Emmett’s Fix-It Shop: It’s Time to Wake the Woke

Whenever I visit my Dad, we end our day watching episodes of the 1960’s classic comedy, “The Andy Griffith Show.” The humor is fun, family friendly, and harkens back to an idyllic time when every problem has a solution. The ensemble cast includes a diverse cross-section of smalltown characters, one is a rather gruff guy called Emmett, who runs a fix-it shop. Fix-it shops have gone the way of the dinosaur, but back in the day, every town had one. Lately I’ve been wondering if Emmett may be a metaphor for the profound misdirection of our ailing civilization.

Regular readers know I’m that strange guy who rummages around garage and estate sales looking for odd bargains in need of a little TLC to be repaired or repurposed. I am perhaps the greenest pro-environmental person there is, because each time I rescue something from going to the landfill, the earth groans a little softer. Each time I cause one less toaster, or one less cast iron pot to be manufactured, the earth heals in micro measures. Mock me if you like for being that thrift store/antique shopping guy, but I challenge you to be as good a steward of mother earth.

If you’re a proud smartphone owning, electric-car driving pseudo environmentalist, let’s unravel your hypocrisy. To start with, Apple products are produced by communist China slave labor, as are the components in lithium batteries used in both smart-phones and smart-vehicles. However, one observation anyone can make at a fascist antifa riot is that the more fanatically liberal someone is, the more ardently they admire Apple products and smart cars. Setting aside the morality of owning these products, let’s consider the environmental consequences.

Rare earth minerals, which are essential to “smart-technology,” are quickly becoming this millennium’s version of blood diamonds. Seventeen minerals are classified as rare earth elements, and along with cobalt and lithium, are in high demand as our reliance on consumer electronics and electric vehicles insatiably grows. Back in day when demand for rare earth minerals was low, in the 1930’s, the United States was the world’s major producer. Now, China produces 90% of the world’s supply, in part because demand has skyrocketed and because the US has regulated mineral processing into someone else’s back yard.

The term “rare earth” is a misnomer, as these minerals are relatively abundant. For example, New Mexico, in the American Southwest, contains some of the world’s largest untapped deposits. Afghanistan is another geographic location with an abundant supply that were turned (or taken) over by the Chinese after America abruptly abandoned the country. The problem with meeting demand has less to do with mining rare earth minerals than is does with their refinement. Having grown up downstream from Deadwood’s Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, I know first hand the environmental devastation caused by ore processing operations.

As toxic as gold refinement is, rare earth mineral refinement is even more toxic, and has the added layer of creating a radioactive waste stream. If that weren’t bad enough, rare earth minerals are highly toxic to humans. This is why America is out of the rare earth industry, in our current “not in my backyard” duplicity, it is morally palatable to allow China to expose slave laborers to the toxic hazards of producing our environmentally conscientious smart technology components so we can naively ignore their human and environmental costs.

That’s the front end of the smart technology life-cycle, the in-use period is not much better as smart cars consume more carbon fuel per vehicle mile than high-mileage combustion engine vehicles when you factor in the energy required to deliver and convert a kilowatt of electricity into a mile of travel. Most such studies only compare the carbon footprint in creating an ideal kilowatt of electricity and fail to take into account transmission losses, the losses associated with converting electricity to battery storage, and the losses of converting battery power into propulsion. But don’t tell President Biden, he believes, “when [you] buy an electric vehicle, you can go all the way across America on a single tank of gas” Do we need to comment on that or is the stupidity self-evident?

Smart technology end-of-life involves disposition where things are even more bleak. The large bank of batteries used to propel an electric car lasts around seven years, which equates to between 70,000 to 105,000 miles for most Americans. After that, they need to be replaced, thereby putting large quantities of refined rare earth minerals into landfills where they can leach into groundwater for later contamination of community water supplies. Since they won’t be dumped in American landfills, which lucky third-world country do you suppose wins that lottery?

So, smart-technology is harmful to the environment on the front end, has a larger carbon footprint during service life than conventional options, and is toxic to the environment on the back end disposition. “What does this have to do with Emmett’s Fix-It shop?” you ask, “and how is this a metaphor for what’s wrong with society?” . . . I’m glad you asked.

To be clear, I am not advocating we abandon smart-technology and return to the prehistoric age of the transistor radios Emmett fixed, I’m a technologist and believe we, as a society, should continue on our path of technological advancement. At the same time, I believe we must honestly evolve our utilization of technology and understand that it begins with an admission that we are not where we need to be in the Green New Deal sense. So, we need to “Fix-it!”

Like a recovering alcoholic, we have to acknowledge the problems, issues, and challenges of smart technology to begin this evolution. Only then will environmental con artists, like Elon Musk, stop bilking the world out of billions on companies that never make a profit, so we can instead start investing wisely in environmentally conscious smart technology solutions that fix the problems.

It is no longer moral for environmentalist to consume smart technology without acknowledging their complicity in the human suffering and the harmful degradation of mother earth they cause. It is no longer ethical to believe that owning a Prius or Tesla is a symbol of your commitment to saving the planet. It is no longer righteous to pretend you are not responsible for China’s exploitation of slave labor and their toxic pollution of the planet. It is no longer possible to hide behind your hypocrisy as mother earth moans in painful tears for healing solutions. It is no longer permissible to turn a blind eye to the devastation you cause. It is time to wake the woke.

Note: Ironically, I started out to write an essay on how we have to evolve our society beyond our “built-in obsolescence” mindset and discard-economy toward one of sustained refurbishment, but this is what came out…..next time.