by Katie Singer
According to Bill Torbert, professor emeritus in management and organization at Boston College, “If you’re not aware that you’re part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”
So–let me introduce myself. I’m Katie Singer, and I’m part of the problem on Planet Earth.
For most of my life, along with clean water and refrigerated, nutrient-dense food, I’ve expected electric lights, a hot water heater, a washer and dryer, radio, local and long distance phone calls, music and movie players, a car and easy international travel, Since my mid-twenties, I’ve expected a word processor. Since the late 90s, I’ve maintained websites related to my books.
Call me part of a world that values electronics more than nature. Increasingly, I want to live in an environment less saturated with man-made electromagnetic radiation (EMR). I want to feel the Earth’s electromagnetic fields beneath my feet. I want more involvement with growing food and to live near others who share these desires.
If Bill Torbert is right, then admitting that I contribute to the proliferation of electronics qualifies me to help find ways to depend on them less.
First, I’ve got a few other things to admit:
- Talking about how using electronics damages health (damages DNA, causes cancer, increases behavioral problems in children, can be addictive, can cause medical implants to malfunction or shut off, harms wildlife etc.) has not: influenced public awareness. Few doctors or teachers recognize the damages caused by electronic technologies; fewer still warn their clients or students about the damages; yet fewer reduce their own use of electronics. No study, talk or publication has created policies or legislation that protect health or the environment from EMR exposure.
- Talking effectively about electronics’ and electricity’s benefits and hazards is like talking about God. It’s impossible. Presenting only one aspect of technology’s harms–i.e. electro-hypersensitivity (EHS)–gives many people the idea that they have no problems with electronics since they don’t get an immediate reaction to using (i.e.) a cell phone or tablet. Talk about EHS has actually lead many people to dismiss problems with electronics usage entirely. If we want constructive conversation about technologies’ harms, we might need another frame.
- The media rarely portray problems with electronics. When the U.S.’s National Toxicology Program (NTP) released its study proving that 2G cell phone radiation causes cancer, most media “spun” the story and told people not to worry about using cell phones. When an Australian reporter did a feature about Wi-Fi’s dangers, she got fired; her feature got taken off the Internet. When new technology is introduced, few if any reporters ask about its impacts on climate change, biodiversity or human health.
- Few of us who work to illuminate awareness of technology’s dangers or fight new deployments or create protective legislation get paid. Many of us struggle to pay for our basic expenses. We have diminishing access to communications tools because they make us sick–and these very same tools likely provide the most effective ways to communicate ideas. Meanwhile, telecoms and utilities have billions of dollars available for lobbyists, advertising and lawsuits.
- Our society has lost democratic processes. My own City Council recently mandated that it can eject people from our Council chambers for “intemperate” speech. New technologies regularly get deployed without public input or discussion. New technologies regularly get deployed without proof that the technology is safe; without mandated environmental impact assessments; without recognition that new technologies may cause fire, risk devastating cyber attacks, or prevent people from reaching help during power outages.
In short, we’re outnumbered, outspent and exhausted. We hardly know where to give our attention.
Plus, our visions have not materialized.
What did we envision?
Vision #1 The majority of the human population would know that a few billion years ago, before telephones or television or tablets or corporate lobbyists, this planet was a mass of gasses, water, dust and rock. The sun heated the water, making clouds. Wind pushed clouds, generating static electricity. After a buildup of charge, lightning began to strike. A bombardment of lightning storms led to nucleic and amino acids, the building blocks of life. Early plants made oxygen and paved the way for animals. Within the Earth’s electro-chemical environment, plants and animals continue to evolve.
People would know about studies that indicate that land and sea animals as well as insects have an electrical sense. For example, bees are positively charged, and flowers are negatively charged. These charges help pollen stick to bees’ hair while they visit a flower. Bees also use their electrical sense to determine whether or not a flower has recently been visited by another bee–and to decide whether the flower is worth visiting.
All children would learn that to navigate, animals as diverse as migrating geese, sea turtles and wolves use the Earth’s magnetic field.
All human organs, including our brains and hearts, function by electro-chemical signals. Digesting food, feeling thirsty, sleeping, locating home, communicating, resisting disease, healing infections and broken bones, making decisions and so much more are biological functions that ultimately depend on multiple electrical forces. Even at rest, all of our cells have measurable voltage.
Every person would know that without electromagnetic energy, none of us would be here.
Vision #2 Before touching an electronic device, every child would learn that our species did not figure out how to generate, store and transmit electrical energy on a large scale until about 150 years ago. Since then, we have deployed a massive amount of electrical infrastructure and electronics that operate at frequencies and amplitudes that are not found in nature.
Vision #3 Every electronics user would know that faulty wiring, powerlines, cordless and mobile phones, iPads, iPods, Wi-Fi, radio and TV broadcasting antennas, cell towers, digital and transmitting utility meters and other common electronics emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR). People would know that brief, long-term, combined and cumulative EMR-exposure can harm children, people with medical implants, the general population and wildlife.
Every cell phone user would be aware that cell phone radiation causes brain cancer and damages DNA .
Every teenager would know how much EMR their device emits and choose longer life over eye-to-eye conversation and screen time.
People would express concern whenever a pregnant woman uses a cell phone, because then her offspring’s risk of behavioral problems goes up 85%. Doctors would inform parents that turning Wi-Fi off every night for at least 12 hours appears to help many children with autism and ADHD calm their behavior. And so, parents would turn Wi-Fi off every night for at least 12 hours.
Whenever an adult or child would notice that screen-time degrades their behavior, they take a three-week electronic fast. After the fast, they would determine their screen-time tolerance level; and stick to it.
Vision #4 Every Internet user would know that
* it and the Cloud require tremendous amounts of electricity. Such electricity use generates greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat within our atmosphere and change our climate.
* the Internet and the Cloud require huge servers (which store website data and access apps). These data centers are large enough to be visible from outer space. They’re packed with computers and air conditioners–which require electricity.
* according to Greenpeace, in 2012, if data centers were a country, they would rank fifth in the world in energy consumption.
* hourly Internet traffic in 2013 exceeded the total Internet traffic of year 2000. The Cloud and the Internet grow 20% every year.
* by conservative estimates, 30% of the Internet is dedicated to pornography Everyone who owns wireless devices (including cordless and mobile phones, tablets and cordless shavers) would know that each device requires coltan. Refined to a powder, coltan holds charge. Found largely in Congo, mining for coltan has contributed to mass rapes and more loss of life than any other single situation since World War II.
Informed that using electronics has lasting global consequences, that human behavior is now the strongest influence on geological/atmospheric changes and that our actions affect millions of other species, each human being would commit to reducing their own use of electronics.
I envisioned Arctic ice. I envisioned fossil fuels left in the ground.
I dreamed that my online talks did not use too many fossil fuels or emit too much electromagnetic radiation.
Vision #5 Children would play with yarn and crayons and clay and a shovel. Children would think, read and write without Apple and Pearson (or anyone) tracking their preferences for corporate, lifelong marketing tools.
Children’s screen-time would be balanced with vegetable growing, food preservation, eye-to-eye conversation and constructive solitude without electronics.
Wi-Fi and tablets would be removed from schools and public libraries. Informed people would gladly change their expectations and behavior and prefer eye-to-eye conversation. Occasionally, they would use computers with Ethernet cables.
Vision #6 Telephone companies would preserve landlines at affordable rates. During power outages, people needing help would get help. U.S. legislators would reverse laws they’ve enacted to eliminate landlines by January, 2020.
Vision #7 Digital, transmitting utility meters, those “smart” devices that cause fires, open electric power grids to cyber attacks, breech privacy, harm health and cost way more than estimated, would be replaced with analog-mechanical meters. No new “smart” meters would be deployed.
Legislators would prevent deployment of all new EMR-emitting electronics until they are proven harmless.
Vision #8 The majority of people would know their country’s federal rules and regulations about telecommunications. In the U.S., for example, our Federal Communications Commission defines “harmful interference” as anything that interferes with existing radio or TV broadcasts and cellular and Internet services. The definition does not include biological harm. In our 1996 Telecommunications Act, Section 704 prohibits health and environmental concerns from interfering with the placement of telecom equipment.
Informed citizens would demand that legislators enact laws that respect human health and wildlife at least as much as technological development.
Vision #9 Plenty of communities would be available without digital or transmitting utility meters, cell towers, 5G, Wi-Fi, mobile phones, transformers of all kinds, stray voltage, dirty power and LED street lights. Pregnant women, children, people with medical implants, the general population and wildlife would find homes with minimal EMR exposure.
Okay already. I need to stop dreaming and wake up to reality. Most of our species does not see itself as part of nature. Our species loves electronics. For nearly a century, electric appliances have let us give attention to things other than laundry and food preservation. Wireless devices let us connect with each other immediately and internationally. The Internet gives a place for everyone to share stories.
Most people have no problems with electricity or electronics, even when we can’t pry ourselves or our children away from a video game. Few people can envision life with less electronics. Few adults or children know that using electronics impacts climate change; fewer yet have a commitment to reducing their energy use. Most people give money to corporations that mine coal and coltan and run nuclear power plants so we can have electricity, a phone, radio, movies, websites and email. We cannot envision our lives lasting very long without virtual communications or a refrigerator.
Call us corporate-dependent ratepayers.
But Vision #10 is fabulous: Humans come out of our electronic stupor and stop degrading the Earth and each other for text messages and videos. We study our effects on other people and other species. We reduce our energy use, EMR and screen-time exposures. We each find peace between our ears.
Back to reality. In May, 2016, a few days after the U.S.’s NTP released its $25 million study proving that cell phone radiation causes cancer, a friend went to a young doctor and told him about it. The doctor said he did not need to read the study. He knows that cell phone radiation does not heat tissue immediately. He knows that wireless devices are safe.
A month earlier, I asked a woman I’ve known for years to take a look at “Take Back Your Power,” Josh del Sol’s documentary about “smart” meters, since our utility just proposed installing them. This woman knew that I’m concerned about EMR exposure from electronics. Her husband died from a glio blastoma multiforme brain tumor.
“Thanks for your passion,” she replied. “But I don’t have time for your issue. I’m busy with global warming issues.”
For the better part of a day, I stewed. I felt sick of people calling EMR exposure “my” issue. I wondered if it’d be constructive to tell this woman how much the Internet alone contributes to global warming.
I could not think of a constructive way to continue our conversation.
In July, 2016, seven weeks after the NTP study, the U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to install 5G as a “national priority.” Soon, telecom corporations will install transmitters on power and light poles throughout U.S. neighborhoods–so we can download videos faster. (Some reports say ten-fold faster; some say one hundred-fold faster.) FCC Chair Tom Wheeler said that “we do not believe we should spend the next couple of years studying what 5G should be, how it should operate, and how to allocate spectrum… Turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future.”
FCC Commissioners also voted to ease the transition toward the elimination of landlines in the U.S. by January, 2020. Thirteen states have already passed such legislation.
Electronic technologies are like freight trains moving at the speed of light. They’ve got clear direction, and they are gaining momentum.
I can rant, Who is the “we” that Chairman Wheeler refers to? I can pound my fists into the microwaved air that FCC Commissioners voted on Mr. Wheeler’s proposal 24 days after he announced it without any public input or discussion.
Ranting gives me laryngitis. It makes me sick,
I need sleep. When I get quiet, I recognize that nothing I’ve envisioned or testified about or published has stopped or even slowed electronic developments.
I wake up again. I realize that relating with utility and telecom corporations and my FCC is like dealing with alcoholic parents. Trying to change them is futile. If I blame them for my troubles, I miss the opportunity to take responsibility for myself, to see my part in my dependence on utilities, electronics and appliances.
To survive, I rely on grocery stores, power and phone companies. I do not know how to rely on nature. (I might grow 1% of my food.) I do not know how to use electricity without burning coal or building nuclear power plants.
Manufacturing solar power systems (panels, batteries, inverters) requires toxic chemicals that harm our environment. Operating solar systems generates harmful dirty electricity (unless the system is thoroughly filtered) I have not heard of any way to generate electricity from wind turbines that does not harm living creatures. Further, renewables give the idea that we can use electronics as much as we want without consequences. This is another illusion.
The future intimidates me.
I cannot know the future.
So how do I live in a high-tech landscape with dreams I know are futile?
Call me a student in need of a teacher.
Consider nature the teacher. Nature teaches us that living creatures are part of a web that cycles through birthing and dying, cooling and heating, moistening and drying, fertility and barrenness. To survive, we depend on friendly contact with each other and a biodiverse web. If we’re lucky, we experience a place in this web–and the humility that comes with that knowing.
I consider myself privileged to be alive now, wrestling with these dreams and realities, with my place between technology and nature.
I did not get born knowing my place in a biodiverse planet with millions of species that respond to and depend on each other. I got born to expect I can and should have what I want. I got born thinking that electronics are necessary and harmless.
The late David Brower, who founded Friends of the Earth and served as the Sierra Club’s first executive director, used to invite people to imagine the last four and a half billion years that the Earth has evolved as a six-day week. With this image, each day equals about 750 million years.
According to Brower, “all day Monday and until Tuesday noon, creation was busy getting the Earth going.” Life began around noon on Tuesday and developed over the next four days. Big reptiles showed up at 4pm on Saturday. By the time the redwoods appeared, at 9pm, still on Saturday, big reptiles were gone. Humans appeared at three minutes before midnight. Christ showed up at one-fourth of a second before midnight. The Industrial Revolution began at one-fortieth of a second before midnight.
In this fraction of a second, we humans have degraded Earth’s ecosystems. Electronic technologies surround us and define who we are and what matters.
Just noticing the changes here, on Planet Earth, can make people crazy, angry and rude–and intolerant of ourselves and each other. In the face of this intensity, the best remedy I know is to give space for it.
When someone becomes mysteriously sick or suddenly rude, we can take it as an invitation to get humble. We can say, “Tell me about it. Tell me more.”
Casually, if there’s an opening, we can wonder if our friend recently “upgraded” their phone or Internet access, acquired a “smart” meter or dimmer switches or new antennas in the neighborhood.
But I am not a saint. I am angry.
If there’s still an opening, we can report that to encourage better sleep, calmer behavior, clearer vision, clearer thinking and less energy use, some people experiment with reducing their EMR exposure:
* Turn Wi-Fi off for at least 12 hours every night.
* Replace fluorescent lights with incandescents. Replace dimmers with on-off switches.
* Keep all wireless devices on airplane mode in cars or trains (metal boxes).
* Be aware of second-hand EMR-exposure. Keep wireless devices and Wi-Fi away from pregnant women, children and people with medical implants.
* Keep electronics unplugged (not just off) while sleeping.
* Opt for analog-mechanical utility meters.
* Be aware that wireless transmissions require much more energy than wired ones. Download videos and data via wired connections.
We can create forums to define priorities and celebrate questions. Questions encourage discussion. Discussion builds community.
* What are our priorities? What can we do to build health, safer environments, critical thinking skills, conversation and community?
* How much energy does it take to manufacture, ship and operate this device that we want? How/will this technology impact climate change?
* Has this technology we want been proven safe for pregnant women, children, people with medical implants and wildlife? What do studies show about its short and long-term health effects? Who funded those studies?
* How will using this device affect our humanness and our connection to the natural world?
* What would be the harms and benefits of not upgrading?
So many of us experience a sense of power with a “smart” phone in our hands. We don’t want to give it up. Why would we want to give it up?
Usually, most of us do not recognize problems beyond our control. We assume that we should be in control, that technology can help us get there–and we do not notice that we have very, very little control.
With common priorities, we may have a chance at local authority over infrastructure in schools or neighborhoods. We might create “community rights ordinances” that allow true self-governance.
Remember that we are students of nature. Think of the pinecone lodge. When it gets old, its veins get large, and beetles can creep in and kill the tree. But when fire destroys the tree–and perhaps the entire forest–the intense heat opens the cones of the trees; the seeds are in the cones. For a lot of plants, fire is the only way to regeneration.
According to the ancient Tao, which recognizes nature as our teacher, whenever a situation reaches its extreme, it gives birth to its opposite. As electronics increase their hold on our lives, perhaps ways with less electronics grow closer. Perhaps our electronic ecosystem is near its extreme, and we are on our way to regeneration.
Katie Singer’s books include The Wholeness of a Broken Heart (a novel), The Garden of Fertility, Honoring Our Cycles, and, most recently, An Electronic Silent Spring. Visit www.electronicsilentspring.com.