My cell phone is dying. I started looking at new cellphones after two of its buttons fell off at the family reunion in July, but never committed to a new one. Starting last weekend, I can’t hear anything unless the phone is on speaker. Not exactly convenient when my boss is calling.
But then I think about an essay by Sarah Gilbert I read in CNF’s sustainability issue. Yes, an essay is keeping me from buying a new cell phone. Oh, the power of the written word. Cell phones are not the point of the essay, but they are mentioned briefly, and the coltan that goes into them.
I’d never heard of coltan before, but it is a metallic ore, used for the production of tantalum capacitors, which sounds like a weapon in Star Wars, but is actually used in almost all electronic devices like computers and cell phones. Mining of coltan is linked to violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as human rights abuses like child labor and slavery.“It’s possible that two children died so that you could have that mobile phone,” said Jean-Bertin, a 34-year-old Congolese activist in one of the articles I’ve been perusing while writing this. Someone probably died for my cell phone, someone else bought guns with the proceeds. In the essay, Gilbert asks, “how many cell phones have I owned in my life?”
I can count four, maybe five. Two or three laptops. An ipod. A GPS. All with coltan, not that coltan is the only blood mineral, just the one I’ve heard about.
So as long as my dying cell phone with its missing buttons still sends texts and makes calls, even if only on speaker phone, I want to use it. If I’m patient, maybe I can delay the inevitable purchase of another product built on the suffering and death of human beings. Delay it, but not refuse it. In spite of what I now know, I’ll still be buying a cell phone.
The title of Sarah GIlbert’s essay is “Trapped” because we all are.