End users very rarely think about the production of consumable and usable goods. Why should they, it doesn’t exactly touch their daily lives to any meaningful extent outside the price of the product and the environmental impact it causes, but outside that nobody really thinks things like how their forks have been produced. Even before you get to smelting and consuming the raw materials, whatever company procured the materials had to have their own equipment to obtain the metal, most likely via some sort of mining operation, which leads to the whole cycle of obtaining the materials, all the plastics and metals, to produce the necessary equipment. It is practically impossible for a general consume to ever know where and how their products have been sourced and from where. Many companies make big promises for ethical treatments of workers or environment, often both. Fairtrade is one of the prominent examples of this, with issues ranging from low pay for coffee to less money ending up to the growers themselves. The growers outside Fairtrade make three to four times more money by selling outside Fairtrade, whereas less than 12% of any of the money made from Fairtrade products ends up going back to the source despite the significantly more expensive price tag products under this brand are sold in. Fairtrade themselves claims the price is justified due to the high quality of their products, though that seems to be less the case the more you look into habits of hardcore foodies. Things like premium coffee markets were expanding in the 2010’s, and Fairtrade’s didn’t seem to meet with the quality. Olivier Riellinger of Les Maisons de Bricourt said it best, when he described the whole Fairtrade scheme neo-imperialistic that is being imposed on growers. However, Fairtrade continues to succeed to an extent with their branding of ethics and practices.
Let’s use another example, where production of something is completely ignored due to the perceived and argued value of the usable good; electric cars in Germany. The Brussels Times recently wrote that a German scientist had found out that electric vehicles in Germany cause more CO2 emissions than diesel cars. You might be wondering how this would be possible, as electric cars don’t really have CO2 emission. This study found that electric cars, despite their perceived position as an environmental saviour, ultimately cause further emissions due to the source of that power. The power needed to charge these cars comes from power plants, and in Germany they are phasing out the greenest and cleanest form of energy production; nuclear power. Each nation that is phasing out nuclear power in favour of alternative methods means either coal or far weaker form of energy production, and ultimately releases less radiation to the environment than the alternatives. Richard Rhodes has an excellent opinion piece on the subject that I would recommend reading.
While the history of nuclear power has its spots, so does every other form of energy. However, in most of these cases human neglect and lacking procedures have caused the most damage. In Chernobyl, the combination of old, inefficient Soviet nuclear tech and carelessness caused the meltdown. Fukushima Daiichi too was to be refurbished and upgraded many times before that fatal earthquake, but lobbyists and anti-nuclear power movements prevented this, ultimately leading Fukushima’s reactors and facilities to be out-of-date. If they had been upgraded when they were needed and indeed were supposed to originally years prior, Fukushima’s incident would have been avoided. The fact that it is cheapest, cleanest and most efficient power source we have makes every charge we do outside nuclear power damage the environment.
What do we charge? Mobile phones, portable torches, mp3 players, other mobile devices, e-readers, electric cars and so on. Everything runs on batteries, and mining that those metals and minerals; lithium, cobalt, manganese, iron, copper and hematite just to name few, takes energy in itself, often oil and coal powered. These materials are mined in massive amounts, and the insanely large amounts that are produced makes their end price as low as five buck a pack of ten AAA batteries. Then take the amount of chemicals these products require, from surface paintings to the adhesives and plastics parts used inside, and you have more materials required to be produced and assembled through hundreds of different hands.
To use another example, solar panels themselves are considered very environmentally friendly source of energy. Yet this discussion almost always omits the copious amounts of quarts that is required to be mined in order to turn that into silicon in furnaces that emit sulfur and carbon dioxides in large amounts as well as have large amounts of wasted heat. Let’s not forget all the particle pollution this causes. Then you have all the chemicals that are required and produced during the production of the both prepare and wafer the silicon for the panels themselves. Second issue of course is the panels themselves, or rather, the shadows they cast. If a solar panel is placed anywhere else that isn’t a building roof or a wall, like a large field or on a lake, it will cast shadow on the ground. When you have large areas cast in shadows, this impacts the growth on the plants and can screw up small animals in that region. Of course, when the panels are finally up and running, they do produce clean energy, even if it gets quarter cut in production due to all the coal that’s being burned to charge those solar cars.
To reiterate, production of any good takes resources, even especially invisible goods like electricity in your home. It comes from somewhere, and its making requires materials of its own and someone to make, even if it just one guy in a control room making sure shit doesn’t just explode. Whatever product you have in your hands now, be it a cup of coffee or a mouse, consider for a moment how many different individual elements of production it has gone through, and how many hands have been making it, before it ended up in your care. The number is, most likely, more than we can guess.