E-Stork III: Where Poisoned Babies Come From

Green Ned Flanders Stork Museum
Part III of 4:   Does it really matter whether the pollution in Guiyu China came from E-waste, or from iron mining, or from textile mills?

If we are responsible for the Stewardship of our own upstreams and downstreams, as seems reasonable, why take any risk at all?

Isn't it appropriate for us to use our buying and selling power to procure the best available services, providing the best possible standards?

If so, why shouldn't our society, in essence, assign a liability for bad consequences to corporations we buy from?  Why shouldn't we ourselves remain legally liable for anything we once owned?  This concept is behind the "precautionary principle", championed in Europe:
The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. [wikipedia 2011.11.20]
If the individual making the purchasing decision suspects risk, and there is a vacuum or absense of scientific consensus, the burden of proof (liability) might dictate we should "avoid bad neighborhoods".  In the "absence of scientific consensus" we have reputation, news reports, green fingerpointing upon which to formulate our cognitive risk.  EPA enforcement cannot happen (in the USA) in absence of science.  Perhaps we need Watchdog organizations to boost our collective sense of liability.  Whether or not what we did was responsible for the watershed pollution in Blackstone, Louhrajang, OK Tedi, or Guiyu rivers, perhaps we need watchdogs who bark falsely, to keep us on our toes.

Or so said the lawyer for the boy who cries wolf...

Populist Cognitive Risk:   The "suspected risk" of the precautionary principle has boiled down to racial profiling.   Reputations of Africans for "waste tourism", "organized crime", burning computers they purchase for thousands of dollars after spending thousands of dollars to ship them over the ocean and through customs...  Given most Americans command of language and geography (most would place Mauritania next to Malawi, Madagascar, and Mozambique...), a photo of a sad child or sandalled woman elevates the "suspected risk".  A friend of mine in Massachusetts, a recycler of conscience, said to me that if there was even a chance that a computer exported wound up in Guiyu, that she couldn't sleep at night if a computer her town collected might wind up there.*

[see Bambauer, "Shopping Badly: Cognitive Biases..." 2006)

Barking at pictures of children surrounded by poorly understood recycling and repair and refurbishing "technology" practices, Watchdogs and Ayatollahs have elevated the risk of export of "e-waste".  Barring any understanding of the risks associated with "real life" in Ghana, we have only cognitive bias.   If our main fear is getting cancer from a toxin, we want a world which eliminates that risk for everyone.  Barring any study of upstream causes to the pollution in Guiyu, shredding computers seems like a lesser risk than letting a technician replace "bad capacitors" or repurposing CRT for twitterers in Libya and Egypt.

If we don't know where poisoned babies come from, we cannot rule out the E-Stork.  What Interpol describes as the "murky" waters of reuse makes sense in a "precautionary" environmental context.

Once a precautionary rule is created in the vacuum of scientific study, a liability is created with it.  If someone claims that "tested working" is the right standard for a refurbishing factory, and insinuates that the same reuse factory may be polluting a river, a double-liability is created.  If the factory is poisoning the river, I don't even want to send my tested working computer monitors there, do I?

The "tested working" and "fully functional" precaution trickles down, eroding the canyon of digital divide.  A PC which has a 110 volt power supply must be paired with the power supply, even if it's being exported to a 220v country, but no 110 volt power supply can be exported for recycling.   A CRT must be degaussed prior to export to the southern hemisphere, even if every technician south of the equator must re-degauss even brand new CRTs.  Recyclers market their Stewardship based on fewer interactions with Geeks of Color.  It confuses conscientious recyclers, and "No Export" becomes the shortcut.

I object to precautions formulated purely on the basis of language and race.   It seemed risky to Archie Bunker for white daughters to date black boyfriends.  It seemed risky to Ned Flanders to let his kids see the "evolution" display at the Springfield Museum of Natural Hiistory.  Archie's precaution against the risk of daughter Gloria dating a crackhead seems kilometers away from my Massachusetts friend's precaution against her computer being found in proximity of children, who are in proximity to a polluted river, one that has never been researched upstream... but in the "absence of scientific consensus" and in the "presence of journalistic liability", an export ban on used computers makes sense.

Lacking any upstream measures, we never ask the question - if the Egyptian internet cafe consumer gets a brand NEW computer, how much pollution will result?  If CRT glass cullet cannot be shipped from California to Samsung Corning's CRT furnance in Klang Malaysia, how is Samsung Corning to make new CRTs?  By "clean lead mining"?   If China cannot replace faulty capacitors on barely used computers, is China safer mining Indonesian Islands?  The precautionary principle doesn't look so good when the outcomes it creates - scrapping working computers and mining to create new ones - are examined scientifically.

Does society really create stupid rules out of precautionary principles?   What other precautions does this logic support?  Well, I can think of no bigger risk than for my three children to burn for eternity in the fires of hell.  We have never investigated the "downstream" of our souls, there is no "scientific consensus" against hell.  So there is by definition a risk of hell.

I had a family member who strongly, strongly believed in heaven and hell.  Another family member invited Mormons to pray at his deathbed.   Yet another family member objected to a last minute deathbed ritual by mormons praying over the body of my grandfather, referring to it as a kind of "spiritual rape"...

Another (non-believer) family member stated that if there is any risk at all of his soul burning in hell, that he'd like everyone to pray over him - the Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Evangelicals, Jehovahs witnesses... everyone should be allowed access to his deathbed, sending his body down an spiritual assembly line to pray away any possible, hypothetical, spiritual blemish which might have offended God had a third party preacher not intervened.  This makes more sense than the "prior to export" test of selling "tested working" computers to people who don't know how to fix them, as a remedy to Techs of Color travelling to inspect and buy the computers worth the most money in the African marketplace.

The more remote the market,  the more impossible the consensus, and the more indelible the precaution.   The impossibility of doing upstream and downstream spiritual diligence of heaven and hell guarantees a long career for the priests, monks, swamis, ayatollahs and rabbis performing spiritual quality control in our immortal soul stewardship industries.

But where science, and lifecycle analysis, does have access, I'm confident we'll get this right.  The days of ewaste ayatollahs are numbered.  But in the meantime, watchdogs are creating a real risk, once mining is compared to e-waste recycling, that environmentalists are not the best judge of the environment.   Planned obsolescence, the Vance Packard Waste Makers, has snookered environmentalists into creating legal liability to reuse and buy used.

Using cognitive bias, ju-ju words like "toxic", photos of poor children, the so-called environmentalists have put the damper on exports of used electronics, and the planned-obsolescence, anti-gray-market industries have closed ranks.   (Look at insurance requirements for e-waste recyclers... there has never been an "ewaste spill" to clean up, so there's no cost estimate.  But the recyclers who shred equipment purchase higher insurance (shredding leaded solder creates more toxic dust), and OEMs who don't like reuse require more insurance, insurance which laptop repair companies find bizarre and foolish.)

The logic of requiring billions of dollars of working equipment be shredded based on a lack of scientific consensus about a river in China which has never been traced upstream supports only planned obsolescence, dictators, and trump tower shredders.  

Precautionary religion... Barring scientific evidence against Itelligent Design, Creation Science, we must teach it to our children, lest we risk that they burn in hell... It's an old concept.  Environmentalism is teetering on the brink between science and instituionalization of the greatest motivators:  greed and fear.

So if we have inherited a responsibility for pollution effects of our consumption - both upstream and downstream - via a precautionary principle, shiny consciences, legal or civil liability - how can we incorporate our global effect?  If we cannot reasonably be expected to fly overseas and

Tomorrow the conclusion:   Part IV:   Journalism and Fair Trade.

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