中国与世界,环境危机大家谈

china and the world discuss the environment

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The struggle for green computing

Bill Thompson

Readinch

China’s campaigners against pollution in the IT industry are bringing tall tales about clean computing back down to earth, writes Bill Thompson.

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A tale is sometimes told of clean computing and the power of information technology to save the world through the effective management of resources, the accurate modelling of climate change and the deployment of a global sensor network of enormous power. I know, because I’ve written it myself.

Such tales envisage massive server farms packed with disks, memory and processors, located in remote areas, powered by clean renewable electricity and providing cloud-based computing wherever it is needed to iPad-wielding masses.

They rarely mention the mines that despoil the landscape in order to gain access to the rare minerals needed to make chips and batteries, the polluted water supplies around refineries and fabrication plants, or the rest of the environmental degradation that is the result of manufacturing the components of the digital age. 

Yet around the world we see the damage that has been done as we rush to build the latest, fastest devices without considering the larger cost, and governments continue to encourage firms to see environmental impact as an externality – a cost that does not need to be factored into cash-flows, quarterly-earnings reports and business plans.

The efforts of campaigners like Ma Jun and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (see “China’s heavy-metal challenge” ) should give us all hope that things can be changed. Watching Chinese NGOs engage with major electronics brands to ensure that standards are adhered to – forcing them to listen to the voices of those living in the regions directly affected by toxic spills, poor environmental controls and other bad practice – should be an inspiration to those of us who benefit from the technologies but have not, so far, had to bear the environmental price.

Earlier campaigns about workers’ rights or the exploitation of children took years to achieve traction, partly because of resistance on the part of the major brands involved to disclose details of their operation but also because of the effort taken to persuade consumers to care about who made the products they bought so eagerly.

But IPE and the other organisations in China have one advantage over the earlier campaigns, and that is the nature of the businesses they are targeting. It’s reasonable to assume that anyone buying an Apple, HP or Sony product is online, while not everyone who buys a Gap t-shirt or wears Nike sneakers is going to be connected.  

The IT pollution campaign is struggling against many obstacles, not least the high levels of secrecy which most computing brands insist on from their suppliers. This, coupled with what seems a deliberate unwillingness to keep track of the second-tier suppliers that make components for them, makes good information about who is providing what very difficult to come by. 

But once the information is out there – and I don’t want to downplay the effort that will be needed to get that information – then it will spread quickly around the world using the very networks and devices that have been built at such cost to the environment and to the lives of those living in Fujian province or elsewhere in China and other manufacturing countries. We need to make sure that the connected world does its part in ensuring that this happens and that the pressure is maintained.

Bill Thompson is an English journalist, commentator and technology critic. His weekly column appears in the technology section of the BBC News website, and he contributes to other publications both on and off-line, including The Guardian, The Register and the New Statesman.

Homepage image by Dirk Gently

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电子设备依赖于不可持续性

从商业角度讲,将至关重要的、越来越稀少的矿产低价出售是不明智的。然而这正是中国目前的所做所为。

中国将成为资源密集、不可循环而且污染的电子设备供应全球市场的主导者——广告商们引导消费者更频繁地更换这些电子设备,花掉他们(或者他们父母的越来越单薄)的可支配收入来购买最新款式。而中国目前所做的将会缩短这一时期。

此外,大量此类设备在当下如此低价是因为他们的原材料依赖于与环境的冲突(例如,刚果民主共和国东部)。这些设备是不可持续的。

Electronic devices depend on unsustainability

It is commercially unwise to sell crucial and increasingly rare minerals cheaply. Yet this is precisely what China is doing.

China is about to become the leading provider of resource-intensive, non-recyclable electronic devices that are contaminating the global market - advertisers drive consumers to change their electronic devices more frequently and spend their (or their parents’ increasingly meager) disposable income on the latest model. Yet all that China is doing will shorten this period of time.

In addition, many such devices are currently as cheap as they are because they use raw materials which depend on conflict (for example, in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo). These devices are unsustainable.


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