How Sand Extraction Damages Ecosystems

The world uses nearly 50bn tonnes of sand and gravel a year—almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is extracted and traded on such an epic scale, bar water. Demand is greatest in Asia, where cities are growing fast (sand is the biggest ingredient in concrete, asphalt and glass). China got through more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the entire 20th century (the use of cement is highly correlated with that of sand).

Since the 1960s Singapore—the world’s largest importer of sand—has expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea. The OECD thinks the construction industry’s demand for sand and gravel will double over the next 40 years. Little wonder then that the price of sand is rocketing. In Vietnam in 2017 it quadrupled in just one year.

In the popular imagination, sand is synonymous with limitlessness. In reality it is a scarce commodity, for which builders are now scrabbling. Not just any old grains will do. The United Arab Emirates is carpeted in dunes, but imports sand nonetheless because the kind buffeted by desert winds is too fine to be made into cement. Sand shaped by water is coarser and so binds better. Extraction from coastlines and rivers is therefore surging. But according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Asians are scooping up sand faster than it can naturally replenish itself. In Indonesia some two dozen small islands have vanished since 2005. Vietnam expects to run out of sand this year.

All this has an environmental cost. Removing sand from riverbeds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin. Moreover, according to WWF, a conservation group, as much as 90% of the sediment that once flowed through the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers is trapped behind dams or purloined by miners, thereby robbing their deltas both of the nutrients that make them fecund and of the replenishment that counters coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, saltwater is surging up rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other places, and crop yields are falling in the areas affected. Vietnam’s agriculture ministry has warned that seawater may travel as far as 110km up the Mekong this winter. The last time that happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometres of land were ruined, resulting in losses of $237m. Locals have already reported seeing dead fish floating on the water.

Curbing sand-mining is difficult because so much of it is unregulated. Only about two-fifths of the sand extracted worldwide every year is thought to be traded legally, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. In Shanghai miners on the Yangzi evade the authorities by hacking transponders, which broadcast the positions of ships, and cloning their co-ordinates. It is preferable, of course, to co-opt officials. Ministers in several state governments in India have been accused of abetting or protecting illegal sand-mining. “Everybody has their finger in the pie,” says Sumaira Abdulali of Awaaz Foundation, a charity in Mumbai. She says she has been attacked twice for her efforts to stop the diggers.

Excerpts from Bring me a nightmare: Sand-Mining, Economist, Jan. 18, 2019

Viva Over-Fishing! Addicted to Over-Consumption of Fish

In 2015 world leaders signed up to a long list of sustainable development goals, among them an agreement to limit government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (wto) were told to finish the job “by 2020”. They have missed their deadline. Overfishing is a tragedy of the commons, with individuals and countries motivated by short-term self-interest to over-consume a limited resource. By one measure, the share of fish stocks being fished unsustainably has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015.

Governments make things worse with an estimated $22bn of annual subsidies that increase capacity, including for gear, ice, fuel and boat-building. One study estimated that half of fishing operations in the high seas (waters outside any national jurisdiction) would be unprofitable without government support.

 Trade ministers were supposed to sort it all out at WTO meeting in December in Kazakhstan. But the meeting was postponed till June 2020. Moreover, the murky nature of subsidies for unregulated and unreported fishing makes their work unusually difficult. Governments do not have lines in their budget that say “subsidies for illegal fishing”, points out Alice Tipping of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank.

Negotiators are trying to devise a system that would alert governments to offending boats, which would become ineligible for future subsidies. That is tangling them up in arguments about what to do when a boat is found in disputed territory, how to deal with frivolous accusations and how to treat boats that are not associated with any country offering subsidies.

When it comes to legal fishing of overfished stocks, it is easier to spot the subsidies in government budget lines, but no easier to agree on what to do about them. America and the European Union, for example, have been arguing over whether to allow subsidies up to a cap, or whether to ban some subsidies and take a lenient approach to the rest. The EU favours the second option, arguing that where fisheries are well-managed, subsidies are not harmful. To others this looks like an attempt to ensure any eventual deal has loopholes.

Further complicating matters is a long-running row about how to treat developing countries. All WTO members agree that some need special consideration. But as an American representative pointed out at a recent WTO meeting, 17 of the world’s 26 most prolific fishing countries are developing ones. That means broad carve-outs for them would seriously weaken any deal.

China, both the world’s biggest fisher and biggest subsidiser of fishing, has proposed capping subsidies in proportion to the number of people in each country who work in the industry. But it is the world leader here, too, with 10m at the last count (in 2016). Other countries fear such a rule would constrain China too little.

Excerpts from The World Trade Organization: What’s the Catch, Economist, Jan 4, 2020

Over Your Dead Body: the Creation of Internet Companies

Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” (2019) explains how the internet was created. The 26 words are these: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” They form Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, itself a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.   Section 230 shields online platforms from legal liability for content generated by third-party users. Put simply: If you’re harassed by a Facebook user, or if your business is defamed by a Yelp reviewer, you might be able to sue the harasser or the reviewer, assuming you know his or her identity, but don’t bother suing Facebook or Yelp. They’re probably immune. That immunity is what enabled American tech firms to become far more than producers of content (the online versions of newspapers, say, or company websites) and to harness the energy and creativity of hundreds of millions of individual users. The most popular sites on the web—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Reddit, Wikipedia, Amazon—depend in part or in whole on user-generated content…

Because of section 230, the U.S. was able to cultivate online companies in ways that other countries—even countries in the developed world—could not….American law’s “internet exceptionalism,” as it’s known, is the source of mind-blowing technological innovation, unprecedented economic opportunity and, a great deal of human pain. The book chronicles the plights of several people who found themselves targeted or terrorized by mostly anonymous users… Each of them sued the internet service providers or websites that facilitated these acts of malice and failed to do anything about them when alerted. And each lost—thanks to the immunity afforded to providers by Section 230.

Has the time come to delete the section?

Excerpt from Barton Swaim, ‘The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet’ Review: Protecting the Providers, WSJ, Aug. 19, 2019

Severe Marine Pollution Crime: Interpol

A global operation led by INTERPOL that took place in 2019 involving 61 countries identified thousands of illicit activities behind severe marine pollution. Codenamed 30 Days at Sea 2.0, the month-long (1-31 October, 2019) operation gathered more than 200 enforcement authorities worldwide for concerted action across all continents.

Illustrating the severe global extent of marine pollution crime, preliminary operational results have already revealed more than 3,000 offences detected during 17,000 inspections. The offences – such as illegal discharges at sea, in rivers, or in coastal areas – were found to have been committed primarily to avoid the cost of compliance with environmental legislation.

As part of Operation 30 Days at Sea 2.0, INTERPOL hosted an Operational Command Centre (OCC) in Singapore to focus on the illegal trade in plastic waste, a key threat to marine environment security. The OCC brought key countries together to trigger investigations into cases of illegal export or import of plastic waste.​

The operation gathered more than 200 enforcement authorities worldwide, such as here in Bosnia and Herzegovina where officers inspect a company suspected of illegal discharge into local rivers
In Nigeria, INTERPOL’s National Central Bureau in Abuja coordinated the action of 18 authorities through a task force created to conduct inspections into illegal oil refineries, found responsible for severe oil leakages polluting the country’s waterways.  

Information exchanged between Malaysia and The Netherlands permitted authorities to identify the source country of seven containers of plastic waste being illegally shipped into Malaysia from Belgium via Hong Kong, and to initiate their repatriation.

Excerpts from Marine pollution: thousands of serious offences exposed in global operation, Interpol Press Release, Dec. 16, 2019

Stasi Reborn: Democratizing Internet Censorship

The internet is the “spiritual home” of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. So China’s leader, Xi Jinping, described it in 2016. He said he expected citizens to help keep the place tidy. Many have taken up the challenge. In December 2019 netizens reported 12.2m pieces of “inappropriate” content to the authorities—four times as many as in the same month of 2015. The surge does not indicate that the internet in China is becoming more unruly. Rather, censorship is becoming more bottom-up

Officials have been mobilising people to join the fight in this “drawn-out war”, as a magazine editor called it in a speech in September to Shanghai’s first group of city-appointed volunteer censors. “Internet governance requires that every netizen take part,” an official told the gathering. It was arranged by the city’s cyber-administration during its first “propaganda month” promoting citizen censorship. The 140 people there swore to report any online “disorder”…

 Information-technology rules, which took effect on December 1st, 2019 oblige new subscribers to mobile-phone services not only to prove their identities, as has long been required, but also to have their faces scanned. That, presumably, will make it easier for police to catch the people who post the bad stuff online.

Excerpt from  The Year of the Rat-fink: Online Censorship, Economist, Jan 18, 2020

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste,, Jan. 10, 2020

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019