Fourth of July

Part of being an American is to stand still and take it when many people in the world seek to hold USA to a higher standard than they may hold or enforce against themselves, or to make us the chief example of any exchange that illustrates the imbalance between poor and rich nations.   For the most part, those occasions are far outweighed by the strong advantages and privileges Americans have on the world stage, and we are better off listening than turning the volume up on "Rush Limbaugh".

What I have seen, which is not obvious or evident from the "Vermont, Texas" perspective, is that the "poor nations" are themselves more of a mirror to the disparities of rich and poor.  The privileged classes in Cameroon or Zaire, where I served in Peace Corps, use the USA and their "colonial" history to distract from their own daily role in squeezing the poor from every possible angle.  The USA is a scapegoat in some cases, in others our mining and extraction industries take a "might as well be me" approach to up-front dollars in exchange for unsustainable environmental privileges negotiated with bureaucrats or heads of state in air conditioned offices.

This does not excuse the USA from taking unfair advantage of many situations, and profiting from the exchange.  But most of those unfair or disappointing outcome exchanges are in mining and mine-tailing, and drilling and spilling, low-employment, zero-future industries.

The trade between rich nations and repair and refurbishing nations is profoundly different.  The people who buy used computers tend to be very savvy, and enjoy the position in the trade when they can be treated as an equal and given just incentives to raise the standards of operations in their countries.

Those people tend to like the USA.  In part it's because the rich countries are "where the candy is".  They make more money and get better stuff from a rich nation than they get in a truckload from their own cities or neighboring countries.  But I think there is something more than that going on.

If you are sitting in the dust in Africa today, the history of colonialism and victimhood is accepted, but hearing about it constantly from the corrupt and kleptomaniac state government doesn't fool anyone.  Who do you trust at the end of the day, if everything goes wrong?  Who do you depend on in the worst case scenario, a tsunami or hurricane or earthquake of hurt, or if a war breaks out?  On the world stage, when has Russia or China or another superpower ever done jack?

When you trade fairly, after a few transactions of improving misunderstandings and taking responsibility and accountability for one another, trading partners will put your American company in the "friends" column.  If we give the foreign recycling company a financial incentive to become R2 compliant or certified, and find a foreign exchange student, university trainee, or other translator to walk through  the rules for proper ewaste recycling, the foreign recycler will value the relationship as a benefit-giving relationship, in a world where too many hours of the day are spent dodging hurt dished out by powerful people.

In Africa today, nations are banning the import of working CRT monitors, the only $20 display unit that an African internet cafe can afford.   BAN says that those nations are responding to a glut of such devices, or to a 75% junk ratio.  Those are false statements.  The countries embrace BAN and seek to stop internet cafes for a completely different reason.  The same reason countries like Libya and Algeria and Tunisia are scrambling to centralize internet service in a government office.

This is about keeping poor people in the dark.  
This is about keeping internet out of corrupt nations.
This is about the opposite of freedom and transparency, cloaked in a false concern over "CRT hazardous waste" when the nations are selling their rain forests to be nuked with cyanide to extract lead, tin, tantalum, copper, silver and gold.  
This is about blood minerals and exploitation, and the fear that grips the hearts of the bureaucracy when they seek the article in  BBC or USA or French press exposing the fraud and corruption running rampant in Africa.

Take a good look at this 2008 ABC News story about Google putting internet cafes into Africa.  The photos show used CRT monitors (trinitron) which are less likely to be stolen, more durable, and more repairable, in an internet cafe in Kenya.  In 2009, Kenya banned imports of this equipment.  BAN presented the ban at the Interpol meeting as an example of enforcement of the Basel Convention.

Blame colonialism, blame exports of pollution, blame "exporting harm".  But this is about stopping internet from getting in the hands of people who increasingly use it to educate themselves.  Those people in the internet cafes and on the streets are the people Andrew Jackson appealed to in his presidential campaign, they are the people held back by Jim Crow laws.   The total ban on all import of all monitors and computers, working or repairable, is a war I've visited the front lines of since the 1980s.

The deliberate and ignorant misrepresentation of computer exports to Africa as 75% waste, a number which is economically impossible to sustain, and pictures of children weilding screwdrivers to tap a CRT they are obviously unfamiliar with, is the Church of Pious Environmentalism allowing itself to be the tool of a war on the poor waged not by white faces, but by black men on black men and women.

To the young American environmentalists, I encourage you to pursue sustainability and micro-lending and partnership and idealism.  I remain an idealist and believe I am blessed both by my birth into a good family in America and also by my partnership with  Mexicans, Malaysians, Egyptians, Indonesians, and Africans.  But watch out that the flag of environmentalism can be waved with the same ignorance that the stars an stripes can be waved with in Viet Nam. 

"We don't want to have to come after you".   That sentence has been spoken so many times in so many different languages.  I am an eco-patriot, and was shocked to hear it spoken by a pius environmental watchdog, hours after his apparent defense of complete bans of working and repairable computer equipment into several African countries. 

The phrase has been used to intimidate press from Samuel Adams to Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake for the crime of cartography in Geneva, not that far from Basle.  From the vatican to Ayatollahs to African bureaucrats, people who claim moral authority from historical grievances and use them to increase their power.  Environmentalists, beware.  The same bittersweet flavor of USA celebration of independence may some day taint Earth Day if we embrace everyone who agrees with us.

Happy fourth of July.  I am not ashamed to be an American, and I am not ashamed to be an ecologist, and I am not afraid of fair trade.   The net impact of our activity on earth is all that matters.

No comments: