Engineering Pollution: Resist the Rift!

This video from the “Story of Stuff” people focuses on the electronic industry’s relation to nature. There is a lot of food for thought for makers and hobbyists developing new open source hardware. I know most electronics enthusiasts have the knowhow and hardware to power just about anything at a moment’s notice, but for the consumers of your schematics and kits, standardized, cheap, and easily variable power supplies would cut down a significant amount of unnecessary pollution.

More importantly, we have to remember as engineers that most of the electronics recycling and even component production is done by underpaid workers in hazardous conditions. Pollution and exploitation are not unrelated! They are both methods of personal profit maximization!

Theory Check under the video

Theory Check:

The Metabolic Rift

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. – Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1

An economy is that part of society that defines the metabolic relation between human beings and nature. This metabolic relation can differ depending on the mode of production but is always in the first instance an appropriation of nature by human beings toward an end designed to satisfy human desires. However a society decides to organize the use of land, lakes, forests, etc. will determine that society’s metabolic relation to nature. Under capitalism, labor (that part of human activity which defines the relation to nature) is subordinate to competition over surplus. The central question for Marx was not that of the appropriation of nature by man, which he assumes as constant, but the specific manner in which capitalism carries out this appropriation of nature.

It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this  active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labor and capital. – Karl Marx, The Grundrisse

Marx uses the term ‘inorganic conditions’ as a euphemism for human beings’ appropriation of nature in the sense that a tree cut into wood and shaped into a tool becomes an additional inorganic extension of a human being’s body. The inorganic conditions, that which is appropriated from nature, become the means of production. Human existence is alienated from this relationship with nature in that it is directly alienated from the means of production and the metabolic exchange with nature. If factories, pastures, fields, rivers, and workers’ time are privately owned, society’s relation to nature is determined by the owners of land, machines and labor.

Resist the rift! Design for renewable energy! Design for resistance! Make an effort to find out where your parts are coming from! Make your business a cooperative!

For more on the metabolic rift see John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Theory of the Metabolic Rift. He is a professor of sociology at the University or Oregon and editor of the Monthly Review.

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