Earlier this year a group named Falling Whistles spent a few days couch-surfing at my house. Their project is simple: raise awareness about the conflict in the Congo, and the role of blood-commodities such as Coltan in it. (Alight fine, to be technical the term “blood commodity” doesn’t exist, but I think it’s clear what it means, as it derives from the common term blood diamond and the notion of a commodity).
They are called “falling whistles” because of the high proportion of child soldiers in the congolese conflict – and the smallest children, too young to bear a rifle, go into battle with whistles to scare the enemy and to act as human shields.
To raise awareness, they sell expensive whistles at high end retail stores by setting up mini “museums” which display information and loop videos about their project. All the proceeds go to programs rehabilitating child soldiers in the region.
You can buy a whistle if you want. I did. I wear it, mostly. Hardly anyone ever asks about it, but if they do, I get to go on a rant about how I want ethically sourced Coltan. But, seriously, there is no certification for conflict-free electronics, and it is probably not feasible that we could continue current electronics production and while switching over to conflict-free sourcing. But, there is an alternative.
We could boycott consumer electronics. We could say – “no more cell phones”, and we could go back to writing things on paper in quill pens. We could do that, but as wonderfully steam punk as it would be, it’s not realistic. But, we could do something else – we could boycott new consumer electronics. What would that mean? Well, it’s pretty simple – it would mean rather than getting a new cell phone ever 3 years (“oh, but it comes free with my contract!”), you could just keep using your old one. And, when that one breaks, you could try craigslist instead of the apple store to find a replacement. And the same for computers. And this would hardly be a hardship – since computers (and digital cameras, incidentally), are already basically as good as they are going to get. Sure, there will continue to be incremental improvements, but no new product really does anything that you couldn’t do on an 11 year old clamshell or brick phone from 1995. Ok fine, you can post from your blog on your iphone – but you certainly don’t need to buy one of those new either.
The benefits of boycotting new products are obvious: you can continue to use awesome stuff, you can destroy capitalism, and you can reduce the demand for blood commodities which fuel atrocious conflicts. Even better – you can continue to use wonderful Apple products while you pressure them to adopt conflict-free materials sourcing.