A cellphone is a marvel of human ingenuity. You have the world in the palm of your hand. You can reach around the globe in milliseconds, to communicate, to gather information, and to see current events unfold, all in vibrant color, no less. Novel technology such as this, developed at a dizzying rate, is key to a thriving global economy as manufacturers vie to offer consumers ever-newer products that are faster and have more applications. One can only wonder what amazing innovation is on the horizon. But do you ever wonder where all the stuff inside that cellphone—that allows all that technological wizardry to come alive—comes from?
That stuff also connects us globally, between urban locations where technology is manufactured and used, and wilderness locations that provide the raw materials. This connection interweaves our global high-tech economy with another thriving economy with equal or even better capacity to innovate. That economy is nature. And our connections to it are expanding and deepening as demand for new products leads to the extraction of more and different raw materials. In the 1980s, electronics manufacturing used 11 major elements of the periodic table. It now uses about 60 (two-thirds of the periodic table!).
Extraction, however, often leads to collateral environmental damage that jeopardizes nature’s economy, made up of species whose functions are also key to sustaining a thriving global society. This environmental damage is considered a great tragedy of our consumerism. Yet tragedy can be avoided, while still sustaining our high-tech economy, by applying lessons from nature. And the need for consumerism becomes part of that lesson.
Individual species thrive in nature’s economy by following a simple game plan: consume the most resources possible by whatever means it takes, including outwitting your competitors and enemies, and establishing cooperative relations. Species innovate—evolve—many different strategies for success, leading to a wide and complex variety of ways to thrive. All this complexity is fascinating, to be sure.
But fundamentally, nature’s economy is sustained because species forge connections that create a grand circular economy in which materials are produced, consumed and decomposed, and then reused. In this economy, controlling feedbacks emerge that ensure materials are perpetually recycled and redistributed to sustain the productivity and environmental quality that supports life. But our modern high-tech economy typically doesn’t work like this. It instead involves a linear one-way chain in which raw materials are extracted from nature, turned into value-added goods, sold to consumers, and discarded once they exceed their useful life. Manufacturing then returns to nature to procure more and different raw materials.
Many of these materials are Rare Earth elements. They are essential for such things as increasing the storage capacity of batteries, improving a device’s running speed without causing it to overheat, hearing crisp sounds from earbuds, and displaying vibrant colors. These elements occur in geological deposits across vast wilderness areas. Mining operations often excavate huge craters just to extract the small available quantities. A mix of chemicals and water is then used to separate the metals from ore. This process leaves residues that, if not properly treated, may create toxic wastelands that further harm the environment.
Some might argue that the spread of environmental damage might be minimized if extraction from existing reservoirs became more efficient. But it is questionable whether this practice alone is the ultimate solution. Take a well-studied case example of nickel. The flows of nickel from mining to manufacturing are large because ore processing and smelting have already become highly efficient to minimize waste. But only 30 percent of the discarded nickel is returned to manufacturing. The rest sits as untapped potential in landfills or scrap piles. Clearly, increasing efficiency from mining extraction and processing ultimately will lead to minimal gains.
The real crux of the issue is that a linear economy is sustainable only if raw materials are in infinite supply. Metals and Rare Earths are not because, geologically, a finite planet can only hold a finite amount of them. Geological deposits of the metals also are not evenly distributed globally, so countries can horde their reserves. Thus, continued exploitation without recycling will make them scarce. Scarcity will then drive up their prices and make technology more expensive. This was the thinking behind the infamous bet between economist Julian Simon who believed certain raw materials wouldn’t become scarce within ten years, as measured by inflation-adjusted prices, and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich who did.
Ehrlich lost the bet, but economists have shown he would have won if the timeframe had been longer, or if the bet had happened during a different ten-year period. Ultimately the prices did rise.
In principle, when prices become prohibitive we might choose the next available metal, and so on. But such substitution is not always possible, given current technology. Many Rare Earth elements, especially. are used to fulfill very specialized needs. In the long term, increasing the efficiency of resource extraction and substituting metals, if even possible, are merely stopgap measures.
Nature teaches us that the key to sustainability is to create a circular economy that ensures spent resources are easily returned to the pool of available resources to support future production. To keep pace with future demand, products must be rapidly and efficiently taken apart to extract their constituent parts. In nature, species, especially animals, do this by turning materials into forms of production and residues that are easily decomposed and recycled.
These consumers encourage fast recycling. But, many high-tech electronic products are built to be durable rather than easily recyclable. The current slow speed and high cost of breaking down electronics often makes recycling technologically and economically infeasible. The solution is to stop treating recycling as an afterthought. Products must be designed and engineered with the deliberate upfront intent to recycle them. Thus, other appropriate targets of advocacy to prevent environmental damage are the product manufacturers, not just the miners.
Nature also teaches us that consumption must be factored into the recycling process because consumers trigger feedbacks that control the recycling speed. Consumers reduce flows of materials whenever they hold on to products, rather than discard them. Producing newer products encourages consumers to discard older products in favor of consuming the newer ones. If the breakdown of products is slow and inefficient, the circular economy will also slow because the pool of available resources is insufficient to support the manufacture of new products.
Consumers can exacerbate this because the absence of newer options causes them to hold on to older products longer. In other words, sustainability requires finding a “sweet spot” in the circular economy where consumption and decomposition together cause flows of materials within the system to be large, and flows into and out of the system to be small. Ultimately environmental damages due to leakage and inefficiencies will also become small. In this circular economy, the mines of the future might well be urban areas, rather than wilderness, where metals are bound up in stockpiles of spent technology.
The inescapable reality of human history is that societies have progressed and will continue to progress by building on their past technological base to advance technology and improve human welfare. Simply decrying consumption as a modern tragedy won’t get us closer to sustainability. The greatest innovation on the horizon would be the creation of a circular high-tech economy that requires a dizzying array of inventions in many phases of production, consumption and decomposition. In this economy, manufactured products merely become a dividend of sustainable practices. Building such an economy would be the ultimate marvel of human ingenuity.