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The iPhone, Planned Obsolescence, and the Environment

What kind of cell phone do you have? Is it the latest and greatest smart phone? How about your TV? Did you upgrade from a plasma to LCD, then to LED? How about your laptop, tablet, ipod, and nook? Are they the lightest, thinnest, and most advanced out there? Our technology is changing faster than even most of us can keep up with, and definitely faster than Mother Nature would like. In this post, Mediha Din explores the significant impact technology has on the environment.

A Collection of iPhones
My Brother's Collection of iPhones

My brother had a sparkle in his eye while he was opening up the package to his new iPhone 5. Almost all the men in my family work in the technology industry, so I’ve listened to them discuss that dang phone for months now. My brother was among the first to receive it. Does he need it? Doubtful. He already has the iPhone 4s. I remember not too long ago rolling my eyes as he made countless requests to Siri, only to hear “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t answer that” over and over.

I watch as he takes the new iPhone5 out of the box and marvels at all of the changes. The changes that will help everyone else know that he has upgraded. It is a little longer, a little lighter, and the case is clearly different on the back side. I can already see him in my mind walking around with it as everyone takes notice. “Is that the new iPhone? Can I see it?” someone is sure to ask him.

To my brother, and Apple’s advertisers, this phone is a revolutionary upgrade. Never mind that the phone will require my brother to buy all new power cables, docks, speakers, adapters and car chargers because it has a different style of plug in at the bottom of the device than last year’s model. Never mind that his phone won’t fit in his old phone case and he’ll have to replace that. It’s funny how one new purchase leads to a cascade of consumerism.

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Environmentally Friendly Socialization

As sociologists we often encourage students to see the familiar as strange. That is, to look at boring, mundane, and unremarkable in your daily life with new eyes. Nothing is more unremarkable than trash. However, every community must communicate to it’s members how they should properly dispose of waste. In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath uses a photo essay to show how one community socializes it’s visitors to be environmentally-friendly.

I recently attended the American Sociological Association meetings in Denver, CO. On my trip, I encountered different ways of dealing with trash in public. On the street, I encountered two sided trashcans: one for trash and one for recycling.

I like the idea of being able to easily recycle when I am out in public on the street. The question is, how do I know what should be recycled and what should be trashed? If an item is trash, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan shown on the left. If it recyclable, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan pictured on the right.

Two Sided Trashcans

This type of container on a public street is not all that unusual. In all honesty, beyond aluminium cans, plastic, and paper, I still do not know what types of recyclables can go in the recyclable side of this container. This container’s basic design makes it difficult to just toss items into the recyclable side. The message it seems, is that of if in doubt throw it out….

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Can Sociologists Hurt People?

Researching humans is what social scientists do, but what happens when they want to conduct research that would harm the people in their study? In 1993 a team of researchers in Baltimore Maryland wanted to find out which method of lead paint removal was most effective. Their study allowed predominately African American families with small children to live in homes they knew were contaminated with lead. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses three key aspects of ethical research and how if followed they protect human subjects.

Researchers in Baltimore, who wanted to find the best method for removing lead paint from old houses, watched as children suffered from lead poisoning for years. These are the charges brought by two parents who are now suing the research team. The parents argue that while they knew that their home had lead paint in it, the researchers gave them a “false sense of security” from test results that only showed low levels of contamination. The research conducted from 1993 to 1999 enrolled 108 low income African American families many of whom were already living in the contaminated homes.

The first two judges to hear this case dismissed it, but later a judge upheld the case arguing that it was very similar to a modern day Tuskegee Experiment. During this experiment African American men in Alabama who suffered from syphilis were monitored by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932–1972. The men were not told they had syphilis, but rather only that they had “bad blood”. Worse yet, when penicillin became the widely available cure for syphilis, the researchers decided it was more scientifically valuable to document how the men would die from the disease than to give them treatment. While this is beyond tragic in it’s own right, these men also unknowingly passed the disease to their wives and partners and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

“What it going on here? Can researchers really do stuff like this?” are the first two questions many of my students have. And the answer is, no.

Because of incidents like the Tuskegee experiments, federal research ethics and regulations have been established. Before a researcher can carry out a study on human subjects they must, if they receive federal funding, have their methods reviewed by an independent panel to verify their safety. These panels, often called an Institutional Review Board (IRB)[1], are guided by the three pillars of ethical research: 1. Do No Harm, 2. Informed Consent, 3. Voluntary Participation.

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Cruise Ship Tragedy a “Normal Accident”?

This week the Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise ship carrying 4,200 passengers, hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Italy killing at least 6 with 29 still missing. This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a terrible accident, but should it and other accidents like it be unexpected? In this post Nathan Palmer examines the Costa Concordia incident using Perrow’s theory of “Normal Accidents” to suggest that as the world becomes more technologically complex, accidents like this will becoming increasingly common.

Costa Concordia 2012

These are precarious times, my friend. Just this week a cruise ship capsized, a major online retailer got hacked, and burning space junk will fall from the sky this weekend. Last year at this time the world watched in horror as the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down after an earthquake and tsunami. Weeks later a nuclear power plant in Omaha, NE was at risk of a meltdown due to flood waters from the Missouri River. All of these incidents were referred to as “accidents”, but should they be?

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I’m An Animal (When No Ones Looking)

Most people think nature is a good thing, but yet we humans tend to hide from the public all of the things that make us humans. Environmental sociologists argue that this separation of the natural self and the social self is completely socially constructed. In this post Nathan Palmer explores how we separate our social selves from our natural selves and why this may lead to mistreatment or domination over the natural environment.

George Carlin
George Carlin

Hey, do me a solid and think of all the curse words you know. Now say the dirtiest one aloud, I’ll wait… What does that even mean? I’ve never heard that word before. I just Googled what you said and that’s nasty.

Now that you’ve got your list and the people around you wondering why you are talking to your computer, tell me what all those curse words have in common (besides their social inappropriateness). Stumped? Let’s try another angle.

Comedian George Carlin famously came up with a list of 7 dirty words that you can’t say on television. I can’t repeat them here, but take a look at the list and see if what all these words have in common jumps out at you.

Environmental sociologists would point out that almost all the words we consider obscene describe our animalistic functions or the orifices where they take place. Genitals, sexual intercourse, and excreting various fluids are the basis of most curse words. What’s up with that? More perplexing is that these are common acts. Everyday, I hope, you use the bathroom. Almost everyone will have sex in their life and I hope they enjoy it. Our genitals are central to becoming pregnant and giving birth; something most parents cherish. So why are these words the basis of socially inappropriate language? What does it mean that the words that describe bodily functions we perform often if not everyday are socially inappropriate? Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at how we present our bodies to the world.

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Chicken Heads Found On Dead Chickens!

Chicken heads have been found on dead chickens & KFC doesn’t want you to know it![1. This isn’t meant to be taken seriously. I’m fairly confident KFC embraces the idea that their chickens had heads. Now if KFC was raising headless chickens, that would be something they’d want to hide.] Many people are disgusted by images of animals being slaughtered and food like boneless, skinless chicken breasts hide all signs of the natural consequences behind eating meat. Environmental sociology argues that hiding the natural aspects of life distances people from the natural world they live in.

Chicken

Did you hear the latest news? Reports are coming in that there are chicken heads in the boxes of uncooked chicken at almost all popular fried chicken fast food restaurants in the United States. Thankfully the employees rarely fry and serve the chicken heads. I teach Environmental Sociology and every semester a students will tell me that a friend of theirs who works at KFC or any of the other popular fried chicken places told them that they found chicken heads in the box of uncooked chicken parts (I’ll hold for your shock and awe).

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