phone. I’d appreciate greater emphasis on sound quality and noise dampening over speed because I do need to talk and hear on my cell phone, smart or not. I like to use text messages when I need to communicate something important quickly. Usually this happens when I’m on the road and meeting up with people who may also be on unfamiliar terrain. My 12 year old cousin, however, will send me a text message that just says “S’up?” Clearly we approach technology in different ways. In all honesty though, I don’t see that what most of us are doing or saying requires constant and instantaneous connectivity.

Would our kids grow up deprived if we gave them a basic cell phone for safety, but no smart phones until they land that first part time job and pay for it themselves? Would it reduce your quality of life if you had to give up streaming TV and movies or video chatting on your smart phone? Would you feel as deprived if you knew that changing your consumption habits would help make the world a better place, not just for you, but for your grandchildren and their children as well?

I suspect that “sustainable consumption” will require all of us to think twice about what we plan on consuming. Making everything last a little bit longer sounds like a small and piecemeal approach to a hugely complex problem – but like reusable grocery bags, it’s a small solution that lies easily within our grasp.

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