Fetish night at Bruntwood: sustainability gets VERY interesting. #Manchester #climate

Cross posted from here.

Not that kind of fetish (sorry for the clickbaiting). I mean the original, anthropological meaning of “fetish” – a god that we create, then forget that we created as we come to worship it. That kind of fetish was being discussed tonight at the latest and best-I’ve-been-to meeting of the excellent “North West Sustainable Business Quarterly” meeting, held on the 24th story of Bruntwood’s City Tower (#greatviews).

The events are organised by Anthesis, hosted by Bruntwood, with scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food, locally-sourced where possible, by Good Mood Food an offshoot of the charity Manchester Mind. These evenings are free to attend and have lasted where others fell by the wayside simply because they always deliver reasonable-to-brilliant speakers and reasonable-to-brilliant discussion and networking opportunities. Now, back to the fetishes….

A chap called Mark Shayler got us thinking about where the ‘stuff’ in our offices comes from (and what our offices ARE these days, and the shrinking time from waking-to-screen (1), but I’ve digressed enough). He decided to hone in on one thing, that we all have – mobile devices, be they laptops, tablets or mobile phones. And what has made the miniaturization possible? Capacitors (think Random Access Memory, but for electricity). And what do you need to make capacitors? Columbite Tantalite (“Coltan”). And where does the coltan mostly come from? “The Democratic Republic of Congo” (“Zaire” to us fossils). And does the coltan come from nice regulated mines with a unionised workforce and health and safety inspectors? Not so much, no. Think dead gorillas and street kids who are lucky if they are big enough to wield an AK-47, because the other job prospects are even worse. So much I knew. But Shayler then went on to explain that far more than the official 14% of the world’s coltan comes from Congo – neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, for example, export the stuff, without having any mines of their own. Anyway, from there it goes to Japan, for processing, along with coltan from North America and Australia. Then it turns into those capacitors (remember) in Taiwan, and from there goes to China to be put into the circuit boards of all the little devices we now have. And that’s when the transparency of it, such as it is, disappears, along with huge amounts of water that are needed to wash these products. (2) And then it finds its way onto the shelves of the great god “Consumers”, to be used for a year or three, or until it is unfashionable. And then, it sits forgotten in a drawer, or is ‘recycled’, earning the recycler moral absolution, at least in their own minds.

This is standard Global Value Chain/Network analysis (see this blog I did on tuna), but Shayler did it very well.

He talked within this about the perverse incentives within the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (doing it by weight is not so smart – the Japanese and Chinese do it better, it seems).

He then went on to talk about the huge growth of the Chinese middle-class (hundreds of millions) and the fact that the two things Britain does – design and money (i.e. financial engineering) are both eminently exportable. He made a plea (and yes, you can call it Corbynite social democratic fantasy-land if you like) for a Britain that makes stuff – he reeled of the names and achievements of relatives “now dead, along with the skills they had.”

In his talk he also gave a shout out to a chap who set up a charity called “Falling Whistles”. I defy you to read about that without getting a lump in your thoat.

Shayler closed out his talk with a frank admission that what we’ve been doing in terms of both production and consumption, and attempts to improve it, have been grossly inadequate, and that there are going to have to be some pretty fundamental changes, but that he- like anyone who’s honest- doesn’t have any road maps to get us to the sunny uplands.

Following him was a very very tall order. Somehow Tracey Rawling Church managed it, even when talking about something as ‘mundane’ as the ‘printer zoo’ (of companies with lots of different devices). She is the CSR lead for a business-to-business printer company called Kyocera, which was founded by a Japanese chap who is now a Buddhist monk. They’re moving away from selling the hardware to facilitating the exchange of information, and that’s where most of their revenue comes from these days (a fairly rapid 80/20 reversal in five years). Normally I’d fall asleep with my eyes open (and then snore) if someone used the phrase “servitised document environment”, but I find stories of companies that are big enough to survive, but nimble enough to adapt, quite fascinating (Alcoa under Paul O’Neill, for example). But she also didn’t pretend that a little efficiency nip and tuck here and there is an adequate response to the challenges we face… Then it was over to (a slightly truncated) Q and A before discussions on tables and then networking/schmoozing.

Concepts readers of this blog might like to look into

Compulsory consumption

So, I got soaked cycling home. And the cat was angry with me for deserting it (I’m forgiven now of course). Was it worth it? I went for the food, thinking the talks would be mostly warmed-over ecological modernisation. I got a pleasant surprise tonight. Did both the speakers overrun? Yes. Normally that pisses me off, but the chair wisely let them run, even though it ate into the Q and A. Was it worth the soaking and the feline strop? Bloody hell yes.

Footnotes

  1. Today I was extolling the wonders of “Shut Up and Write” days to my two supervisors. They were both incredulous – ‘Isn’t every day shut up and write day?’ #oldskool #goodpoint

  2. On the subject of water – Saudi Arabia has finally stopped using its fossil aquifers for growing wheat. They might have clocked that’s not the smartest thing to have done, given what’s coming…

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