March 08, 2011

iPhone Apps, Conflict Minerals, and Awareness

Last Thursday, our Editor & Publisher James posted the blog What kind of Buddhist iPhone app do you want? As you can probably guess (and as is stated in the blog), we are looking into developing one and would like feedback about what exactly people would like to see in a Tricycle app.

On Friday I posted James' blog to our Facebook page. We received several responses, good ideas, people wanting us to be less iPhone specific (Blackberry and Android) etc. Then this comment was posted:

The Genocide Behind Your Smart Phone

Now I'm pretty sure that anyone with any type of web presence is used to receiving contrarian and often snarky replies to web posts, but when I saw this comment I could see clearly that this was NOT the situation in this case. It was, in fact, a caring person raising a legitimate concern about an issue that effects many people. So I read the article.

It begins,

It takes a lot to snap people out of apathy about Africa's problems. But in the wake of Live Aid and Save Darfur, a new cause stands on the cusp of going mainstream. It's the push to make major electronics companies (manufacturers of cell phones, laptops, portable music players, and cameras) disclose whether they use "conflict minerals" -- the rare metals that finance civil wars and militia atrocities, most notably in Congo.

The issue of ethical sourcing has long galvanized human-rights groups. In Liberia, Angola, and Sierra Leone, the notorious trade in "blood diamonds" helped fund rebel insurgencies. In Guinea, bauxite sustains a repressive military junta. And fair-labor groups have spent decades documenting the foreign sweatshops that sometimes supply American clothing stores. Yet Congo raises especially disturbing issues for famous tech brand names that fancy themselves responsible corporate citizens.

A key mover behind the Congo campaign is the anti-genocide Enough Project: witness its clever spoof of the famous Apple commercial. Major names like Hillary Clinton and Nicole Richie have gotten on board. And the timing is perfect: new rules requiring American-listed companies to improve their supply-chain transparency are folded into the financial-reform bill that passed Congress this week. continued

(I recommend reading the whole piece here.)

I then posted this response to the Facebook thread.

Thanks for the comments and ideas everybody.
@[name removed], Thank you for the link. I agree that tech companies must do everything possible to ensure that components of their products don't come from conflict minerals. The Enough Campaign has my full support.

A discussion was actually taking place earlier today in the Tricycle office (as it often does) about how we, as practitioners, should not "look away" from tough issues. Wisdom and compassion must manifest in how we live in the world, not just on the meditation cushion.

As the article states,
"Enough and its allies believe awareness drives better policy."
Tricycle believes the same.

Now, it's a few days later and I'm still thinking about the situation. After a few more rounds of reading up at Enough's website, I figured it would probably be best to write this blog and open up the conversation to a larger audience than only those that just happened to have read the comments on one of Tricycle's many Facebook posts.

My intuition from the get-go told me that the Right Action in this case is not simply "boycotting technology" but rather, to raise awareness and to do whatever we can to hold those that we rely on for our technological needs accountable. But is that enough?

As another person of Facebook posted,

It's not just the tech companies that have to do everything possible to ensure they're conflict-mineral free. It's the people who purchase the items who drive the economy and what is 'acceptable' corporately. If no one cares (and few people give it a first, much less second, thought) and buy them anyway, the companies that produce such items won't care, either.

I am once again reminded of the truth of interdependence.

When thinking about this issue from the perspective of being an employee of Tricycle, I am reminded that one of the reasons that we have such an active web effort (and want to do things like create smartphone apps) is our ongoing efforts to "Go Green." Because of the digital facsimile edition of the magazine, Tricycle Retreats, our extensive archives of previously published work, and our ability to email/post/tweet teachings and information, more and more of our members are joining the Tricycle Community online. We are rapidly gaining more and more Supporting Members, a membership option that does not include a subscription to the physical magazine—which, despite the use of recycled paper, still requires the consumption of natural resources to be printed. But alas, as we save trees on the green front, the problem of conflict-minerals presents itself on the tech front. Sometimes I wonder if monastics and ascetics really are the only practitioners that truly abide by Right Action! It is times like these that I want to leave New York and spend the rest of my life in a monastery or a mountainous cave. Nevertheless, I am a householder and I am committed to living in this world, despite all of its endless complexity and frustrating ambiguity.

Frankly, I don't know what the solutions to all the world's environmental and socio-political problems are, but I am happy that I am writing this right now and I appreciate you reading it. As stated above, "awareness drives better policies." Whether these are the policies of how one relates to their own mind or the policies of corporations and governments, I know this to be true.

Monty McKeever
Assistant to the Editor & Publisher/Associate Web Editor

"The way we live our daily lives is what most effects the situation of the world. If we can change our daily lives, then we can change our governments and can change the world. Our president and governments are us. They reflect our lifestyle and our way of thinking. The way we hold a cup of tea, pick up the newspaper or even use toilet paper are directly related to peace."
-Thich Nhat Hanh


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Dolgyal's picture

This piece was posted on Phayul, the presence of elements of the periodic table creeping in to the food chain of 1.3 billion Chinese friends is a major concern–when it comes to Mercury in particular, zero tolerance should be the target we aspire to:

"After taking samples from more than 100 kinds of rice collected in six agricultural regions in 2007, researchers found that 10 per cent of them was laced with cadmium This week's edition of the New Century magazine cited studies showing that large amounts of Chinese rice have been tainted with heavy metals like cadmium due to years of pollution stemming from the nation's rapid economic growth.

"During China's fast-paced industrialisation, activities such as mining have sprung up everywhere, releasing into the environment chemical elements like cadmium, arsenic, mercury and other harmful heavy metals," the report said.
"In areas with acidic soil that are known to be badly polluted, we have found that up to 60 percent of the rice samples gathered there surpass cadmium standards," Pan, a scientist with Nanjing Agricultural University, told AFP."

However he added that while cadmium levels were sometimes five times higher than government standards, the problem represented a "potential health risk" rather than dangerous "acute toxicity". Most at risk from high cadmium levels were subsistence farmers in polluted areas who mainly live on the rice they grow, Pan said.

Of the major grains, rice has the strongest ability to absorb cadmium, which often seeps into water used for irrigation near mines, especially those that extract lead, tin and copper, the report said. The magazine report said, however, that no major investigations into the possible public health impact have been carried out.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for the info and link Dolgyal, much appreciated.

Dolgyal's picture

"Without lithium batteries cell phones would be a completely different animal. Bigger and heavier, you wouldn’t be stuffing one into a pant’s pocket. Now that the standard is set the cell phone industry is reliant on lithium for its existence.
Chabyer salt lake, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, at an elevation of 14,400 feet (4,400 meters) is not only the largest lithium mine in China but also one of the three largest salt lakes in the world. Chabyer now makes Tibet the No. 1 area in the world in terms of prospective lithium reserves, according to the China Tibet Information Center."