When Apple started its journey to become the first $1 trillion dollar company... is when the planet began to burn
Two stories from the world's no. 1 newspaper of record came to our attention today, and made our heads spin.
From the article:
Apple’s ascent from the brink of bankruptcy to the world’s most valuable public company has been a business tour de force, marked by rapid innovation, a series of smash-hit products and the creation of a sophisticated, globe-spanning supply chain that keeps costs down while producing enormous volumes of cutting-edge devices.
That ascent has also been marked by controversy, tragedy and challenges. Apple’s aggressive use of outside manufacturers in China, for example, has led to criticism that it is taking advantage of poorly paid workers in other countries and robbing Americans of good manufacturing jobs. The company faces numerous questions about how it can continue to grow.
From the intro to the article:
This narrative is a work of history, addressing the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989: the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change... It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe. It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.
* * *
Did you notice the turning point? Just as Apple starts the long road towards mega-profitability - all those supply-chains straddling the planet - the NYT essay marks that as the point where the fight to stop climate change lost its first victory.
At one point it tells the story of November 1989 International Panel for Climate change, held at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. After a decade of patient scientific activism, at the last moment the US, Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union declined to commit to freeze emissions, despite warnings about forthcoming climate instability and rising waters, which would be familiar today. As the article relates:
More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it. In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. By 2017, the figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons, a record. Despite every action taken since the Charney report — the billions of dollars invested in research, the nonbinding treaties, the investments in renewable energy — the only number that counts, the total quantity of global greenhouse gas emitted per year, has continued its inexorable rise.
Like the scientific story, the political story hasn’t changed greatly, except in its particulars. Even some of the nations that pushed hardest for climate policy have failed to honor their own commitments. When it comes to our own nation, which has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians.
As for Apple, for all its attempts at material recycling, it is still impossible to buy a fully ethical smartphone. Its mineral and technical inputs, from so many parts of the globe, are so diverse, feeding that very "supply-chain" which enables its global dominance.
The ambivalence of the moment is almost overwhelming. Has the sheer ease and fluidity of Apple's designs, the near-magical powers of its software and apps, seduced us into forgetting the difficulties of our material world - a plenitude of information in our hand, and a planet straining at its limits beyond?
Or could this same device, filled with more appropriate systems, be a way for us to calibrate and control our material impact upon our planet's systems? Why couldn't a smartphone be the place at which the great measurement of the flows of our planet - promised by the internet of things, satellite imaging and blockchain - bears down upon our own behaviour?
What stops us inventing this? (See Vinay Gupta's FutureFest presentation for a dramatic posing of these questions).
* * *
The NYTimes climate piece - which ends on a note of irrational hopefulness, rather than faith in yet more scientific numbers - has already been taken to task by Naomi Klein. In The Intercept, Klein wants to make it very clear that our recent decades of sharp capitalism (our current arrangement of laws, technology and markets) are almost entirely to blame for our climate predicament. (What some are insisting should be called the "capitalocene", rather than just the "anthropocene").
She is placing her faith in the post-Sanders generation of political leaders:
Perhaps most importantly, this new generation of leaders isn’t interested in scapegoating “humanity” for the greed and corruption of a tiny elite. It seeks instead to help humanity — particularly its most systematically unheard and uncounted members — to find their collective voice and power so they can stand up to that elite.
We aren’t losing earth — but the earth is getting so hot so fast that it is on a trajectory to lose a great many of us. In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself. This is no moment to bemoan our lost decades. It’s the moment to get the hell on that path.
Will angry exhortation work, where intergovernmental summit after intergovernmental summit has not? Does fear and trembling spur us to act to save the planet, or joy and conviviality? (A debate on each side of this has been going on between the notable Transition Towners Ted Trainer and Rob Hopkins).
Yet sometimes, the great contending forces of the world - a commerce based on infinite growth, and a planet with finite material limits - can illuminate each other, rather than pass by in darkness. That's still the job of a great paper of record like the NYTimes.