“There are almost seven billion people in the world. Since it is not ecologically sustainable for each one of those people to use a computer, why you?”
These words, spoken by Ethan Hughes to a small group of us visiting the Possibility Alliance, have made a lasting impression on me. His question, pointed at the privilege that I take for granted, and backed by the weight of sobering statistics about the destructive effects computers have on God’s creation, has triggered my decision to give up the personal use of computers by the end of 2011.1
Already, because of my birth in the United States to educated parents, and as a white woman who has had the opportunity to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees at prestigious universities, I am one of the most privileged people on earth. Doors are open to me that will never be open to the vast majority of the world’s population. So, for me, the use of a computer—the very creation of which wreaks havoc on the environment and thus the lives of the poor—is an unjust way to capitalize even further on such privilege. And that privilege means that I continue to benefit from a tool that is, with few exceptions, only available to those select few across the globe with access to the dominant structures in society: money, citizenship, education, and power.
When reflecting on my decision, three major regrets come to mind: the loss of a form of communication with my family, from whom I live a great distance; the loss of a helpful tool for writing and promoting ideas; and, lastly, the loss of a capacity to organize around issues of peace and justice. Without a computer it will be much less convenient (though with some creativity still quite possible) to continue to communicate with those I love, to edit and publish my writing, and to stay connected to international issues about which I am passionate. Perhaps in lacking such conveniences, and joining more fully one of the 93% of the global population that does not own a computer, I will be able to divest myself of some tiny portion of privilege and begin to balance the playing field.
Admittedly, there are a lot of good things that can be done with computers. Computers are tools through which communities of people who are spread out over large geographical distances (like Jesus Radicals) exchange ideas and coordinate gatherings in a relatively efficient manner. The computer has served as a means through which activists can promote awareness about important causes. It has given wide access of information to millions; it has enabled musicians and other artists to promote their own material; it has acted as a means through which those physically unable to speak can communicate their thoughts… to name but a few.
So if the computer has done so much good, then why should I go without? Well, first, I am not one of those physically unable to speak; I am not an underprivileged person in need of more access to the benefits of a wealthy society. So, while I believe that our world would be much better off if everybody stopped using computers (and below I will offer a myriad of reasons for this), in this essay I primarily speak for myself and for my fellow privileged brothers and sisters in the U.S., who in fact own 40% of all computers in the world. Not only have we hoarded more than our fair share, but, as we shall see below, our greediness is shockingly destructive to our world and to the lives of the poor:
- The manufacturing of each one of the 130 million new computers produced annually takes 500 lbs of fossil fuels, 47 lbs of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water (in a world where 1/3 of the human population does not have access to clean drinking water). 2
- Contrary to the belief that computers save paper, there has actually been a 40% increase in paper usage since the advent of computers, as people now have easy access to printing.
- It takes over 26 countries and 200,000 miles of transport to supply the materials for one computer.
- Each year, between 5 and 7 million tons of e-waste (trashed toxic components of computers that are impossible to recycle) is created. 3 The majority of this is sent to China, India, South Asia, and Pakistan, as it is cheaper to send trash abroad than to deal with it domestically.
- More than two thousand materials are used in the production of just one microchip (which is smaller than your pinky fingernail), a single component of one machine: given this, it is next to impossible for human rights watchdog groups to track the origin of all the materials that go into making an entire computer. It can be safely assumed, though, that all of the same problematic mining practices of environmental contamination, health problems, and human rights violations (for the gold, tantalum, copper, aluminum, lead, zinc, nickel, tin, silver, iron, mercury, cobalt, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium that are used in computer manufacturing) are involved.” 4
- Silicon Valley has so many toxic contaminated sites linked to former high-tech development that it has among the highest concentration of Superfund sites – U.S. government’s list of sites so contaminated with toxins that they qualify for priority cleanup programs – in the country. 5 Recently, though, much of the high-tech production has moved out of Silicon Valley and to Asia and Latin America, as companies seek lower wages and less stringent worker safety and environmental regulations.6 (I think we can all guess whom such pollution effects first: the poor who live downstream from toxic waste sites, and who don’t have the power to fight against their existence.)
- Big name brand computer companies are infamous for pressuring manufacturers and suppliers to lower expenses and prices and to lengthen working hours in order to make and sell the components cheaply.7
- Those who work in the computer manufacturing industry are routinely exposed to contaminants that have been proven to cause respiratory diseases, kidney and liver damage, cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects like spina bifida, blindness, and missing or deformed limbs. 8
Knowing all of this, if I neither want to mine the parts for, nor build, a computer myself, nor want any member of my family to do so, then why would I ask somebody else, somebody less privileged than myself, to do it for me?
There exist other compelling arguments – social, psychological, physical, and spiritual – against the use of the computer. I’m sure you are familiar with many of them, so I will only touch on a few: the average American child spends 30 hours a week in front of a screen, no doubt contributing to the worrying rise in obesity, diabetes, and other related diseases, as well as exposing children to more violence and pornography with which they would otherwise come into contact; since 90% of human communication is nonverbal, the pervasiveness of email, Facebook, iPhones, and other forms of electronic interaction have led to the loss of much authentic communication in relationships; as both spiritual and physical beings, created by God to be in the material world, such mediated access to our environment stymies our access to the divine.
But the number one reason that I believe radical Christians who wish to live in a just society should give up computers is that computers make us reliant on the empire we claim to resist. Both the manufacturing and the running of computers require strip mining and the extraction of fossil fuels (neither of which tasks do many radicals perform in order to power the use of their own technology). I think it is safe to say that many people reading this article oppose the practices, if not the existence, of the U.S. military. Yet most of the funding for computer science research, on whose benefits computer usage depends, comes from the military. Worse, it is due to the military’s occupation of foreign lands that we have easy access to resources like oil and other materials we need to run our high-tech lifestyles. If we believe in a world where military and corporate domination do not exist, then we need to start practicing for that world. And as far as I can see, such a world cannot have computers.
Counter arguments to my assertion do exist, though, and I’m sure many of you will comment on them. One might point to the Iranian revolution as an example of the good work of computer technology. Others could point to the good that comes from the exchange of ideas on this very website, on which I am posting this article. Ultimately, however, if we cannot find more creative ways to communicate with each other, and if our revolution depends on the benefits of oppression in order to grow and thrive, then our “revolution” will only bolster, lend credence to, and finance the very injustice we seek to destroy.
I ask you the same question I posed at the beginning, the question posed to me a few months ago, and hope that you give it some serious thought: if it is destructive for seven billion people on earth to own a computer, why should you?
Needless to say, I am currently typing these words on a computer. And for the next ten months, I will continue to type, though hopefully with less and less frequency. I would like to communicate my plans to my family and close friends, so that they can be more prepared for a time when I am no longer able to be contacted via email. But I am excited to say that, as wonderful as it has been to write for this website and exchange ideas with fellow Christian anarchists, this will be my last posting.
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- I say I will give up the personal use of computers, because I realize it is currently beyond my ability and imagination right now to stop using the computers that are involved in my daily activities like using public transportation, banks, or telephones, or purchase anything. One exception I may make to the personal computer ban is if I travel to Occupied Palestine or another area where extreme oppression is taking place. Then I may use a computer as a means to communicate such injustices. However, I have not yet made this decision. ↩
- Unless otherwise footnoted, the facts in this article come from the following books or articles: Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander; Stuff: the Secret Lives of Everyday Things, by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning; Living Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber; and State of the World 2004, Special Focus: The Consumer Society by the World Institute. Keep in mind that some of these statistics are from 2004 and 1998, so they may be slightly outdated. ↩
- The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard, 2010, p. 58 ↩
- ibid, p. 58 ↩
- ibid ↩
- ibid, 57-58 ↩
- ibid ↩
- ibid ↩