Ecology

Modernity is almost universally equated with the degree to which a nation and its constituent urban centers are integrated into the global economy. One of the key paths to this integration is via a commitment to technology and infrastructure associated with the "new economy". Modernity and information technology are now considered symbiotic (Wankade and Argawal, forthcoming). The "digital divide" between those with or without access to this technology has become a public policy concern in recent years. Global North nations are heavily "wired", with more than two-thirds of adults in the US actively using computers and the Internet. Access to this technology in most nations of the South is minimal, although growing. In the North, our transportation, commercial, educational, military, media, and governmental infrastructures all rely on computerization for data management, processing, and storage, as well as for private and mass communication. The various sectors that comprise the high technology industry form the largest manufacturing effort in the world. This industry is also one of the most rapidly changing in human history. For example, the speed of the microchip—the "brain" in most computerized devices—has doubled every 18 months for more than three decades. This also means that consumer electronics—particularly personal computers—are becoming obsolete quite rapidly. What happens to all those computers and other electronics goods—also known as "e-waste"—once they are discarded? They are often shipped to urban areas and villages across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where residents/ workers disassemble them for sale in new manufacturing processes. Because each computer contains several pounds of highly toxic materials, this practice creates a massive transfer of hazardous waste products from North to South, and is responsible for impacting public health and the integrity of watersheds in numerous nations such as India, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, and Taiwan, for example. This process has also transformed rural or semi-rural regions into emerging urban spaces and created greater population and toxic pollution densities in heavily urbanized locations.

While the problem of electronic waste reflects the uneven social position of urban dwellers in the North versus those in the South, it is also emblematic of new ways in which the material, discursive, and cultural infrastructures of urban centres are dependent upon (and yet destructive of) natural resources (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003). The ways in which computerization and digitization have impacted the ecological and structural basis of urban social inequalities are too numerous to name here (see Pellow and Park 2002), but leave no doubt that the theses of post-materiality and "weightless" economies in the Digital Age are unsubstantiated (Keil 2003:729). Through the electronics revolution, for example, income inequalities between workers and managers in computer firms have increased steadily as has the drain on natural resources required to fuel the production of electronics commodities for global markets. These technologies also facilitate the development and dissemination of various discourses and cultural imaginings, the most effective of which reinforce capitalist and racist hierarchies within and across societies—although, as I show in this chapter, resistance movements are producing discourses and seeking structural changes to counter this hegemony. Thus, placing this case study within the larger context of this book, the struggle over the socio-environmental impacts of computerization reflects the view from scholars of urban political ecology (UPE) that urban spaces are sites of contestation over structural/ physical/natural and discursive/cultural/symbolic goods (Peet and Watts 2004).

In this chapter I examine the origins of this problem and how the "low-tech" side of "high tech" impacts public and environmental health in urban centres around the globe. There is a sophisticated grassroots transnational effort to document these problems and activists have had success at changing corporate environmental policies and passing local, national, and international legislation to address the worst dimensions of the "e-waste" issue. I will consider these dynamics in the context of urban political ecology, social movement theory, and current debates on the power of resistance in a global political economy. I argue that urban ecological crises are best addressed through a combination of movement strategies that target both states and large private corporations.

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