Monday, June 26, 2017

Coltan, The Congo and The Bite in the Apple

In my last blog, The Tree of Life and Knowledge, I wrote about the separation of life and knowledge throughout human history -
how we have overreached since the Paleolithic. The excessive use of our technology lead to the end of one culture, one civilization, after another - and now threatens our very planet.

There is another way we separate life from knowledge, and that is the great divide between all the information we receive through our digital devices, and the lives of those who have mined the materials and manufactured those instruments.
Though all cell phones use the material I’ll be discussing, I am going to focus on Apple, given that fruit as a symbol of knowledge, going back in our history.   Full disclosure: I am neither a technophobe nor techno-refuser, and I own Apple devices, including the one I am typing on.

The need for constant information, constant connection and entertainment, has  been implanted in us over the years and to some degree we might equate it with happiness. So let’s begin on the knowledge side of our great divide, and describe a visit to our local « temple » of information:  
When you enter an Apple store, it is so white and brightly lit, it practically gleams.  

You look at the new iPhones, and the staff  tell you all the things the new one can do that your old one  cannot. 
New features, faster and smarter, plus an updated version of the genie named Siri, who will give you even more information, get you places faster, and play whatever song you ask for, and find your lunch…your Handmaiden? Your new sense of well-being comes in a white box, your phone and cords cradled within as though they were handing you the Holy Babe.   

Is there a cost here, beside what you just paid?  Some of you may have seen the documentary made in the factories in China where your iPhone is made: The racket, the long hours, the lack of any concern for the well-being of the workers, the exhaustion. We all know that the exploitation of a cheap labor force is responsible for most of the products and clothes we have in our homes, though we may be reluctant to acknowledge that.

But there is another misfortune, and that is the condition of the miners in the Congo who provide us with the Bright and Shiny. We’re going to  leave our gleaming white world and enter the dark world we also have created, for isn’t the Congo the stereotypical heart of darkness in the Western mind? And since that post-colonial black jungle of our imagination does not shed light, what could we possibly know of the conditions where an essential ingredient is mined?

Our technologies require minerals and metals. One is coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore.When coltan is refined it  can hold a high electric charge, and that’s what capacitors need - and capacitors keep all of our devices charged.  80% of all coltan comes from the Congo, and it is the very definition of a conflict mineral - a substance that is mined in a place where the profits finance militias who enact terror.

There have been wars raging in the eastern Congo since 1994. 5.4 million have died, 3 million have been displaced, a million women raped. It is considered the worst conflict since WWII.  (Council on Foreign Relations).

I interviewed Chingwell Mutombu about the conditions in her country. She described an entire generation dislocated or dead, and thousands of children adrift without parents - 8 and 9 year olds now head of families, trying to provide for younger sisters and brothers. It is these children who can be found working for pennies in the rebel-run mines. The maximum wage is about $5 a day. No food is available, nor medical care. The miners have no machinery, no tools beyond their hands and shovels, if they can afford one.  They work 12 hours a day. Coltan is mined with sluice boxes, the same method used by gold miners in 1849. 

The UN has accused Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda of smuggling coltan over borders to be processed into an essential powder in China - or claiming that their companies own the smelters for the process. Coltan is also processed in other countries, like Brazil and Japan, who claim not to use the ore from conflict mines. But how do they know?

In June 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs admitted the depth of the problem in an email sent to a reporter at Wired magazine: “Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.” (


Apple admits they use coltan mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo to make the smartphones that fuel our 24 hour lifestyle:  "Apple remains committed to driving economic development and creating opportunities to source conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries,’ Apple told the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2015. Apple says its suppliers must adhere to its code. » (Newsweek) Apple does attempt to check on the coltan supplied from the DRC, but the problem of determining from which mine a processed powder comes from is still very difficult.

There is much more to this story, including SEC attempts at regulation and UN involvement. There are Multilayer Ceramic Capacitors (MLCCs) that do not need coltan. They are used for MRIs and other devices, and could be modified for cell phones - but their cost would be slightly higher and their use would lower profits. No comment necessary, right?

The sleek phones cradled in their white packaging are the end product of terror and tragedy. The mining of coltan is a pernicious activity based on the exploitation of desperate people. It is a very dark example of how we literally enslave people, denying  their autonomy, their dignity, and finally, given the dangers of the work, we may deny them their very lives. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the separation of life and knowledge.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Tree of Life and Knowledge


      It began with a print I have of a Sumerian seal - priestesses surround a tree and hold out the branches so we can see the fruit. It’s called The Tree of Life and Knowledge. One tree? But I was raised with two: one of life and one of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Even side by side, didn’t life and knowledge long for each other? Has it ever been the same since the two were separated? Is that the human condition, that life and knowledge separate?  
I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I recommend to anyone interested in How It Has Been, and what I learned began with The People Who Painted the Caves. How fascinated I have been with paleolithic art - attending workshops, lectures, films, and actually entering one - dispensing my own and others' theories on shamanic naturalism - a realism not snatched from the mythic again until the Renaissance. 
Chauvet Cave, Ardeche, France
Early modern humans became proficient at hunting. Their stone weapons continually improved - sharper, stronger, lighter. Their population rose.   Have you imagined one man, or one troupe tracking a huge animal for hours? I have. But "some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size; a thousand mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another. » (P. 38) And then there was nothing to sustain them. 
They had overreached. They did not know how, or weren’t willing, to change course, and they disappeared. So 40,000 years ago, we were doing the same thing - separating life and knowledge - that we do now. 

The Sumerians also overreached. Their brilliant use of irrigation changed villages into towns, and towns into great cities. But civilizations use massive resources, and when the trees were turned into timber, and the great mats of roots and mosses no longer held in the soil, the flash floods began, and later when more powerful floods broke through the dams, vast quantities of water surged - and we get the story of the Flood. Their gods saw humans as dangerous. They had sinned against the earth itself, and the gods set out to destroy them, which is what it must feel like when your dams break. 
Athens? Apparently the Athenians we're worried about deforestation in the sixth century B.C.E! A couple hundred years later Plato, in the Critias, lamented the ecological damage that had been  done: 
What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man all the fat and soft earth have washed away…… mountains..had trees not very long ago. The land was enriched by the yearly rains which were not lost to it as is now…… Springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandon shrines remain to show where the Springs once flowed.

That last line really captured me. I wrote this poem:

  Delphi, denuded

                                  Now only abandoned shrines remain to  
show where the springs once flowed                                                                 Plato  Critias 
Remnants    rubble   crumbled marble 
                           One formerly holy slab at the center  
   Imagine Pythia the Oracle  her long hair tangled 

        in everyone’s fate
           still listening for Gaea 
      No  Pythia    

           someone was blinded looking into the sun
                  and named their assailant Apollo  
               You are no longer speaking for Her
                       now you incant  enchant  intone 
                            for the light of the world   
The spring  

      it always says the shrines were centered at a spring  
          long dried up   after the trees were felled  
             now the site is nearly naked   a few bushes  
                  three standing columns   a bit of lintel 
         just enough to let you know this was the omphalos  the navel

Those blue-black treeless mountains  above  unembarrassed by   

      their bare breasts          
          the mountains are just like us  they have lost their memory  
                we think the mountains were always that way   
                   And I can’t even end with Pythia’s voice
                                still present in the wind 
              because the wind  my friends  is as empty as the shrine

The examples of civilizations that have peaked, overreached continues in our own day. The separation of knowledge and life is a feature of our time. It would take the rest of this page to detail the post-industrial processes feeding the smelter of progress that have leached, leaked and released sickening or deadly chemicals into our lives. 
We will not admit to any limits. Science depends on and demands the freedom to explore without boundaries. What could we do next? Assemble a robotic human? Clone a woman? Who has ever known a human who said, in advance of experimentation, this could lead to disaster, so I’ll stop?

Not only have life and knowledge been separated, but knowledge itself has been disdained, discredited.  David A. Baker writes:

The separation of knowledge from life is one of the tragedies of our time.  Immersed in technology, we become addicted to transient knowledge which has little to do with life or the organic structure of our own lives.
Knowledge supports life when an elder teaches a child how to plant; when medications and medical techniques are created for our benefit, not profit; when a composer uses his skills to create a sound world for us, or our leaders stop denying reality and work to create a sustainable world that is sound. Knowledge supports life when the ripe, fragile fruit of life, and the varieties of knowledge, grow together on our family tree.