Arson attacks and other forms of sabotage against cell phone towers (mobile masts) have accelerated over past months. In this piece, Max Wilbert and Aimee Wild explore why people are burning cell phone towers.

6 Reasons Why Destroying Cell Towers is Justified

By Max Wilbert and Aimee Wild

Over the past few months, there have been dozens of arson attacks on cell phone towers across the world.

Why is this happening? Are these attacks justified? And what is the reasoning behind them?

The truth is, cell phone towers are not benign. In fact, cell towers (or “mobile masts”) harm the world in many different ways. In this article, we’ll lay out six reasons why we believe destroying cell phone towers is justified.

1. Cell Phones Are Anti-Democratic

The technology behind cell phones is anti-democratic. In other words, it both emerges from and strengthens a social, political, and economic system which concentrates power into the hands of a small number of extremely wealthy people. These people have control over the information and consumption of most of the rest of the population.

William H. Gross, summarizing Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, wrote the following in 2005, before the smartphone explosion. The sentiment is just as applicable to cell phones:

“Television not and cannot be a neutral technology, nor does it convey a neutral message. It has the power to influence large portions of the population using surreptitious psychology and inherent technology to achieve its owners’ purposes and to promote their agenda.

The medium by its very nature consolidates power and influence into the hands of a rich few. There is no democratic process by which voters and consumers may directly affect its content, or control its impact. The problems and the dangers of television are inherent in the technology itself. That means it cannot be reformed in its nature as a medium. And because the medium of television cannot be reformed, it needs to be eliminated.”

2. Cell Phones Facilitate Global Capitalism and Harm Workers

Cell phones also destroy the planet by facilitating capitalism. The global mobile phone industry is worth roughly $1 trillion per year. The modern CEO in the early 2000’s was characterized by the Blackberry. Now, business wouldn’t run nearly as efficiently without cell phones. The smartphone enables a constantly connected, always-on lifestyle that is Taylorism run wild.

Now you can be on a meeting at home, in the car, from a rest stop on the side of the road in the bath, even in designated wilderness. It’s ideal for business, but destroys the undisturbed leisure that we need as human beings. When humans work too hard, prolonged stress causes our immunity to fall, and we become more susceptible to illness. It should surprise no one that increasing addiction to cell phones makes us sick.

3. Cell Phones Enable and Reinforce a Culture of Mass Surveillance

The third major problem with cell towers and cell phones is that they are perfect tools for mass surveillance. Each cell phone is a tracking device that logs your location every minute with nearby cell towers. Quite literally, as long as your phone is turned on, with you, and has service, it can practically retrace every one of your steps. And this isn’t to speak of the surveillance facilitated by apps, advertising and cookies, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi tracking, malicious downloads, hijacking sensor data, and so on. States and corporations have shown themselves only too willing to use cell phone data to track and monetize every users and surveil and harass dissidents.

4. Cell Phones and Service Networks are Based on Polluting, Destructive Resource Extraction

The fourth reason that destroying cell towers is justified is the harm done to the natural world. Delivering cellular connectivity requires a sophisticated system of cell phone towers, routers, and networking. A 2014 estimate put the total number of cell towers globally at about 4 million. That number has exploded in the years since. As of 2019, China alone had nearly 2 million towers, and as of 2018, the United States had 349,344 towers.

These towers are connected to power lines, diesel backup generators, transformers, routers, switches, and servers. And they serve cell phones. All of these are made out of materials—steel, plastic, rare earth metals, aluminum, silicon, copper—which are produced by strip mining and destructive extractive methods. The creation, maintenance and repair of mobile phone masts, bases, and the phones themselves are part of a wider culture of consumption. And as network technology escalates, demands for raw materials will increase as well. The shorter range of 5G technology, for example, requires many more access points to provide equivalent network coverage.

Don’t believe me? Spend 10 minutes searching for “How steel is produced” and “iron ore mining pollution.” The human rights implications and devastation of the natural world caused by these industrial processes cannot be overstated. Modern cell phones cannot even be recycled—although even if they could, that would not mitigate the problem, since the number of phones produced keeps rising and recycling is itself an extremely polluting, human-rights-violating industry.

Keep in mind that corporations chronically fail to report “accidents,” and that most pollution is fully permitted and perfectly legal. Stopping those companies from polluting? Now that is illegal.

5. Cell Phones Harm Our Minds, Bodies, and Spirits

The average smartphone user spends 3 hours and 15 minutes per day on their phone. In the United States, the number is nearly 5 and a half hours. The rise in cell phone use in young people has corresponded to plummeting mental health as social media, pornography, gaming, and toxic mass media are piped to young people 24/7. Unfortunately, probably everyone reading this knows how addictive these technologies can be.

The days of TV addiction seem almost quaint.

6. Cell Phone Towers Kill Massive Numbers of Birds

Cell towers also kill birds. Back in 2013, a study was published estimating that telecommunications towers of all types kill 7 million birds annually—with especially serious impacts to bird species that are already rare and struggling.

Keep in mind, the number of cell towers has possibly doubled or tripled since that time and is climbing steeply. The same cannot be said for bird populations, which have declined by 2.9 billion in the U.S. and Canada alone over the last 50 years.

Is Radiation From Cell Phones Harmful?

Cell phones and cell towers transmit information using radiofrequency (RF) radiation, a low frequency form of electromagnetic radiation. In the U.S., legal radiation levels from cell phones are set by the FCC at 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over 1 gram of tissue.

Independent tests have shown that cell phones regularly exceed these legal limits by 2-5 times. National health institutes and cancer research organizations have researched exposure to radiation from cell phones, but have not found any conclusive evidence of increased cancer risk. But risk factors for cancer are complex and varied, and cancer is not the only potential harm. More chronic, low level health issues could be associated with increasing levels of RF radiation generated by industrial civilization. Is radiation from cell phones increasing anxiety levels? Linked to hormonal problems? Hurting our immune systems?

There is little research and less incentive—or funding—to conduct it. Regulatory bodies like the FCC are staffed by telecommunications industry veterans in a mutually beneficial “revolving door” that means policies are almost always designed to prioritize profits, not human health.

Nonetheless, even if radiation from cell phones is harmless, destroying cell phone towers is justified given the other harms listed above.

It is Justified to Burn Cell Towers

Industry never “self regulates.” Destruction and exploitation only stops when people rise up and stop it themselves. So it should come as no surprise when people attack cell phone towers or other infrastructure of industrial civilization. This way of life is not good for people and it is not good for the planet. We need a new path. And that will require dismantling the old.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass left us with some of the most important words ever written: “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” Douglass said. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The people who are attacking cell phones towers and burning mobile masts are more than justified. They are making a moral choice to resist the expansion of cellular networks and of industrial civilization in general. They are a strategic movement taking action against the communications network. Their attacks slow growth of the telecommunications industry by increasing cost and risk of expansions.

The activists involved are taking genuine risks in the interests of protecting their communities —human and non-human. The mainstream media reports portray these arsonists as conspiracy theorists who are ignorant or perhaps mentally unwell. It is interesting that they choose this angle rather than using the words criminals and terrorists. They are being ridiculed in order to downplay and devalue the reasons for these actions. Meanwhile, technological escalation and destruction of the planet is normalized. How could anyone resist this progress?

Industrial capitalism will never be stopped by destroying cell towers alone. Nonetheless, these types of underground action can be an important part of resistance movements. We hope that with proper target selection, the same passion can be directed towards infrastructure that is even more destructive and central to the industrial system.

Saboteurs: we salute you.

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Featured image by Carl Lender, CC BY 2.0.