You might think an outdated smartphone is hilarious: That funny button on the front! That tiny screen! To Siddharth Kara, an owner’s failure to upgrade is no laughing matter; it’s a small but important act of environmental and humanitarian heroism. Why? Because the fewer rechargeable batteries we use, the less questionably mined cobalt we’re dependent on.
“I’ve been doing research on modern-day slavery and child labor for more than 22 years in dozens of countries around the world,” said Kara, who is the author of four nonfiction books, most recently “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives,” which debuted at No. 7 on the hardcover nonfiction list. “Around 2015 or 2016, I started hearing from a few colleagues in the field in Africa about cobalt mining.” Kara recalled these colleagues saying, “The conditions are so bad, Siddharth. You really should come and take a look, see what’s happening.”
“Cobalt to me was a color,” he said. “I had no idea that it was a valuable mineral in batteries.” In 2018, he made the first of four trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he encountered “utterly subhuman degradation, quite apart from the massive environmental destruction.”
On the second page of “Cobalt Red,” he describes a child’s corpse on bloodstained gravel near a mine, “locked in a terminal expression of dread.” This is just the first in a parade of devastations and atrocities that winds its way through the book.
“There were many, many things that shook me to my core,” Kara said. “Children caked in toxic grit and filth, scrounging at the earth for a couple of dollars a day, if that. Women pounding their chest in grief, having lost a child to a tunnel collapse.” He went on, “I came to understand that this touches the lives of everybody. Everybody. You and I can’t function for 24 hours without cobalt, and yet it’s being scrounged out of the ground in conditions that are like colonial times.”
Each time Kara returned to Congo, he was able to go a bit farther afield. He said, “If you go there as an NGO worker or a journalist with credentials, the visits are curated and limited as to what you can see. I was able to blend in and, across several trips, get deeper and deeper. Every level down, the realities became more and more bleak and the fictions that are promulgated on the top of the chain became more and more disingenuous.” Paraphrasing the corporate party line, Kara said: “‘The conditions aren’t so bad.’ Or, ‘We don’t have any child labor.’”
So what’s the average consumer to do, aside from embracing a gracefully aging smartphone? “Clamor and agitate relentlessly for accountability,” Kara said. “What kind of global economy manages to transform the degradation of Congolese children into shiny gadgets and cars? That’s what’s at stake.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”