Earth in the Spin Cycle: The Myth of the Green Tech Industry

Curator's Note

One of the tech industry’s greatest triumphs is cultivation of an aura of good citizenship and progress. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the companies that build our computers and networking infrastructures looked all the more savoury in contrast to the financial speculators. And even though consciousness of climate change is fickle and often suppressed through state and corporate propaganda, the Alberta tar sands and fracking have never been suitable for a greenwashing campaign. Enter our Silicon Valley prima donnas, constantly touted in State of the Union speeches and their own marketing as the foundation of a greener and happier capitalist society.

In its “Better Starts Here” video, Apple boasts of its numerous “green” projects, including a private solar plant in China, a private tidewater power plant in Oregon, and use of renewable energy in stores and data centres, etc. Nothing in the video is strictly false, and Apple makes a greater commitment to green capitalism than almost any other tech giant, but the video remains a smokescreen. Beyond the fact that the projects outlined in the video are only accessible to Apple as a private entity rather than common management and oversight, there is another intractable problem that will neutralize any attempt to create “green” capitalism.

In essence, that problem lies in a contradiction between how natural systems manage energy and how capitalist institutions manage it. Natural systems are marked by conservation, capitalism by accumulation and acceleration. It is in Apple’s basic interest to grow as quickly and as much as possible, meaning that its consumption of highly energy-intensive resources (aluminum, silicon, rare earth elements) will continue to expand if the company achieves its goals. While its propaganda promises a world where growth and the limits of the natural bounty will never come into conflict, where resources will never need to be seized through militarism and imperial wars, the reality is that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. Note how, even though Apple continues to grow, its investors demand more. These are the insatiable motors that drive capitalism, and any “greening” of our current system will grant only a temporary reprieve. [1]

Corporate greening is no solution, nor are “no growth” slogans that neglect the fact that most Southern economies need to grow to provide their people with a decent life. What is needed is a radical reorientation of global energy: away from capital, away from the North, and channeled through democratic rather than technocratic politics. “Better” starts not with Apple, but in social movements, and no matter how much we enjoy our MacBooks, we can’t live with the illusion that our fossil fuelled gilded age can last much longer.

 

[1] This article is deeply indebted to Robert Biel, The Entropy of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 68-71.

Comments

This is such a fascinating

This is such a fascinating video. The aesthetics in it are so “apple”! It’s so interesting how the definition of “ecosystem” seems to have evolved—and how this video (and “corporate greening”) situates itself within that ecosystem. Thank you for this discussion, Jonathan.

Jonathan Hielkema's picture

My pleasure. I’m glad to

My pleasure. I’m glad to bring this video and Apple’s whole campaign to wider attention because it’s an important plank of their brand. Without these initiatives, which are real enough, as I noted, they would not be able to cultivate the same progressive feeling in those who purchase and identify with their products. It’s as much a part of the Apple’s all-encompassing and visceral experience as glass trackpads, “retina” displays, and sterile stores. It’s not even deception, just an indication of how Apple honestly views its priorities.

Remy Yi Siang Low's picture

Unveiling the fantasy of "green capitalism"

Thanks for a great post, Jonathan. I agree with Zainab that the aesthetics of the video are so Apple. It really lends a certain utopian coolness to the “have your cake and eat it” logic of green capitalism, which you’ve unpicked really well. One needs only to recall the suffering wrought in the Coltan mines to interrupt that narrative.

Jonathan Hielkema's picture

One of the visual tricks of

One of the visual tricks of branding is that companies appear to be able to differentiate themselves while remaining essentially all part of the same parasitic system. Apple defines itself as environmentally friendly (as a brand, not just as a set of individual products) despite having to rely on hugely energy-hungry silicon and other mineral extraction and processing industries. But that’s what makes the entire so difficult to pin down and confront: its components are extremely heterogeneous and can often turn the horrors of the whole system––like environmental destruction––into selling points for individual corporations or certain NGOs. Take away our world and give us a wonderful product with the other hand.

Brandon Niezgoda's picture

Reminds Me of

The recalled Coca-Cola Advertisement in Mexico. Renewal energy, but for who? To keep the lights on at the Apple stores? Really self-serving. The only thing this shows is that Apple is becoming more efficient. It is still capitalism.

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