Editor’s Note: The Earth wants to live. And she wants us to stop destroying her. It is a simple answer, but one with many complex processes. How do we get there? Shall I leave my attachments with the industrial world and being off-the-grid living, like we were supposed to? Will that help Earth?
Yes, we need to leave this way of life and live more sustainably. But what the Earth needs is more than that. It is not one person who should give up on this industrial way of life, rather it is the entire industrial civilization that should stop existing. This requires a massive cultural shift from this globalized culture to a more localized one. In this article, Katie Singer explores the harms of this globalized system and a need to shift to a more local one. You can find her at email@example.com
What Does the Earth Want From Us?
By Katie Singer/Substack
Last Fall, I took an online course with the philosopher Bayo Akomolafe to explore creativity and reverence while we collapse. He called the course We Will Dance with Mountains, and I loved it. I loved the warm welcome and libations given by elders at each meeting’s start. I loved discussing juicy questions with people from different continents in the breakout rooms. I loved the phenomenal music, the celebration of differently-abled thinking, the idea of Blackness as a creative way of being. When people shared tears about the 75+-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I felt humanly connected.
By engaging about 500 mountain dancers from a half dozen continents, the ten-session course displayed technology’s wonders.
I could not delete my awareness that online conferencing starts with a global super-factory that ravages the Earth. It extracts petroleum coke from places like the Tar Sands to smelt quartz gravel for every computer’s silicon transistors. It uses fossil fuels to power smelters and refineries. It takes water from farmers to make transistors electrically conductive. Its copper and nickel mining generates toxic tailings. Its ships (that transport computers’ raw materials to assembly plants and final products to consumers) guzzle ocean-polluting bunker fuel.
Doing anything online requires access networks that consume energy during manufacturing and operation. Wireless ones transmit electro-magnetic radiation 24/7.
More than a decade before AI put data demands on steroids, Greenpeace calculated that if data storage centers were a country, they’d rank fifth in use of energy.
Then, dumpsites (in Africa, in India) fill with dead-and-hazardous computers and batteries. To buy schooling, children scour them for copper wires.
Bayo says, “in order to find your way, you must lose it.”
Call me lost. I want to reduce my digital footprint.
A local dancer volunteered to organize an in-person meeting for New Mexicans. She invited us to consider the question, “What does the land want from me?”
Such a worthwhile question.
It stymied me.
I’ve lived in New Mexico 33 years. When new technologies like wireless Internet access in schools, 5G cell sites on public rights-of-way, smart meters or an 800-acre solar facility with 39 flammable batteries (each 40 feet long), I’ve advocated for professional engineering due diligence to ensure fire safety, traffic safety and reduced impacts to wildlife and public health. I’ve attended more judicial hearings, city council meetings and state public regulatory cases and written more letters to the editor than I can count.
In nearly every case, my efforts have failed. I’ve seen the National Environmental Protection Act disregarded. I’ve seen Section 704 of the 1996 Telecom Act applied. (It prohibits legislators faced with a permit application for transmitting cellular antennas from considering the antennas’ environmental or public health impacts.) Corporate aims have prevailed. New tech has gone up.
What does this land want from me?
The late ecological economist Herman Daly said, “Don’t take from the Earth faster than it can replenish; don’t waste faster than it can absorb.” Alas, it’s not possible to email, watch a video, drive a car, run a fridge—or attend an online conference—and abide by these principles. While we ravage the Earth for unsustainable technologies, we also lose know-how about growing and preserving food, communicating, educating, providing health care, banking and traveling with limited electricity and web access. (Given what solar PVs, industrial wind, batteries and e-vehicles take from the Earth to manufacture, operate and discard, we cannot rightly call them sustainable.)
What does the land want from me?
If I want accurate answers to this question, I need first to know what I take from the land. Because my tools are made with internationally-mined-and-processed materials, I need to know what they demand not just from New Mexico, but also from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Chile, China, the Tar Sands, the deep sea and the sky.
Once soil or water or living creatures have PFAS in them, for example, the chemicals will stay there forever. Once a child has been buried alive while mining for cobalt, they’re dead. Once corporations mine lithium in an ecosystem that took thousands of years to form, on land with sacred burial grounds, it cannot be restored.
One hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner observed that because flicking a switch can light a room (and the wiring remains invisible), people would eventually lose the need to think.
Indeed, technologies have outpaced our awareness of how they’re made and how they work. Technologies have outpaced our regulations for safety, environmental health and public health.
Calling for awareness of tech’s consequences—and calling for limits—have become unwelcome.
In the last session of We Will Dance with Mountains, a host invited us to share what we’d not had a chance to discuss. AI put me in a breakout room with another New Mexican. I said that we’ve not discussed how our online conferences ravage the Earth. I said that I don’t know how to share this info creatively or playfully. I want to transition—not toward online living and “renewables” (a marketing term for goods that use fossil fuels, water and plenty of mining for their manufacture and operation and discard)—but toward local food, local health care, local school curricula, local banking, local manufacturing, local community.
I also don’t want to lose my international connections.
Bayo Akomolafe says he’s learning to live “with confusion and make do with partial answers.”
My New Mexican friend aptly called what I know a burden. When he encouraged me to say more, I wrote this piece.
What does the land want from us? Does the Earth want federal agencies to create and monitor regulations that decrease our digital footprint? Does the Earth want users aware of the petroleum coke, wood, nickel, tin, gold, copper and water that every computer requires—or does it want these things invisible?
Does the Earth want us to decrease mining, manufacturing, consumption—and dependence on international corporations? Does it want children to dream that we live in a world with no limits—or to learn how to limit web access?
Popular reports from 2023
“Call Me a Nimby” (a response to Bill McKibben’s Santa Fe talk)