Film lays bare toxic impact of our dependence on tech gadgets

CULTUREASIAN FILM

Film lays bare ‘toxic’ impact of our dependence on tech gadgets

Undercover footage of factory workers in China from the film Death by Design. Photo: Ambrica Productions

A new documentary from American filmmaker Sue Williams, Death by Design, holds up a mirror to modern consumers, exposing the environmental and health costs of our reliance on devices that have depressingly short lifespans

“I could have made it (the film) about plastic bottles or blue jeans, but I wanted to take something that everybody feels really attached to.” Williams tells Asia Times. “I think it’s a powerful way to make people think about how they consume.”

death by design homepage

A screenshot of the Death by Design website homepage. Photo: Ambrica Productions

Documentaries about the environment and technology are not new. But Williams’ 73-minute production takes things up a notch, tying up multi-faceted concerns with its focus on indispensable gadgets in our modern lives such as smartphones and computers.

The project started off as a profile of Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist and one of the main characters in the film. He has done groundbreaking work on electronics companies’ environmental violations in China.

“I actually never even thought about [electronics being unclean],” says Williams, who after some research and trips to Silicon Valley and China realized the subject lent itself to much more than a story about one person or community. “It became very clear that as I learnt more about it that [Ma] is one valuable part of a very big global problem.”

Referring to the industrial transfer from the US to China that began in the late 1970s and 80s, William says: “It’s very important to know what the industry knew before they went to China.”

The film first takes us inside US factories back in the 1980s. A former IBM employee who worked on a US semiconductor production line at the time, while pregnant, later gave birth to a brain-damaged son. She had not been informed about the toxicity of the materials with which she worked every day.

Inside IBM death by design

IBM workers in purportedly ‘protective’ clothing. Photo: Ambrica Productions

Workers were provided with protective clothing, but “that was to protect the products, not the people”, says the woman in the film.

The film uncovers an internal IBM database that shows extremely high incidence of cancer among retirees.

From there, Williams’ lens shifts to the Taiwanese manufacturer, and Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn, whose workers have also suffered health problems.

death by design foxcon

Low-paid Chinese workers on a production line. Photo: Ambrica Productions/ Death by Design’s Facebook page

In 2010, more than a dozen Foxconn workers, mostly in their early 20s or younger, chose to end their own lives in desperation. Hundreds of thousands of its workers still work more than 80 hours a week, enduring enormous strain and boredom, and astonishingly low pay.

Best known for her proclaimed trilogy about China for PBS, Williams started Ambrica Productions in 1986, with an objective of looking at issues “with an international scope and interest.” Such a focus, along with her knowledge of both Chinese and American history, is fundamental to this film, as she traces how the industry evolved and traveled across borders.

The tech industry also brought to China, and other developing countries, the problem of electronic waste pollution. The film reveals that when tech companies found out that chemical waste from their products had started contaminating the soil and water around Silicon Valley, they began to look for new dumping grounds to get around their legal and environmental obligations.

“The industry was clear about what they were doing when they moved to China,” says Williams. “I was struck by the fact that the industry really took off after moving to China.”

death by design guizhou e waste site

An electronic-waste site in Guizhou, China. Photo: Ambrica Productions / Death by Design

The film suggests, however, that this “exporting” of the problem is an illusion at the end of the day. In an experiment where a team of University of California, San Diego researchers flew over the US to measure and trace chemicals in the clouds, they claimed to find solid evidence that “exported” toxic pollution eventually finds its way around the globe.

The point Williams forcefully makes is that environmental problems tend to come full circle.

Polluted water death by design

Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs discovered severe water pollution caused by electronic companies’ violations. Photo: Ambrica Productions / Death by Design

The film had its international debut at last year’s Seattle International Film Festival, a cinematic jubilee right at the heart of the city that is home to Microsoft, Amazon and countless other tech giants and start-ups. The director felt herself “at the belly of the bees” and worried about how the film would be received.

“We did a Q&A, and asked how many people worked in the electronics industry. Two-thirds of the audience put their hands up but they all responded like people did at other screenings – ‘What can we do?’ ‘We had no idea.’ ‘How can we do better?’ ”

Williams takes a short pause, her eyes widening. “[They were] asking me what to do.”

She says: “They haven’t seen this, haven’t been to Foxconn to see these factories,” said Williams. “They sit in their desks in Seattle with lattes and micro breweries and food delivery services and they just see the good that the tech industry has brought them.”

So, what can one do? Williams offers some ideas in the film.

One of these comes from the story of an Irish startup, IFixit, which sells repair parts and provides online repair guides. Founded by two young creative engineers, the company challenges excessive consumption by helping people to adopt the habit of fixing things as a way to regain autonomy over their products.

iFixit death by design

Kyle Wiens shows how tech companies make today’s devices harder to repair. Photo: Ambrica Productions / Death by Design

“They (the tech companies) give you this (a device) and say don’t worry about it if you break it, get a new one,” says Kyle Wiens, co-founder of IFixit, in the film. “You don’t really own it, in a way.”

“It’s quite a sobering film, not easy to watch for some people. So I tried to be solution-oriented,” says Williams. “We will have to find other ways to make things and we have to do a better job. That’s why I made the film.”

death by design homepage

I invite you all to watch this doicumentary at: http://deathbydesignfilm.com/

At a screening in Hong Kong, one businesswoman in the audience expressed her desire to take the film to mainland to initiate discussions with local governments about the issues raised.

“I so hope that happens,” says Williams. “I hope it goes viral in china. Because we really need to think about the ways we consume.”

David

Why Hydro-Politics Will Shape The 21st Century

It's been called the 'next oil'. In the coming decades, the supply of water has the potential to influence geopolitics, diplomacy and even conflict.

  • By Bryan Lufkin 16 June 2017

Ecopol Project - Portland State University: Water Wars

The 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace pits 007 against an evil criminal syndicate bent on global domination. Sounds par for the course… but this particular network of baddies isn’t using lasers or missiles to cause havoc.

Grand Challenges

In this special series, Future Now takes a close look at the biggest, most important issues we face in the 21st Century.

For two months, we'll bring you insight from leading scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and influencers to help you make sense of the challenges we face in today's rapidly evolving world.

No, the Quantum organisation has a uniquely dastardly plan: seizing control of Bolivia’s water supply.

While the evil syndicate’s role in the film might not be entirely realistic, this piece of fiction does raise a scenario that is worth considering seriously: what would happen if a country’s water supply was cut off? What would be the global fallout?

Think about it: sure, we need water to survive. But it also fuels a country’s commerce, trade, innovation and economic success. This has been the case for time immemorial, from the Nile in Ancient Egypt to the Amazon in the Brazilian rainforest.

While bodies of water typically help form natural borders of countries, several nations tend to share access to rivers or lakes – the Nile runs through nearly a dozen countries alone, for example. Given how conflict-prone humankind is, it’s surprising there haven't been more dust-ups of a “hydro-political” nature.

 

Water politics

Bodies of water have always formed natural boundaries between countries, forcing people to figure out ways to share water peaceably. (Credit: Getty Images)

 

Experts agree: if there was no access to water, there would be no world peace. That’s why one of the grand challenges of the next few decades could be maintaining this ultra-sensitive stasis of water management. In the 21st Century, freshwater supplies are drying up, climate change is raising sea levels and altering borders, explosive population growth is straining world resources, and global hyper-nationalism is testing diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, water demand is expected to go up 55% between 2000 and 2050. In the coming century, in terms of its value as a global resource, it’s been described as “the next oil."

So what can we do to guarantee global access to water – and thus global peace?

World peace hinges on hydro-politics

Water’s role in shaping politics goes back centuries. “In the ancient world, large bodies of water formed natural boundaries for people and nations,” says Zenia Tata, executive director of global development and international expansion at XPrize, an organisation that’s holding a worldwide competition for innovative water management solutions. “But today’s geopolitical landscape looks very different,” and access to water remains paramount.

Experts agree: if there was no access to water, there would be no world peace

In many areas of the world, bodies of water run through several countries or brush up against many countries’ borders. That’s where something called "riparian water rights" come into play.

In the case of a river, upstream countries – where the river originates – enjoy inherent power and leverage over the downstream countries. These kinds of riparian hotspots abound. And they’re often in places that are already fraught.

In the Middle East, the Jordan River basin is the primary water source for many regions, including Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, regions of long-standing political tensions. In Syria, meanwhile, the worst drought in close to a millennium has been partly blamed for the country’s generation-defining civil war and radicalisation that led to the formation of so-called Islamic State.

Egypt and Ethiopia have sparred over development of water from the River Nile for centuries: the iconic river originates in Ethiopia but ends in Egypt, which sets up an inherently combative relationship. In 2015, Egypt and Ethiopia put enough differences aside to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river, which is Africa’s largest dam and is due to open in July. The countries also signed a deal that strives to ensure fair river access.

Tata points to many developed or emerging markets that have had similar challenges: “Take the example of Malaysia’s 99-year deal with Singapore, giving them paid access to fresh water from the Johor River,” Tata says. “Singapore is arguably one of the most progressive nations on our planet, but without sufficient fresh water resources within its boundaries, all industry, trade, commerce and culture would all stand still."

The answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countries

According to the Pacific Institute, a California-based water resource information nonprofit, there have been dozens of water-related conflicts worldwide from 2000BC to present day.

So how do we make sure everyone gets enough water – and thus keep relative world peace in the 21st Century? The real answer won’t lie in countries controlling others’ water supply in what’s been dubbed so-called "water wars" – rather, the answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countries.

 

Water politics

Droughts and climate change will make water-fuelled diplomacy a crucial exercise in the 21st Century. (Credit: Getty Images)

 

Divvying up water supplies

While there have been many “water-related” conflicts over the millennia, there have actually been very few in terms of sending water over national boundaries.

There are three main issues when it comes to water in the 21st Century, says Aaron Wolf. He’s a professor of geography at Oregon State University who specialises in water resource management and environmental policy.

The first issue is the most obvious: water scarcity. A lack of safe, reliable water kills as many people worldwide as malaria and HIV/Aids, he says.

The second issue is the political implications of that scarcity. For example, in Syria, that history-making drought drove more people to cities, saw rising food prices, and exacerbated tensions in the country that already existed. They ended up with “climate refugees”, who travel to other countries to seek places that have better water availability, which may in turn stoke the flames of political tension.

The third main issue – and perhaps the most underreported, experts say – is that trans-boundary flow of water. In other words: water moving between countries. And that’s where those riparian rights come into play.

But here’s the twist – that third part of the puzzle, the hydro-politics, is actually the part to be most optimistic about, says Wolf, since there have been so few violent skirmishes over transboundary water flows.

 

Water politics

Countries with a water surplus export "virtual water" around the world – water embedded in products like wheat and meat. (Credit: Getty Images)

 

The grand challenge: building hydro-diplomacy

Despite alarmist headlines about “water wars”, the 21st Century is still offering up no shortage of new and unique threats that complicate hydro-diplomacy more than ever before.

Population explosions, especially in Asia and Africa, strain resources. Increasing global temperatures have led to some bodies of water drying up. And rising nationalism worldwide may stymie diplomatic efforts across the board.

While water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperation

So that’s why at Oregon State University, Wolf helps organise the Program in Water Conflict Management – where they try to identify where hydro-diplomatic tensions are going to rise in the next three to five years. For example, Afghanistan is an upstream country to many nations in the region, and is trying to use that advantage to develop its economy. For a country that’s been subjected to decade upon decade of war and upheaval, the political power of water sources like the Kabul River could be a boon.

That’s why there’s growing academic desire for an increased awareness of not just hydro-politics, but hydro-diplomacy – that while water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperation.

“We’re building the next generation of hydro-diplomats,” says Wolf.

A solution? Pay farmers more

But amid all these changes in the aqua political landscape, experts urge us to remember that not all water exists in rivers and lakes and even oceans.

There’s water in the soil – the soil that farmers use to grow vegetables, crops and feed for livestock. And the water from that soil is transferred into these products – whether it is wheat or beef – ­before they get shipped from water-surplus nations to deficient ones. This is known as “virtual water”,­ a phrase coined by John Anthony Allan at King’s College London, whose specialities include water issues, policy and agriculture. "Virtual water" is going to play a huge role in the 21st Century.

 

Water politics

Governments stay in power by subsidising farmers' livelihoods, and water-deficient countries gladly import the under-priced food. (Credit: Getty Images)

 

If you include virtual water in the picture, farmers are managing much of the water in the supply chain. And in countries that are water deficient, that imported embedded water is integral. In Europe alone, 40% of this "virtual water" comes from outside the continent.

Here’s the problem: farmers are underpaid for the critical role in that transaction. And by the time the food reaches the destination country, its politicians use subsidies to keep food prices low. The reason? Politicians want to maintain peace among their people – they want their citizens to live under the assumption that they’ll be able go to the store and expect food on the shelves.

160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it

“Governments go to great lengths to make sure there is enough affordable food on the market,” Allan says. “There are forces in places that will bring the prices down – there’s pressure to keep food cheap."

For water-surplus countries like the United States or Canada, they sell these products to more water-deficient countries at a low price. Over 60% of the around 220 countries in the world are major food importers. In other words, 160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it.

“The world is at peace because we have virtual water trade,” says Allan. “It’s solved silently. Revealing virtual water trade as a solution is something that politicians don’t want to do because they want to appear as they’re managing their country well.”

But in reality, the water that goes into the country's food is being brought in from elsewhere. That’s why hydro-diplomacy is one of the great unsung heroes in maintaining global stability that you never hear about.

It’s also why water’s next big challenge isn’t just making sure it’s judiciously and peaceably managed between nations to accommodate the world’s ever-burgeoning population. It’s about helping farmers who live in nations that have lots of water do their jobs successfully, and manage that water and how it’s distributed to drier places.

Of course countries need low-priced food, especially in places with lower income citizens. But the public needs to know that imports, exports, and hydro-diplomacy are what really keep countries with imbalanced water sources in balance. In our globalised, 21st Century world, it's not just about where countries fall along the flow of a river. It's about working together to share Earth's most vital resource.

So while a James Bond-scale water hostage situation isn’t exactly realistic – there’s nothing unrealistic about needing to maintain worldwide access to water. Even as we use it to slake our thirst and grow our crops, the political power of water shouldn’t be forgotten. It's been around for millennia, and it's not going anywhere.

 —

Bryan Lufkin is the editor of Future Now. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.

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David

Bancor initial coin offering raises over $200 million in three hours to become the largest crowdfunded project ever

Bancor initial coin offering raises over $200 million in three hours to become the largest crowdfunded project ever

DOMINIC POWELL / Friday, June 16, 2017

A demo of the Bancor protocol. Source: Bancor.network

A new blockchain startup built on the Ethereum platform has become one of the highest funded crowdfunding projects ever, raising approximately $US153 million ($201 million) through an initial coin offering (ICO) in just three hours earlier this week.

The startup is called Bancor, and it offers a platform aimed at making it easier for other startups and users to launch, manage, and trade their own forms of blockchain currency, known as “tokens”. These tokens are managed through the Ethereum network’s “smart contracts”, which enable self-executing contracts enforced and recorded on the blockchain.

Combining these two features, the Bancor protocol offers “smart tokens”, which enable “any party to instantly purchase or liquidate the smart token in exchange for any of its reserve tokens, directly through the smart token’s contract, at a continuously calculated price, according to a formula which balances buy and sell volumes”.

The ICO was intended to run for an hour, reports Coindesk, with a funding target of 250,000 ether (the main currency of the Ethereum blockchain), or around $US95 million. Due to alleged difficulties with the network, including supposed delayed transactions, the campaign was extended an additional two hours, resulting in a total of 396,720 ether or approximately $US153 million being raised.

Over 10,000 investors got on board with the ICO, with Coindesk reporting the largest single purchase was $US27 million, equalling 6.9 million BNT, the token used by the Bancor protocol to fuel its new platform.

This was enough to shoot Bancor into the number one spot of highest funded crowdfunds, and continues the recent initial coin offering craze, with blockchain startup Brave raising $US35 million in 30 seconds via a recent ICO.

However, due to the transitory value of cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, the true amount raised by these startups is ever-changing. With the value of ether increasing over 2800% this year alone, a $US153 million raise could be $50 million more, or less, in a matter of days.

The Ethereum protocol is proving to be a popular platform for successful crowdfunds, with seven of the top 10 crowdfunding projects having been based on the platform, including the crowdfund for the platform itself.

David