A few weeks ago, the consumerist madness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday was celebrated in North America, Europe and elsewhere in the world, with an ever-increasing offer in consumer electronics, but more recently also in “green” products to ease consumers’ ecological conscience.
At the same time, in southern DRC, in and around Kolwezi, known as the world cobalt capital, violent expulsions continue to occur, and entire neighborhoods are being wiped off the map on the basis of economic interests, so that this metal, among other mining resources, can continue to be exploited whatever the human and environmental cost. The DRC is home to the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, considered a key element in modern technology and “net zero” ambitions.
The parallel between end-of-year commercial traditions and the situation in this part of the Congo is yet another revelation of the tragic realities behind many aspects of “Western comfort”. This parallel also reflects the profound inconsistencies inherent in a global transition that claims to be ecological, but which may omit the very foundations of a desirable society, and thus any sense of ethics or social justice.
A history of colonialism
“Africa is shaped like a revolver, and the Congo is the trigger”, a famous quote by Franz Fanon which, today still, explains much about the geo-strategic importance of this country that has always attracted the greed of many. Congo is a textbook case for exploring the forms of colonialism and the various mechanisms associated with it, although the history taught in the North as well as in the country’s own schools has long been influenced by the Belgian narrative attempting to mitigate the “balance sheet of colonization” and even going so far as to present Leopold II as a “builder king”. The massacres and other colonial crimes motivated by the exploitation of Congolese ivory and the massive extraction of rubber in the 1900s were not made public until several decades later. This reign, considered the most barbaric in colonial history, and the abuses of Belgian colonization that followed have become topical again in recent years, with the emergence of an African generation more interested in a decolonial reading of its past.
As in many African countries, the legacy of colonization and the plundering of natural resources by foreign powers remained long after independence. This is particularly obvious in the case of DR Congo, where, after the assassination of Prime Minister and icon of colonial liberation Patrice Lumumba in the 1960s, the country’s debt exploded, along with dependence on Belgium and the United States in particular, and then on international financial institutions in the 1970s with their structural adjustment loans, whose consequences on the impoverishment of populations are well known. The liberalization of the Congolese mining sector driven by these same Bretton Woods institutions in the early 2000s has not served social policies either, and it was only in 2018 that the country revised its mining code to ensure a less unfair distribution of mining revenues in favor of the Congolese state. Despite the government’s efforts to diversify its partners (China, Western countries) and to take the imperative path of industrialization, the road to sovereign management of resources that truly benefits the population, and not just local and foreign elites, is not without its challenges.
In the southern province of Lualaba (former Katanga), the situation of exploitation that is occurring wears the “green” color of the energy transition and that of the digital transition. And this since our world is dominated by Big Tech and technological solutionism to address the environmental crisis, which translates into the production of ever more smartphones, tablets, laptops, electric vehicles, etc., leading to an exponential need for so-called “critical” minerals, of which cobalt and copper from Congolese subsoils represent a major part.
Green neocolonialism in the name of transition
Global dependence on cobalt is such that demand for this metal jumped by 70% between 2017 and 2022, and is set to rise to 222,000 tons by 2025.
The electric vehicle sector is, and will be over the next years, largely responsible for the mineral demand growth from clean technology applications. The cathode of an electric vehicle battery can contain up to 15 kg of cobalt, and that of a smartphone up to 10 grams. While research to reduce or eliminate dependence on this metal in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries has been underway for many years, and despite the adoption of alternatives such as phosphate-based LFP batteries by certain manufacturers, projects aiming to gain control of Congolese cobalt continue to emerge, and current supply chains remain largely dependent on this metal, which has a low end-of-life recycling rate.
Yet it is now known that the exploitation of cobalt in DRC is associated with child labor in disastrous conditions, violence, violations of land rights, among other practices detrimental to the environment (widespread contamination of water, soil and air) and to the Congolese people, 60 million of whom is still living on less than $2.15 a day in 2022.
A report by Amnesty International with the DRC-based organization IBGDH (September 2023) depicts the scale of forced evictions and other violations of the fundamental rights of local residents and farmers, for the purpose of expanding industrial-scale mines of cobalt and copper by multinationals, which have all the leeway to enforce even a modicum of ethics in their operations if the balance of power allowed it. This pattern can be found in other resource-rich countries in Africa and beyond.
In this sense, how can we qualify a so-called green transition when grounded in a logic of productivism and consumerism, justifying renewed forms of predation, violence, and violation of indigenous lands, if not “green neocolonialism”? Let’s face it, the energy, and digital transitions, often presented as a historic opportunity for Africa, can only be so if the very foundations of our “hyper-globalized” society are seriously rethought, and freed from neo-colonial schemes.
Consumption patterns as an essential lever
Besides the responsibility of governments and companies to ensure compliance with standards in terms of mining working conditions, CSR, fair compensation in the event of unavoidable resettlement of populations, etc., another lever which is no less important is that of consumption patterns in countries of the Global North.
The said Black Friday generated $9.8 billion in US online sales in 2023, up 7.5% on the previous year. The equivalent figures for Cyber Monday are even more phenomenal (12.4; up 9.6%). The trend towards technological hyper-consumption is no less worrying in Europe.
The reality of what happens to these end-of-life products is even more disturbing, since the amount of e-waste will more than double by 2050, reaching, using a baseline scenario, around 111 million tons per year, according to a report co-published by the StEP initiative and the UN. As if the disastrous realities of upstream production weren’t enough, downstream, large volumes of this toxic waste will be dumped by Europe in Africa, where some recycling will often take place informally and in deplorable conditions.
In view of these facts, it is worth emphasizing that consuming “green” is not enough and is by no means a miracle solution, but rather an additional layer of consumption on top of the conventional offering, which, through a rebound effect, only supports consumption and ultimately contributes to an increase in overall demand, thus cancelling out all or part of the expected environmental gain.
Instead, the actual usefulness of so many “smart” gadgets, needs dictated by technology companies and linked in their marketing with “better living”, of so many individual vehicles – electric or otherwise – is what deserves to be deeply challenged, and is not being challenged enough… Questioning the ever-increasing, ever-more connected, ever-more extravagant lifestyles of consumers in the North, is what the capitalist machine is obviously not ready to hear.
How can Africa become a player in global transitions?
And yet, as long as frugality remains taboo in societies like the American society, and one swears only by technological innovation to solve the ills of our century, as long as we fail to recognize that objectively, the end of abundance has come, and that we should move beyond the logic of neoliberalism, several African countries will continue to pay the price of green and digital transitions – which sorely lack societal foundations and lead to social injustices and ethical aberrations – instead of playing a full part in these processes by leveraging their strategic natural resources in exchange for technology transfers, for instance. In other words, we hear repeatedly that Africa is the future of mankind and of low-carbon transition to counter global warming, but we seem to forget that Africa is above all the future of Africans.
On another note, with the middle classes expanding in many African countries, the African consumer should never consider the Western consumerist lifestyle as a societal ideal. For instance, there should be nothing desirable in the accumulation of connected devices with inessential and redundant features (smartwatch, smartphone, electronic tablet…). On the contrary, this technological over-consumption, when the uses are superfluous, is often symptomatic of digital alienation, emptiness, and a lack of meaning.
Africa must pursue its socio-economic, industrial, and technological development based on its own models of consumption and innovation, which are a source of opportunities, but also inspiration for the world in the field of digital and ecological transitions (Mobile money, Low tech…). It would be regrettable if, conversely, the average African were to abandon their ingenuity and sense of frugality to run passively behind the deception of the “latest fashion”. All these are false needs that have characterized Western consumption patterns since the 20th century, and fueled a global system founded on stark inequalities while perpetuating realities of modern slavery in some supply chains for the “comfort” of a minority.