Tag Archives: supply chains

No, the Shift to Renewables Will Not Be the End of Toil

Energy derived from sources like the sun, air, and water, on the other hand, is imbued with immense liberatory potential. In principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power. No longer would power lines and gigantic, leak prone tankers be needed for the transportation of energy; no longer would workers have to toil in underground mines or remote deserts or rough seas; there would be no need for the long supply chains required by fossil fuels. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, p. 102, emphasis mine)

Context makes it clear Ghosh is thinking of coal mining, oil fields, and offshore platforms when he dreams of a world where workers no longer toil. But in his reverie, Ghosh neglects an important and undeniable feature of renewable energy: it is mining intensive.

The IEA sees demand for critical minerals surging from 2020-2050 even as the demand for and value of coal drops. In green growth scenarios, workers will likely have to keep toiling in mines as they now do in Chile’s Atacama desert, the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the copper and nickel mines of South Asia, South America, or Siberia. The list of potential sacrifice zones will grow and could someday extend from American public lands to offshore oil platforms converted to deep-sea mining.

This observation is not an argument against the transition from fossil fuels. It’s just to say that right now there are no signs the shift to renewables will undo the resource curse. Extraction for global markets continues to exact a local toll: serious human rights violations, unremediated (or irremediable) environmental destruction, conflicts over water (which Ghosh himself mentions briefly in a list of “conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate,” p. 127), and social division. And for the foreseeable future, mineral supply chains will be nearly as long as those required by fossil fuels, strung across the globe and fraught with geopolitical tension.

A decisive shift from fossil fuels could see the end of the petro-dollar and the toppling of “global hierarchies of power,” as Ghosh imagines: “The liberatory potential of renewable energy has a very important international dimension as well: if adopted at scale it could transform, indeed revolutionize, the current global order” (p. 103). It could also precipitate another set of crises – environmental, humanitarian, and military — and it’s worth considering that eventuality.

Postscript, 20 January 2022: For more on the geopolitical risks of the energy transition, see Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval The New Geopolitics of Energy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.

The Social Costs of the Hardware Revolution – A Postscript

For now, this can be only a short postscript to what I had to say earlier today about the CNN Money article by John Hagel and John Seely-Brown on “the hardware revolution.” It has to do with a question that occurred to me as I read, and to which I don’t yet have anything like an adequate answer. That will take some research. But I at least want to articulate the question.

Startups and smaller companies can now play in the hardware space in part because the barriers to entry have been lowered, Hagel and Seely-Brown observe. There are a number of factors at work here. New and cheaper technologies from 3D printers to more user-friendly software put the design and manufacture of hardware within reach of smaller companies. And “a new class of factories” will produce the smaller orders that new entrants and entrepreneurs typically require:

New infrastructural elements have also helped new hardware products move from the hobbyist’s basement to the startup garage. Before, to get a contract manufacturer’s attention, you had to commit to producing high volumes (say 50,000 or more units). But a new class of factories — mostly in China and Mexico — will manufacture batches as small as 5,000 units. By filling low-volume orders, these factories have filled an important structural hole in the market: They allow entrepreneurs to launch new products for small consumer groups with little investment.

My question is whether conditions and, for that matter, sourcing practices in this new class of factories, and the more fluid hardware market they serve, are not going to be terribly difficult to monitor. We’ve seen how challenging it is even to ensure fair labor practices in large-scale manufacturing facilities in China used by major global technology brands; now, as smaller-scale manufacturing facilities proliferate and Mexico becomes a technology “quicksourcing” destination for American companies, the problem will no doubt be aggravated.

The reasons for this are probably obvious. I would frame the issue in a few ways. First, how much visibility do these smaller players actually have into their supply chains? Second, how much leverage do they actually have with their manufacturers, since they are only placing small orders, and, depending on their success, may or may not be repeat customers? Third, there’s a question about whether these small businesses — the small hardware startups placing orders and, for that matter, the manufacturing facilities taking them — have the capacity to take on the human rights challenges that seem inevitably to accompany outsourcing.

In other words, the social costs of the hardware revolution deserve some careful consideration.