Robinism: Laundramat Recycling Analogy

If recycling is successful, it will stop being coffee table party discussion, it will lose its environmental cool.  What we want is for recycling to be as boring as laundromats.   Laundrymats were "cutting edge" technology at some point in our recent history, and the men and women who were spreading them were the "internet cafe entrepreneurs" of their day.  They freed women to join the workplace, they stimulated an industry, they represented "co-op" use of technology to make it affordable.  They were the "light rail" of close washing.  And today, I can think of nothing as boring as to say I own a string of laundromats.  But if I'm successful at recycling, that is the image my grandchildren will have of me.   "Kids, e-waste recycling trade was cutting edge, it was popular, it was green, it was activist..."  Sure grandfather, sure.  The important thing is the accomplishment itself, not recognition.

Ancient American Chinese Secret
That was one of my odd "pep talks" when I was recycling director at Massachusetts DEP in the 1990s.  One of the perks of my job was that we'd have a staff meeting every week or two.  And since the gears of bureaucracy churn updates more slowly than weekly staff meetings, it was a chance to chew the stick with the staff and get to know the (rapidly growing) pool of staffers at MA DEP.   And we didn't have blogs then, so a perk for me was to have a chance to wax philosophic with other adults.

I'm told that some folks thought the "Robinisms" were obtuse analogies.  And when the ratio of staff who have been in your department 5+ years to the ratio of staff who have been there <2 years is 1:4, the learning curve may demand more simple explanations, less TMI (that's "too much information", not "Three Mile Island").

For rival managers and people trying to influence my staff from outside, in dotted - - line resource struggles with a growing department, complicated explanations were a chink in my armour.  Hank Southworth, my boss, warned me that the label of "bad communicator" was a "poisoning of the well" which would keep someone in government from being promoted, since the more they did the more they had to explain, and the more they explained the more the upper management had to digest.  I didn't mind, however, because the "top of the class", the really smart folks like David B. Struhs (Commissioner) and my own best and brightest staff learned to digest the analogies, and to see them as road maps, or hand sketched pirate maps.  The best compliments I got were "vision" and "direction", and the smart people learned to eventually see the "laundromat" analogy to recycling as a form of humility.  I had also told my young wife I would not be a "lifer" working for state government, and was willing to burn all my chits, career schmareer.  I had a future in pioneering something as important as self service laundry laundrette divide.

Internet cafe, visit to Singapore 2005
Humility is an necessary antidote/anecdote to distinguish promotion of your goals from "self promotion".  Promoting a new vision demands rallying people and being enthusiastic about the agenda shift you are presenting.  I honestly believed in the laundrymat analogy, and it brought a Siddhartha moment when "Recycling" was front-page Boston Globe news.  Today, in promoting Fair Trade Recycling, I still think "laundromat advocate" works as an analogy to the relative importance of e-waste recycling and reuse.  It works very well for computer reuse and the development of internet cafes in the developing world, for the amount of freedom and equality it brings, but there is no sense of "immortality" around the Ingenthron household.  I'm a chubby junk dealer in addition to being a recycler and promoter of affordable revolution 2.0

Analogy is not all about self-deprecation and humility.  It's also about putting opponents "crusades" into a less blind context.   I have tended to analogize the opponents to Fair Trade Recycling, and to Globalization generally, as similar to "know nothings", xenophobes, anti-immigrant, and anti-mixed-marriage activists of the past.  But by seeing myself as a laundramat entrepreneur, it helps remind me not to judge my height by another person's stoop.

I'm confident that the future will show my "radical exportism" to be tame and obvious and not terribly historically important.   The more often I trade over and over again with the same partner in Cairo, Angola, Mexico, Peru, or Indonesia, the more often THEY are trading with ME.  Normalization is the course towards boring laundrettes.

"Freedom Laundromat"
Normalization is what we want.  Interacial marriage is pretty ho hum today.  Surely, I'd rather be remembered as a defender of interracial marriage rights in the 1960s than as an opponent, but what I want is a future where the entire debate seems nontopical, ridiculous, childish and silly.   "Activism" should aspire to yield to "taken for granted".   Today's mantras are tomorrow's statement of the obvious... interracial marriage is none of the negative things it was whispered to be sixty years ago, and the fact that someone else was stoopid does not make me a genius.  Whatever your scare story was about our interracial partnership, the fact we remain in it and seem happy and do good things is the way society will increasingly accept it, and the way people will lose interest in your fervent campaign to stop us from partnership.  A ban on interracial marriage may seem a cautious proposal before I'm married, but few will support your calls for mandatory divorce when our partnership continues and bears good fruit.

And no one knows or remembers whoever it must have been who opposed laundrettes.   Googling and binging, I can't find any historical documentation of opposition.  But I cannot but believe someone, somewhere, was against them, or prophesied bad outcomes.  (Maybe if I search in Arabic...) I'm sure that as 90 years have passed since they were set up, that people imagining back would like to imagine they were on the right side of that movement, and that it's almost impossible to imagine oneself as the defenders of a two tier laundry society - those with enough money for their own washing machine, and those who must wash their clothing by hand.  And like the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia, the right to efficient clothes washing technology is perhaps something westerners still should not be taking for granted.

Which side of the Internet Cafes in Africa do you want to have been one in 90 years?  In 2101, no one will be talking about "ewaste", no one will be frightened by pictures of black people recycling, or of Asians reusing technology to make good enough product.  Everything will be about preserving the Earths resources.  And anything stupid and racist which makes mining seem better than reuse and recycling will be the environmentalist church's Inquisition.   I'm sure someone documented mistakes and accidents, toxics and deaths during the advent of washing machines access, the "digital divide" bridge that freed women to nobler pursuits.   They are forgotten.  The people who angrily and religiously attack export of computers and electronics for refurbishment and reuse will be forgotten the same as the people who opposed laundromats, and it will be a comic image to think of my role as somehow important.

I will be the guy who spoke out against the nonsense people who hindered access to laundromats.    I expect my bronze statue to be very low on the priority list.

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