Flying to California Higher Education Sustainability Conference

My family flew the other direction this weekend (to France).   I'm meandering (mentally and physically) somewhere over Geneva, Nebraska.  A little less than halfway to LAX airport.  I'm presenting on "fair trade recycling" at a conference of California sustainability coordinators (recycling coordinators job definitions have been broadened since the 1990s).   Will be on a panel with BAN, playing nice.

I like university audiences.  If they don't understand something, or something sounds not right, they ask.  They have access to professors and international students and the idea of flying to Singapore to visit refurbishing factories sounds good, not far fetched or worthy of eye-rolling.

Fair trade coffee was incubated by universities which rejected the idea of the "coffee boycott" to help poor coffee farmers.  It played a roll in the development of one of Vermont's biggest companies - Green Mountain Coffee.

Could the California Compromise be reborn at universities?  Perhaps.  But none of the technicians of color WR3A works with wants to pay a dime to Basel Action Network to be E-Steward qualified.  Basic distrust, but beyond that they are aghast that they'd have to pay BAN money to see the rules BAN wants them to follow.   I won't pick on BAN at the conference, however, I'll try to look smart and sound upbeat.


Whenever I want to appear smart, I think about Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors.  I was reading his bio on wikipedia, and saw that he had a small list of corrections from the book "A Short History of Nearly Everything".  One of those little corrections is about recycling.

Recycling atoms.  Original text to the left, correction to the right.

[atoms] are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare."the nuclei of every atom you possess has most likely passed through several stars" "Jupiter Scientific has done an analysis of this problem and the figure in Bryon's book is probably low: It is likely that each of us has about 200 billion atoms that were once in Shakespeare's body." [3]


Whenever I am reminded of how brief my proximate generation has been on this earth, and the impact we have had on the planet, I find it impossible to believe we won't destroy life... given enough time.

As a child, I was probably most influenced by Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and the Disney nature shorts (before feature films).  The idea of the dinosaurs all being extinct (and I loved my toy dinosaurs) put me in a place where I'm really aware that our standard of living is making animals extinct.   We are mining Indonesian coral reefs for tin (to replace lead solder under ROHS), and coltan mining (for cell phone tantalum) and gold and other conflict metals are piercing the rain forests, bringing desperate people into proximity with critically threatened species.

We are like a big lazy comet.   Jellyfish are sprawling due to the commercial fishing (which catches just about everything else, and I'm not optimistic that my grandchildren won't inherit some kind of grey, silty, wet-moon with jellyfish on all the beaches.  They've impacted 4 nuclear reactors cooling systems.

If whales become extinct, I feel that I will have failed.   I began as an anti-nuclear power activist in high school, but abandoned that for recycling when I saw how much more impact mining had (both on energy use and on sustainability).   I struggled whether to join Greenpeace after College - as both Jim Puckett and Steve D'Esposito did.  I joined Peace Corps instead, but set my career sites on recycling.    As it turns out, I've found a form of recycling - electronics recycling - which both increases knowledge and standard of living and sustainable jobs in the developing world, AND it decreases mining and extraction.  Perhaps it will also lead to Jacques Cousteau being translated and shared by internet in Pakistan, Kenya, Peru, India, China, Brazil, etc.

100 years is not a long time in recycling
It's not that I don't care about toxics in recycling.  It's that I don't feel I have to prove myself to anyone. Anybody who knows me and sees the career choices I've made knows that I'm not an environmentalist-come-lately.   Silent Spring was released in 1960, but so was The Waste Makers.   The true environmental cost of toxics is not in the disposal or recycling of the waste, it is in the mining and production.   The display device, laptop, cell phone, etc. spewed more carbon and more toxics before you ever purchased it or took it out of the box.  Shredding these things up to go mine and make new "stuff" is a hideous choice for environmentalists to make a career out of.  Good Rain Forests is the message.

But let's put ourselves in perspective.  The last time I was in Los Angeles, I wrote a blog, on the beach I think behind LAX... about 50,000 years.  The view of earth from 50,000 feet in the air can miss the impact of extinction, but it's obvious from that height that hard rock metal mining is a bigger impact than a metal scavenging yard in Guiyu.   That post also channeled another great writer - a translation partnership, rather, between Sioux Indian Black Elk and John Neihardt.  Black Elk had to have thought that the American bison would go extinct.   What he'd think of this day, with me flying over Nebraska to speak in California, writing about Indonesian coral reefs and African coltan mining... It's good topic to meditate on.

Another video display that touched me:  1970s Little Big Man.  This eery scene, the music of Custer's seventh calvary massacre of the Washita.  The whole movie is told as the recollection of a man over 100 years old.



Man's inhumanity to Man meets Man's inhumanity to Nature.  It's time for dialectic and scientific method, not toxic ju-ju witches brew ayatolla e-waste slogans.

Back home, we are adding jobs, to keep from becoming overwhelmed with e-waste from free recycling programs in Vermont.  I can see the temptation to shred, even if it creates fewer jobs than reuse, repair and dismantling.   You get where you feel no choice but to buy machines to whack it all apart.   But then you see how many people there are in this world, who want jobs dismantling things and repairing things, and it reminds you why fair trade recycling - which means inspecting, exporting, and then accounting for the outcome - is the better investment.

Another scene from Little Big Man is his struggle what to tell Custer in advance of the Battle of Little Big Horn.   Little Big Man tells Custer the truth about what awaits him, that these are not going to be little children and innocent women like the Washita battles.   That's kind of the feeling I have about e-waste recycling in Asia.   We are going to shred our stuff up and not realize that we are no longer the biggest supplier, that the refurbishing and reuse and manual disassembly will all continue without us, that USA as a supplier of laptops is not quite as important as it was ten years ago.

Love wifi on airplanes.  Apologies for the wild and woolly introspection in this post.   As I near 50 years old, and try to imagine something I might do which will matter in 50,000 years, I guess philosophizing is likely to accomplish as much as driving the truck to the recycling event yesterday.  I need a balance of karma and jnana yoga.  Yes, you have to do.  But the greater responsibility is in what we inspire other people to do.  If everyone is inspired to eat endangered species platter, throw rare earth magnets into the shredder, and give religious backslaps to ditto chanters, we got a lot of splainin to do to the great-grandkids.

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