Change your mindset – not your handset

Here’s my winter 2019 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect, which organises managers and professionals right across the UK. This was my fourth column for the union and, as always, the full column is available only to members – you can join right here and indeed so you should.

In it, I look at the sustainability of mobile handsets within the context of the industry’s two-year, contract-based replacement cycle and the environmental arguments behind why this should be extended. Note that I have slightly updated this with a couple more links.

The frequency with which we replace our mobile handsets – what the industry calls ‘handset replacement cycles’ – continues to lengthen.

Evidence suggests that consumers are seeing value in keeping their devices beyond the two-year timeframe which the industry has seen as standard in recent years.

Forecaster Gartner recently predicted that worldwide sales of smartphones will drop by 3.2% in 2019 – apparently the largest decline in shipments ever experienced.

If this is true, it will come as news to Huawei, which shipped 200 million smartphones in 2019 some 64 days earlier than it did in 2018.

And Apple has just increased production of its new iPhone 11 models by up to 8m units (about 10%). However, the company’s initial conservatism over production levels means that the increase takes it ahead of 2018 production levels by a much smaller amount.

5G to the rescue

5G is expected to rescue manufacturers in 2020 and will bring a return to growth in the market. This is one reason why the industry is continuing to talk up 5G technology as ‘transformational’.

But it does seem that 5G will facilitate some genuine breakthroughs, including:

  • much faster access speeds
  • extremely low levels of latency – the delay between sending and receiving information; this will encourage the development of connected self-driving cars
  • extremely low power consumption
  • greater connectivity, which will be required if the internet of things – the ability of your fridge to engage with your grocer of choice – is to take off.

Low power consumption, albeit within an energy market that will still grow as a result of new uses, has to be a good thing.

But, returning to mobile handsets, the question is ‘How often do we need to replace our handsets?’

Climate cost of short lifespan products

The European Environmental Bureau – a network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe – recently released a report on the climate impact of short-lifespan consumer products, including smartphones, and drew attention to the benefits of making such products more durable.

The study said that the average lifespan of a smartphone, whose production has the largest climate impact of all the consumer products studied, is just three years. Extending this to four years would save more than 2 million tonnes of emissions (CO2eq).

EEB argues that the study is ‘further proof’ that Europe’s climate obligations cannot be met without addressing our production and consumption patterns, which are based on the disposability mindset of the wider consumer electronics industry.

EEB says smartphones need to have longer lifespans and be more easily repaired when they break in order to minimise the climate impact of the production of new handsets.

The study concludes that it is hard to assess if manufacturers build obsolescence into their products. But the number of consumers who are replacing, rather than repairing, defective products is growing.

Right to repair law won’t cover mobile handsets

A new EU law on ecodesign, seeking to facilitate a right to repair and part of a much broader approach to sustainability and the circular economy, will help here although unfortunately it does not extend to mobile handsets (Edit: though this may be changing both for mobile handsets as well as for other electronic devices).

So, the next time your two-year mobile phone contract comes up, ask yourself whether you really need a new handset or whether you can make do with the old one for a bit longer (and save yourself some money in the process).

Rebelling against the disposability of mobile handsets might be but a small act on behalf of the planet – but it is an act.

New car post

That trip to Dundee I referred to below was to pick up a new car.

For one reason or another, it was decision time on the Nissan Leaf in which we have been running around for the past two years – chief among them being that it was the end of the two year period of the personal contract payment scheme under which we bought the car and which seems to prompt the majority of finance-based car purchases [registration] these days. After some research we – well, this means my partner, really, given my continuing non-driver status – opted for a Kia Niro plug-in hybrid as opposed the fully electric Leaf:

newcar

This is not the e-Niro currently causing a bit of a stir in electric car circles but one whose electric battery is supported by a petrol engine.

With an electric car, battery capacity in terms of mileage is the key and the advances in the capacity of the Leaf since 2016 are fair enough, but insufficient to compensate for the lack of advances in the charging infrastructure. It was interesting – though not at all surprising, based on experience – to read in the Pink ‘Un recently that the rapid, but still very low, take-up of electric cars is being held back by the infrastructure (hat-tip: tweet by Prospect Research & Economics). A journey of any distance is fraught with the fear that still-infrequent charging stations will be occupied or otherwise not operating, and driving on routes off the islands, and through remote rural areas, this is a fear that is ever-present.

If you’re not sure of your geography of Scotland, you’ll need to bear with me for the next bit (or otherwise have a suitable online map at hand!). From Mallaig, where we dock on the most convenient ferry route, we can (with a full battery on setting off from the house) reach Fort William (otherwise, it means a charge on disembarking in Mallaig) and then, on a journey to Perth or Dundee: 140 miles from Mallaig) that means a further stop, usually in Tyndrum or Crianlarich. If the Fort William charger isn’t working, a stop at Glencoe Mountain Resort is required and if that’s not working, Tyndrum is only reachable from our house with extremely careful driving, a favourable wind and fingers firmly crossed. Which did happen on one memorable journey.

Stopping is not the problem – it’s good to take a break – and nor is the time to charge which represents an inconvenience but a small one in respect of the carbon emissions saved by not using a car with a combustion engine. The difficulty is the strategic one of planning charging stops around having a fall-back plan, since the infrequency with which stations exist on our route to Perth (which has several options, once we get there) – Mallaig (one rapid charger), Fort William (ditto), Glencoe (ditto), Tyndrum (two!)/Crianlarich (one), Crieff (one) – implies the potential for difficulties in the not infrequent case of chargers not being in use or in case of them being already occupied (and increasingly so with higher numbers of electric cars on the roads). Worst of all, however, is that this situation has not improved in the last two years: these stops were our options back in 2017 when we first went electric and it’s this failure to invest in the infrastructure which prompted our decision to go for a plug-in hybrid.

The Kia Niro’s battery can be charged via a plug-in lead (as in the pic above) and this will deliver a journey of up to about 34 miles with the battery as automatic preference to petrol. This means my partner’s journey to work (c. 26 miles) is battery driven – or largely so: the car will mix and match and it won’t simply exhaust the electric battery before kicking in the petrol engine; it all depends on speed, wind and road conditions and level of battery charge. Consequently, and on initial experience, she gets to work rarely on the battery alone but consuming no more than two miles of petrol. Furthermore, we have the flexibility of not having to worry about charging stations on longer journeys.

This seems to me to indicate the likely direction that electric cars will take: great for those with short journeys with the potential to charge at home (and/or at work); not quite hopeless, but certainly stressful, on long journeys which, without a reformation in the charging infrastructure, most people simply won’t attempt in an electric. Most car journeys may well be short ones – nearly 70 per cent are shorter than five miles (p. 176), according to research which is admittedly fifteen years old but which is probably unlikely to be substantially different now. Such a direction is fair enough, up to a point, but if we continue to leave the charging infrastructure to the market, there will be no change and this will, as a result, heavily jeopardise carbon emission targets whatever the warm words at the G20 and those dates by which the petrol engine should be phased out (currently 2040 in the UK; 2032 in Scotland). [UPDATE 1/7/19: The UK government’s plan, crucially, excludes hybrids; while the status of hybrids under the C40 fossil-fuel-free streets initiative, under which (parts of) London (amidst a number of other cities around the world) will be zero emission by 2030, is unclear although it seems that hybrids are also excluded.]

To meet such targets we need hugely improved public transport infrastructure: electric cars (certainly on current trajectory) won’t be enough by themselves (and with a reminder that the rare materials used in electric cars have their own environmental and social impacts). But, in the context, and given the long road there is to row back given the lack of investment in public transport over the last thirty years, plus the popularity of driving around the highlands and islands (NC 500, anyone?), we do need our governments both at UK level and at the level of the nations of the UK to work closer with industry to invest in a charging infrastructure which provides the opportunity for longer journeys to be made by electric cars, too – and not only on the motorways but across all major transport routes, and with a frequency which delivers suitable and easily reachable options for charging. With most electric cars these days being Type 2 (one of the problems of allowing the market to ‘decide’ is that charging types are several), there is the potential to build a charging infrastructure which works at least for the majority.

But we do need policy-makers actually to get down to making a decision and then taking some action on it. Which, in our current sclerotic terms and given the pathetic response to the Extinction Rebellion so far, will take policy leadership of the kind we absolutely lack.

Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.