An Interview with Modernity

Posted in Features, Fall 2017

The materials and technologies that put modernity in motion are exhilarating, but they have consequences that must be managed, warns Drexel sociologist and mobility theorist Mimi Sheller.

In a world that is constantly on the move, Mimi Sheller studies the systems that make progress possible, for better and for worse.

As the director of Drexel’s Center for Mobilities Research and Policy and a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, her broad research and publications provide a deeper understanding of the forces that shape the way modern societies travel, communicate and consume.

Sheller is president of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility and co-editor of Mobilities, a journal she co-founded in 2006 to delve into the interdisciplinary field of study she helped establish. She is author and co-editor of nine books, including the monographs “Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity” and “Citizenship from Below.” She is currently working on two new books, “Mobility Justice” and “The Island Effect,” and a feature-length documentary about the connections between the aluminum industry and pollution and social injustices. In the fall, she will deliver addresses at universities in Australia and teach visiting doctoral courses in Brazil and at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, where she is also co-organizing a major conference called “Mobile Utopia: pasts, presents, futures.”

Drexel Magazine asked Sheller to expound on how society’s reliance on materials like aluminum play into the way we live.

MOBILITIES RESEARCH

Mobilities research is a multidisciplinary field of study, founded in part by Professor Mimi Sheller, that addresses some of the most pressing social, cultural, environmental and political transformations of our time by investigating the complex interrelated movements and stoppages of many different things including people, capital, information and policies
Q: IN YOUR BOOK “ALUMINUM DREAMS,” YOU WRITE ABOUT HOW ALUMINUM SHAPED THE 20TH CENTURY AS IT BECAME UBIQUITOUS. HOW DID IT OPEN UP NEW POSSIBILITIES FOR PROGRESS IN THE MODERN WORLD, AND IS THAT CHANGING IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

A: The electricity grid, the buildings we live and work in, the satellites and gadgets we use to communicate, the way people and goods move from place to place, the power, speed, mobility and conveniences that we take for granted — all are made possible by aluminum. It underpins our material culture and our ideas of what it means to be modern. Aluminum first became available on a large scale in the early 20th century and quickly became a crucial material for streamlined vehicles, lighter pack aging, mobile homes, new flight capabilities, high-tech military technologies, and the dawn of the Space Age. In addition to literally putting the world in motion, these new practices of mobility also generated visual representations and aesthetics of aerodynamic speed, accelerated mobility and technological futurism. By the 1950s, the gleam of aluminum surfaces was found on everything from Airstream trailers to kitchenware, and from rockets to airport lounges.

Today it remains a crucial material in new cars, food packaging, laptop computers, building construction and, of course, airplanes, spaceships and satellites. In some ways it has been eclipsed by the novelty of new materials such as titanium, carbon composites and nanomaterials (although some of these still make use of aluminum); yet we still depend on aluminum all the time in more mundane ways, such as for sports equipment (bikes, boats, bats); medical equipment (crutches, walkers, artificial limbs); and things like chairs, ladders and window frames. Look around you and you will probably see some aluminum!

Q: HOW DOES OUR RELIANCE ON ALUMINUM IMPACT OUR ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH?

A: One-twelfth of the earth’s crust is aluminum, making it the third-most-common element after oxygen and silicon, but it is extremely difficult to get it into pure form. The main source is bauxite ore, which is first processed into alumina, and then smelted into aluminum. Bauxite mining is an open-pit process that leads to deforestation and leaves behind toxic “red mud” lakes.

To quantify it, each ton of aluminum produced requires four tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, crushed, washed and refined into alumina, creating about four tons of caustic red mud residue, which can seep into surface and groundwater. Dust from aluminum refining causes respiratory damage, and portside alumina spills have damaged coral reefs.

Aluminum smelting is one of the most energy-intensive production processes on earth. Smelting uses an electrolytic process in which a high current is passed through dissolved alumina. The electrochemical smelting of aluminum from refined bauxite ore requires between 13,500 and 17,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per ton, more energy than any other kind of metal processing. To put this inperspective, making one soda can is said to require the equivalent of one-quarter of the can’s volume in gasoline to produce.

Because of its high demand for electricity, the process of producing aluminum creates on average 13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per ton of aluminum. The aluminum industry emits about 1 percent of global emissions of man-made greenhouse gases. Smelters are also responsible for 90 percent of all tetrafluoromethane, and 65 percent of all hexafluoroethane emissions worldwide. These perfluorinated compounds have global warming potentials that are 6,500 to 9,200 times higher than carbon dioxide. Communities living near the industry around the world have increased asthma levels near bauxite mines, indications of multiple-chemical sensitivity around alumina refineries, and exposure to toxic waste such as fluoride and cyanide near aluminum smelters.

Some people also believe that ingesting or absorbing aluminum has human health impacts. It is not only found in our kitchen ware and food packaging, but also occurs in powdered form in many cosmetics and deodorants, and is an adjuvant in vaccines. Accumulations of aluminum have been found in the brain tissue of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and have been connected to other neurological disorders, as well as showing possible links to breast cancer.

‘TECHNOLOGY IS ALWAYS ABOUT HOW PEOPLE USE IT’

Q: WHAT ISSUES ARE CREATED BY THE INDUSTRY’S WASTE? WHAT COULD BE DONE TO LIMIT WASTE AND MITIGATE SOME OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF ALUMINUM MINING?

A: Architects, designers and engineers today still embrace aluminum as a sustainable “green metal” because of the energy efficiencies it enables, despite the pollution and human rights violations coincident with the industry around the world. In many places there are protests against the industry, including at bauxite mining areas in India, Guinea and Jamaica, and against smelters in Trinidad, South Africa, Canada and Iceland.

There are several ways that industry and citizens can try to mitigate these negative impacts. First, we could recycle all the consumer products we use with aluminum in them, especially cans. Melting down used aluminum requires only 5 percent as much energy as making it from ore. No one should ever put an aluminum can in the trash. We also need to simply use the metal more efficiently, insist on building with recycled aluminum, make products in which various metals can easily be separated out at the end of their lifecycle, and recover as much as possible from already-existing sources, such as so-called “urban mining,” which digs through landfills.

Beyond that, though, we also need to regulate the industry more carefully so that it doesn’t just move to places with little protection and get away with environmental and human rights violations. There are voluntary programs like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which enrolls countries in reporting on companies operating in their territory.

But we also need to ask ourselves when we buy a product: Where did this come from and how did it get there? Who is affected by the materials in the products I am using? We need to put pressure on companies to be more transparent about what they are doing, where they are doing it, and how they are treating both workers and surrounding communities.

Q: AS A SOCIOLOGIST, WHAT ROLE DO YOU BELIEVE THE SOCIAL SCIENCES CAN PLAY IN OUR UNDERSTANDING OF HOW TO BALANCE THE BENEFITS AND HAZARDS OF THESE MATERIALS?

A: In my own work, I have tried to make people more aware of their involvement in larger systems of circulation of materials, whether it’s aluminum, the movement of energy or the impacts of tourism. Technology never operates on its own, but is always about how people use it, how we put things together and make them work.

If we want to make changes in complex systems we first have to be aware of them, but then we also need to develop specific and local forms of interaction, disruption or envisioning alternatives. This could take the form of citizen science, participatory art projects, community workshops to deliberate over new solutions, or community-based action research.

I am currently working with Jamaican filmmaker Esther Figueroa on a documentary called “Fly Me to the Moon” that will try to bring together audiences in different parts of the world to understand how they are connected by aluminum. I have often worked with artists, for example, to creatively engage people to think about their context differently or to link disparate groups together. And my forthcoming book “Mobility Justice” seeks to develop policies for greater equality and justice in all kinds of mobility systems, from the scale of the body, the street, and the city to extended infrastructures and planetary ecologies.

At the upcoming conference of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility (of which I am president) our theme is “Mobile Utopia: Pasts, Presents and Futures.” We will be doing an arts exhibition, as well as “mobile utopia experiments” in which we try to get groups of people to enact different ways of moving. We will try to model different ways of performing more sustainable and just mobilities.

Q: DO YOU FEEL PESSIMISTIC OR OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE DIRECTION THAT MATERIAL PRODUCTION WILL TAKE HUMANITY?

A: I am both pessimistic about the current system of material production and also optimistic over the longer term that we will be forced to make a change because we will have to. This is what the futurist Buckminster Fuller called “emergence by emergency.”

When the current system stops working (whether because of climate change disruptions, energy shortages or social conflict), we will need to find more energy efficient and less wasteful ways of doing things. In the meantime, it is important to continue to develop alternatives — not only alternative technologies but also alternative social practices — as the foundations for a new socio-technical system to evolve.

When the current system stops working (whether because of climate change disruptions, energy shortages or social conflict), we will need to find more energy efficient and less wasteful ways of doing things. In the meantime, it is important to continue to develop alternatives — not only alternative technologies but also alternative social practices — as the foundations for a new socio-technical system to evolve.

WHAT’S IN YOUR COMPUTER?

ALUMINUM
The 2008 launch of the “unibody” MacBook Pro* introduced sleek, lightweight machined aluminum casings to the laptop (and later, cellphone) market. Aluminum is sometimes described as a “green material” because it is recyclable; however, most manufactured products use primary metal that is electrochemically smelted from bauxite ore. Bauxite mining creates waste that can contaminate water supplies, and it also damages forests and encroaches on agricultural land, often displacing small farmers.
OTHER METALS
Other problematic metals commonly found in computer parts include lead, gold and alloys such as cobalt. In March, Apple announced it would stop using cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies 60 percent of the world’s cobalt used in lithium- ion batteries, following reports of child labor and dangerous work conditions.
E-WASTE
The world discarded about 46 million tons of electronics in 2014, according to the United Nations. Many pieces of computer hardware include lead, mercury, bromine and phthalates — all of which are toxic to the workers (including women and children) dismantling them in unregulated e-waste recycling sites in developing countries. Up until around 2015, the majority of e-waste from around the world ended up in Guiyu, a recycling district in China’s Guangdong Province2 that received negative international coverage for its toxic conditions. Guiyu has since been cleaned up and today, electronics manufacturers including Apple tout their partnerships with domestic recyclers (often motivated by state e-waste laws requiring them to responsibly recycle a certain portion of e-waste). Nonetheless, a 2015 sting operation by Seattle-based environmental watchdog Basel Action Network revealed that some U.S. recycling was a sham. BAN hid GPS trackers in 200 pieces of obsolete electronics and dropped them off at e-waste collection centers; about a third of the e-waste ended up at unregulated developing-world sites.3

1REISINGER, DON. “CHILD LABOR REVELATION PROMPTS APPLE TO MAKE SUPPLIER POLICY CHANGE.” FORTUNE. HTTP://WWW.FORTUNE.COM/2017/03/03/ APPLE-COBALT-CHILD-LABOR/ (PUBLISHED MARCH 3, 2017, AND ACCESSED JULY 27, 2017). 2STANDAERT, MICHAEL. “CHINA’S NOTORIOUS E-WASTE VILLAGE DISAPPEARS ALMOST OVERNIGHT.” BLOOMBERG. HTTPS://WWW.BNA.COM/CHINAS-NOTORIOUS-EWASTE-N57982065266/ (PUBLISHED DEC. 17, 2015, AND ACCESSED AUG. 1, 2017). 3“SCAM RECYCLING: E-DUMPING ON ASIA BY U.S. RECYCLERS.” BASEL ACTION NETWORK. HTTP://WIKI.BAN.ORG/IMAGES/1/12/ SCAMRECYCLINGREPORT-WEB.PDF (PUBLISHED SEPT. 15, 2016, AND ACCESSED AUG. 1, 2017). * WHILE APPLE INC. IS ONE OF THE LARGEST PRODUCERS OF POPULAR ELECTRONICS, ITS PRODUCTS ARE DEPICTED HERE MERELY AS SYMBOLIC REPRESENTATIVES OF THE LARGER HIGH-TECH CONSUMER GOODS INDUSTRY, EXCEPT WHERE SPECIFICALLY STATED.

WHAT’S IN YOUR PHONE?

RARE EARTHS
Nearly all cellphones use rare earths — an array of 17 soft metals that include neodymium, gallium, lutetium, ruthenium and rutherfordium — which are useful in insulators, transistors and processors. Until fairly recently, nearly all of the world’s rare earth metals were mined in China, where open-pit mines generate large amounts of toxic waste and environmental regulations are lax. The Mongolian city of Baotou became notorious for storing decades of radioactive tailings in a large pond that villagers have blamed for contaminating surrounding water and soil. 1
COLTAN
Another mineral crucial to high-tech gadgets is coltan, an alloy of columbite and tantalite that refines into a heatresistant powder called tantalum. It is considered a “conflict mineral” when sourced from the Congo, where mining is under the control of war lords. Up until recently, Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure rules required electronics producers to declare whether the smelters in their supply chain use tantalum, gold, tin or tungsten from conflict regions in the Congo. 2 However, industry associations successfully sued, and in April 2017 the SEC dropped its requirement. 3

1 KAIMAN, JONATHAN. “RARE EARTH MINING IN CHINA: THE BLEAK SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS.” THE GUARDIAN. HTTPS://WWW.THEGUARDIAN.COM/SUSTAINABLE-BUSINESS/RARE-EARTH-MINING-CHINASOCIAL-ENVIRONMENTALCOSTS(PUBLISHED MARCH 20, 2014, AND ACCESSED AUG. 1, 2017).2 BROWING, LYNNLEY. “WHERE APPLE GETS THE TANTALUM FOR YOUR IPHONE.” NEWSWEEK. HTTP://WWW.NEWSWEEK.COM/2015/02/13/WHERE-APPLE-GETS-TANTALUMYOUR-IPHONE-304351.HTML (PUBLISHED FEB. 4, 2015, AND ACCESSED JULY 31, 2017). 3 MONT, JOE. “SEC BACKS AWAY FROM CONFLICT MINERALS RULE ENFORCEMENT.” COMPLIANCE WEEK. HTTPS://WWW.COMPLIANCEWEEK.COM/BLOGS/THE-FILING-CABINET/SEC-BACKS-AWAY-FROMCONFLICT-MINERALS-RULEENFORCEMENT#.WX-XPA2ZNAY(PUBLISHED APRIL 10, 2017, AND ACCESSED JULY 31, 2017).