Are E-Waste Advocates Racist?

I love my wife.  But if she is about to unintentionally overdose my kids with a double shot of cold medicine, I'm going to intervene - fast, furiously, forcefully.  She might get mad at me.  But even if I'm wrong, and she's insulted that I thought she'd misread the directions, she wouldn't accuse me of depriving my kids of medicine for selfish reasons.  And I would not accuse her of intending to harm our children.   In life we have to show courage to get positive outcomes, communicating our concerns and moving forward.

Whether racism is seeping into the "e-waste export" debate is extremely sensitive.  Merely asking the question aloud may draw a furious response.  But this was first posed to me by a Chinese government official in Guangzhou... it was after dinner, and she asked with genuine curiosity.  She was reacting to the photos of Guiyu, which she was very concerned about, but she was also asking me if Americans thought China was basically more like Guiyu than it was like Hong Kong?

I do not think for a moment that the environmentalists at Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, SVTC, NRDC etc. are racist, and would accept their outrage as I would the glare from my wife.  The people who oppose electronics pollution overseas are not racist.  But when you see techs overseas who know more about making and fixing electronics than Americans do, you can feel their resentment at being called "primitive wire burning" operations, and seeing pictures of the kids at dumps who set fire to fewer computers than the techs are fixing.

The environmental activists don't intend to offend.   But in marketing the "harm" of exports through photos of children on piles of waste, they are deliberately aiming to stir emotions.  In order to get the public to respond viscerally to their anti-dumping proposals, they go for the poster child.   If they show pictures of good operations overseas, they could compromise their political message.

My point?  By repeatedly steering the cameras away from Wistron, Acer, Foxconn, Mag, Proview, BenQ and other contract manufacturing companies, they will eventually trigger resentment by the people they ignore, while wearing out the emotions of their target audience.

"Poster child syndrome" is a real risk in the "non-profit sector".  In the 1960s, posters of starving children caused Unicef donations to initially spike for several months, but the "syndrome" name was coined to describe the eventual effect... people eventually become calloused to an image that never seems to go away or improve, despite their efforts.  But there is something else bothersome about poster-child images.  An article by California public transport consultant Dennis Cannon sums it up:
The "poster child syndrome" is used to great effect by charities to separate you from your money.  This is not to say the money is not put to good use - it is.   But the campaign relies on making children with disabilities the object of pity, and thus promotes unfortunate stereotypes.

Cannon offers guidance on how to comfortably talk to people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities, who do not have your advantages, but are your equals.  I think it applies as well to entrepreneurs and recyclers overseas.  (I like his line "You are not Professor Henry Higgins and she is not Eliza Doolittle.")

Electronics technicians, repairpeople, and recyclers overseas want to improve their lives, but don't see how to do that with an export boycott.  They would also appreciate some recognition that many of them know MORE about electronics recycling than the American "ewaste experts".  Henry Higgins is speaking cockney, but has the same attitude.

When ewaste NGOs show the same picture of the same poor people in the same spot, over and over... it begins to grate.  Even if the photo is true, it's like describing an appetite for watermelon.   At some point, the legitimate markets overseas cannot help but suspect a racial stereotype. 

I think the NGOs avoid representations of the beneficial recycling trade simply to maintain a clear political message, promoting honorable goals.  But in so doing, the NGOs have created the impression among technicians in Africa, Asia and Latin America that we think we are better than they are.  That we think USA repair and testing and recycling is superior because our country is superior.

The fact is, we are not at all superior at testing and repair.  In fact, we suck at repair.  That's why used equipment from the USA is so valuable on the secondary market.  Bad capacitor in a brand new dual core Pentium 4?  There were tens of thousands of P4s recalled for bad "caps" in the past 18 months.  USA Response?  Smash the (new) hard drive, yank the RAM, and shred the board.   What does an Egyptian, Peruvian or Malaysian do?  Replace the tiny 2 gram capacitor!!  In Egypt I saw techs simply bypassing bad capacitors without removing them, as they were not even serving a critical function.

From Cairo Tour 2008

The best and brightest people in rapidly developing countries - the same countries which make the sold-out HTC Evo android smart phones, or newest Apple products, or the CRTs themselves - are creating enormous value out of second-hand goods.  In some cases, the "white box" market that emerges becomes an actual competitive threat to new products, like ink cartridges, cameras, and computers.  We agree they should not have to do that at a cost of poisoning their environment.  We believe in training them to do the same work that many American recyclers do... And remember, many employees in American recycling facilities do not speak English, and may even be cousins of the importer.

Several different interests, from planned obsolescence to sellers of anti-pollution to processing equipment sales, have for their own reasons posted and re-post the photos from Basel Action Network.  The picture of the same woman in China hitting the same CRT yoke with the same hammer has become emblematic, even though it's atypical in China, and anecdotal everywhere (I photographed a guy doing it in Paris in the 15e arrondissement!).  And like the campaigners who pinned "Willie Horton" onto Michael Dukakis, they are leveraging a certain ignorance inside America about what people in the rest of the world really live like.

Perhaps some NGOs have a natural distrust of profit-motives, and they legitimately want to see themselves as the advocates for the poorest workers.  In creating labels like "the Reuse Excuse" and "Digital Dump" (a play on "digital divide"), they probably see a defensive reaction to what they anticipate will be fraudulent reuse exports.  In an thinly veiled response to my own posts last winter, Jim Puckett said that "poisoning people" can hardly be called "fair trade".

Jim doesn't want to say that Robin Ingenthron is poisoning people, and I don't want to say that Jim's depictions of technicians overseas resemble racial profiling.  But Jim is afraid our fair trade efforts will give people an excuse to export "toxics along for the ride".   And I am afraid that BAN is giving OEMs an excuse to shred up working equipment, taking away the secondary market.   In a way, we both share a similar distrust.  We were raised in the generation reading Silent Spring and The Waste Makers.

I decided to climb into the machine and get my hands dirty.  I cut my hair, got an MBA, flew overseas.  I am frantically trying to fix the trade using the same practices that saved "fair trade coffee farmers" from the well-intentioned disaster of the 1980s coffee boycott.

Reuse and refurbishment is the opposite of the "resource curse", they represent value added by pure education.   I believe that government in many of these countries use export bans primarily to keep their people off the internet.    Out of concern, I try to post in equal amounts articles which address the pollution, articles which praise environmental activism, but also articles about unintended consequences. 

I chose my work because of my philosophy, I did not choose my philosophy because of my work.  In that way, I believe I have more in common with BAN and other environmental organizations than anyone else. But they need to go meet the good people overseas and acknowledge them and deal with the fact that recycling IS being done well outside of the USA and we need it to be done well there.

My family watched the 1982 Gandhi movie last weekend.  I was cruising around the internet on my laptop during the film, and ran across several posts that accused Gandhi of being a racist.  The accusations were almost exclusively from the period in his 20s when he was working on behalf of Muslim and Hindu "coloureds" in South Africa, as a paid lawyer.  I didn't see much evidence of racism during the next 50 years of his life, and would probably attribute even his legal writings in South Africa as being amoral lawyer maneuvers on behalf of his (Muslim) client.

I'm more sure that BAN is not racist than I am that Gandhi was not racist, and I consider that pretty praiseworthy.  But I am more sure that the net effect of Gandhi's politics was anti-racist.   In defending my friends in Egypt and Senegal and Peru and Mexico and Indonesia, I do not gloss over the poverty and pollution I have seen in those countries, but to imply they are harming their homelands by importing electronics is like accusing a surgeon of stabbing his patient on the operating table.   Too many of us electronics recyclers are cowards who are willing to either 1) buy into racist slogans to pay off our shredding machines, or 2) to "take a dump" with junk on the reuse market in order to avoid the same shredding costs.   The momentum overseas is positive.  If the good USA recyclers don't engage with the positive overseas markets, they will get from supplier #2, clean it right, and the "sham recyclers" will be like the Kennedy after the repeal of prohibition.   Certified recyclers will be hearing from their clients "Oh yeah, I remember they used to do something bad with that exported stuff.  But that's all cleaned up now, right?"   

This is happening right now.

The challenge to all environmentalists is to take our causes seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.  References to Gandhi, Twain, and Einstein are a bit tongue in cheek.  But I have to say to both nothing-exporters and everything-exporters, this truth about the extreme depictions of dumping and reuse:   this "e-waste" business is going to be forgotten in the next decade, and we'll have white-marble-floor recycling overseas 20 times faster than America elected a black president.  In the meantime, my favorite quote is still from Huckleberry Finn, as he acknowledged that by helping "nigger Jim" to escape that he was "stealing" the Widow Douglas's property.

All right then, I'll go to hell.


Keith Boeger said...

This is a great comment on the reality of global recycling that is so frowned upon by the proponents of banning all export recycling of electronics. That is to say banning it from going to SE Asia but not to European recycling markets. I have seen more than one electronics recycler in the US using a hammer on a crt to remove the yoke.

If it's not racist, it certainly appears ethnocentric.

Anonymous said...

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