It was at six dark forty on the 13th October 2020 that there was a great disturbance in the Twittersphere, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in pissy consternation and were, unfortunately, not suddenly silenced. Then it was that Apple announced they would start shipping phones without power adapters and earbuds.
This was for the environment, they said. Electronic waste – e-waste to the kids – is a massive problem. Greenpeace reckons we generate about 50 million metric tons every year, much of it shipped overseas where child workers scavenge our scraps and breathe in whatever toxic shit gets released. The UN reckons we’ll more than double this by 2050, chucking out 110 million tons every year as we chase the latest phones, tablets and electronic lemon zesters, and replace rather than repair whatever broken stuff we’ve already got.
In its PR flim-flammery, Apple said there are 700 million Lightning earbuds and 2 billion of their power adaptors knocking about the place, with God-knows how many third-party and pre-Lightning alternatives still in use. That should be enough to go round. Removing them from iPhone boxes will save their materials and allow for smaller, lighter packaging to reduce emissions from planes, boats and trucks; they reckon they’ll be able to pack up to 70% more products on their shipping pallets. With these efforts they expect to reduce carbon emissions by 2 million metric tons every year – equal to removing 450,000 cars from the road.
Cynicism kicked in pretty quickly about Apple caring less about the environment than cutting costs, upping profits and steering people towards their obscenely expensive wireless earphones and freshly announced wireless chargers. We’re all for a bit of cynicism here, always on the lookout for a bit of corporate greenwashing, and certainly it seems unlikely Apple will weep over the materials, shipping and emissions they get through every time someone chokes up £250 for a pair of AirPods.
But what’s more interesting to me, as both a cynical bastard and insufferable do-gooder, was that most complaints were about Apple stiffing them on chargers and earphones, with threats to boycott in favour of manufacturers still dishing them out. It seemed less about greenwashing and profiteering, and more about how deeply in denial we remain. We fret about the environment and set our bottom lips a-tremblin’ when David Attenborough shows us a mucky bit of sea, but here again we bristle at the slightest inconvenience, the slightest change to our very comfortable lives. Instead of reducing our own carbon emissions and campaigning for the systemic change we need, we’re pissing about with straws and cotton buds, still chugging meat and dairy, still pouring petrol into our cars, still powering our homes with dirty-bad coal, still burning jet fuel to fly from Cirencester to East Cirencester. This is how climate breakdown will happen. This is how we’ll sleepwalk to oblivion.
If we’re going to avert disaster we need to move beyond token gestures, beyond individual changes, beyond Butterflies, certainly beyond congratulating ourselves for our bamboo straws. We need to stop mitigating carbon-spewing industries, and instead have industries change how they operate. Even if it’s greenwashing, even if it’s cynical, even if it’s profiteering, Apple’s still actually doing something. They’re already carbon neutral in their corporate operations. Their offices, stores and data centres are powered by renewable energy. They’re reducing packaging, recycling rare earth elements, beginning to use recycled aluminium enclosures for their laptops and aiming for circular supply chains. And I don’t mean to lick Apple’s dick here: They encourage endless upgrade cycles with incremental improvements, and their partners are just short of sweatshop shitshows. But imagine if every company did things on this scale, if every company reduced waste on this scale, reduced emissions on this scale, aimed for net zero with the urgency this crisis demands. Imagine if we stopped moaning about it if they did.
We will be inconvenienced by the transition to a low-carbon economy. We need to get over it. Reusing headphones and chargers is the teeniest, tiniest, tippiest-toppiest tip of the iceberg. And still, whatever changes are coming, whatever compromises we have to make, whatever inconveniences we have to adjust to, will be nothing against the alternative inconveniences of climate breakdown, the collapse of the species, and the unbearable smugness of Kevin Costner telling us he told us so. If only to avoid the latter disaster we should take the ass-paddling Apple’s giving us and ready our cheeks for others to join them.
Photo credit: The Zero