Monday, June 28, 2010

Who's to Blame? Who's Responsible?

I've been thinking about blame and responsibility a lot lately, and about the differences between them.

When I was a child, there wasn't much difference, actually. If my father said, "Who's to blame for this mess?" instead of "Who's responsible for this mess?" -- well, either way, it meant that I was in trouble.

But as we get older, things get more complicated. Often, it's not so easy to determine who's the guilty party.

Who's to blame for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? British Petroleum. It's their well, their plan; the buck has to stop at their desk.

But who's responsible? Ah, now that's more complicated: there are a great many threads in that weaving.

There's TransOcean, of course, and Halliburton, and other BP subcontractors, both individual and corporate.

Beyond that -- there's each and every one of us who drove when we could have walked or biked, who bought cars that were a little less fuel-efficient because they were a little more comfortable, who thought "Drill Baby Drill" sounded easier / more macho / more "in control" than did "Conserve Baby Conserve", who opposed higher gas taxes and tougher CAFE standards, who ... oh, you get the picture.

And I'm guilty -- and therefore just as responsible -- too. I'm going to do better, I swear.

There are other areas of our consumer lives in which we need to think and act more responsibly; Nicholas Kristof's column in yesterday's New York Times, "Death by Gadget", offers an important example.

Kristof points out that an essential ingredient for cellphones, computers, and gaming devices is a mineral called tantalum, which is mined in (among other places) Congo. You may have heard of tantalum under another name, "coltan", which is short for columbite-tantalite, from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted.

Proceeds from tantalum mining are financing one of the bloodiest and most barbaric conflicts happening in the world today, with more than 5.4 million deaths since 1996 due to the war and its aftermath. Beyond the deaths are the atrocities. Eastern Congo is now considered to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or a girl, as rape is used as a weapon of war.

A brief video on coltan mining -- which is horrific in its own way, forget about the profits -- was produced by the Pulitzer Center in 2007 and is available here.

Does my cellphone contain tantalum from Congo? I don't know. Tantalum is also mined in countries from Australia to Mozambique to Brazil. So maybe my phone is "clean". But I have no way of knowing.

As Kristof reports, "activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia."

Until now, most manufacturers have accepted "statements from suppliers that they do not source in eastern Congo, with no verification. Auditing the supply chains at smelters to determine whether minerals are clean or bloody would add about a penny to the price of a cellphone, according to the Enough Project," writes Kristof. (If you click through to the Enough Project website, you'll find, among other things, a great video that spoofs the "I'm a Mac" / "I'm a PC" ads.)

The easy thing for us consumers to do is to wait for the manufacturers to do the right thing.

The better thing is to encourage those manufacturers. The next time you're buying a new phone, a new gaming device, a new laptop, ask the salesperson, "Is this built with conflict-free tantalum?"

Chances are, they won't know.

But it should encourage them to ask their supervisors, and for those supervisors to ask suppliers, and it will work its way up the chain.

You can also go to the Raise Hope for Congo website, where you can learn more, pledge to buy conflict-free electronics, and start to take action.

As Kristof says, "No phone or tablet computer can be considered 'cool' if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet."

It's time for us all to be responsible.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Are Your Communications On Message? How About "On Reality"?

Yesterday's New York Times had a wonderful, pathetic example of what happens when reality collides with corporate happy-speak.

On page 11 of the A-section (for those of you who haven't recycled yesterday's news already), there's a full-page ad from BP headlined, "We will get it done. We will make this right."

In the body of the ad, there are these claims: "We have organized the largest environmental response in this country's history. More than three million feet of boom, 30 planes and over 1,300 boats are working to protect the shoreline. When oil reaches the shore, thousands of people are ready to clean it up."

Sounds good, doesn't it? (Actually, sounds like the very least that BP could do.)

Unfortunately, there's a news article just a few pages later, from John Leland in Pensacola Beach, FL (click here), headlined "Local Officials Simmer Over BP Recovery Efforts".

In it, Leland quotes William A. Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority (which oversees Pensacola Beach):
We called BP at 4:30 this morning and told them to send cleanup crews... It's 9:30 and they're not here. There's supposed to be 30 or 40 skimmers out there to protect Pensacola Beach. Do you see any? BP dropped the ball.
The cleanup crews, according to reports from the Times and NPR, arrived around 11.30. Oops.

Remember "Under-promise, over-deliver"?