One of the many kinds of sustainability enigmas involve balancing the hidden social and environmental costs to produce and dispose of information technologies with the astounding array of diverse positive benefits of these technologies.
Computers, cell phones, and other electronic tools and toys continue to become increasingly important to more people, and in more ways. Though the lives of millions of us center on computers and electronic equipment, most of us tend not to think too deeply about how these devices are created, or how they are disposed of. Here in the Portland area, there seem to be some solutions to the disposal of superseded gadgets. The Metro Regional Government provides e-waste recycling, and Free Geek refurbishes old equipment and provides them at low- or no-cost to people and organizations in need.
How do we compare and balance the obvious importance of these technologies with the very real social, economic, and environmental issues posed by the creation and disposal of this stuff?
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Consider the following situations:
** A committed social justice organization increases its productivity, grows its network, and expands its positive impacts in the local area through the use of computers and other information technologiesthe same kinds of technologies produced in areas lacking fundamental labor regulations and disposed of in ways that release potent toxins into the environment and that are absorbed into the bodies of children disassembling these devices.
** An academic concerned with global climate changes caused by the release of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels travels across the country by way of a commercial airliner to attend a sustainability-themed environmental history conference.
** Over the span of a few years, artists and “bohemians”predominately whitemove into a neighborhood where rents and mortgages are inexpensive relative to the rest of the city. These new residents open new businesses, gradually increasing property values, which then entices (predominately white) real estate speculators. The previous residents of the areapredominately peoples of colorfind themselves hard-pressed to afford the increased property taxes and begin to move away. Within a few more years, the former neighborhood sustains a revitalized business district, new construction & remodeling projects abound, and the city is receiving a much-increased level of business and property taxes. However, the historic character of the area no longer exists, and the area’s ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity has been thoroughly transformed (and much more homogenized).
These real-world cases illustrate a pattern that is worthy of our attention. Quite often, when we probe beyond surface-level observations of our lives in the early twenty-first century, we face confounding complexities that complicate what we had been taking for granted; what we may have thought to be a clear-cut narrative of environmental, economic, or social progress can turn out to be, in fact, a sloppier story toned not in black-&-white but in varied shades of grey.
As we assert in our working definition of “sustainability,” benefits and costs introduce complexities into any analysis of sustainable practices. We can learn things of value if we consciously and squarely confront these complexities. Intellectually working-through the resultant enigmas can help us uncover important roots and threads of pressing issues, and identifying such things can help us become more informed citizens and more empathetic community members.
This will be the inaugural post in an ongoing series about the enigmas, riddles, and conundrums of sustainability. Other posts in these series can be found under the Enigmas of Sustainability category in the sidebar of the Sustainability History Project website.
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