Memorial Day: Fear and Greed, Part 3

There is a cynical expression in Africa, used in response to "fears of the rich".   Why worry about toxics which may kill me seven years from now, when there are so many things that may kill me today?

Just as there are Useless Lists of Jobs Beneath Wealthy People, there are fears and phobias that the emerging markets don't have on their list of priorities.  That can be an opportunity for exploitation.  Yesterday's post described how EPA's Environmental Justice team came on board to make sure that "a clean local environment" was a right for every American citizen.

I learned today about careers in actuarial science (CNN).  It's about the statistics of risk and benefit, which (those who know me, know) I attribute to most of my life success.  (Taking credit for good luck, others call it).  Wikipedia 2012.05.28
An actuary is a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty. Actuaries provide expert assessments of financial security systems, with a focus on their complexity, their mathematics, and their mechanisms (Trowbridge 1989, p. 7).
Actuaries mathematically evaluate the likelihood of events and quantify the contingent outcomes in order to minimize losses, both emotional and financial, associated with uncertain undesirable events. Since many events, such as death, cannot be avoided, it is helpful to take measures to minimize their financial impact when they occur.
According to the article, actuaries are one of the most sought-after degree holders, with virtually 0% unemployment.   What I'm curious about is what a professional actuary would say about "recycling" and "reuse" endeavors, with their associated benefits and risks, in a developing nation?  

One of the saddest stories I remember from Peace Corps in Africa was a young woman who spent a year teaching farmers to cultivate fish ponds.  Her favorite and most apt farmer/student lost his 1 year old son, who drowned in the fish pond she helped to dig, and she quit the service and returned to California.  Perhaps an actuary would say that the protein in the diet is worth the risk, if you learn from the lost life and make the fish ponds a little safer.  (Yes, this is similar to the story of the boy I helped bury who drowned in his father's well.  Not digging wells is not an option.  I taught by twins to swim by the time they were two years old).

Unlike the Peace Corps volunteers, the villagers really don't have much of an option to move to San Francisco.  If they try illegal emigration, that has its own risks.  My best friend from Africa married my Peace Corps replacement and they moved to the USA.  He was a muslim who fell into drinking in the USA, lost his family, and has been in and out of prison.

Finding a scapegoat for the things that killed us today is rarely useful.  The amount of fear that we can realistically project onto something that may kill us seven years from now is also practically useless, unless we find a scapegoat to leverage... the answer to that "unless" depends on the wealth of the scapegoat.  The environmental justice and Stewardship philosophies may not be built upon this attraction to leveraged wealth... but they cannot help but be influenced by it.

We can blame ourselves, or government, for the fish ponds.   We can blame corporations for the stewardship of the toxics.  But like actuaries on a battlefield, the entrepreneurs I've met in slums and emerging markets don't wait around for someone to blame.  They find the most value they can, the smartest way that they can.  It's not waiting for a big multinational corporation to pay for a modern shredder.   It's not taking back an exhausted 1980s TV from Lagos for repair.  The best thing they can do is get a laptop which needs the fan cleaned, or a computer with a dead capacitor, and repair it, earning a months wages in forty five minutes.  It may be safer for the white volunteer's shiny conscience to escape that, or say they shouldn't have had to make that choice.   I didn't leave, and don't intend to.

When a risk is a consequence of trade, and the trade is a good or service between someone wealthy and someone poor, it might be about exploitation and it might be about race.   But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  The actuarial science of life for the developing world says that Foxconn and contract management and low wages are a better path out of the poorest ditch than the promises of Mao or Al Qaeda.  Having a boss sucks.  But having a fair boss, or a good trading partner, doesn't suck nearly as much.

My theory here is that environmental justice would have a different meaning if it was simply about the jobs done by people in poor places, jobs avoided by people with more choices.  What happened is that the subject became political.

To some, the topic of Environmental Justice took on a racial and political slant, something EPA was not very skillful (clumsy, in my opinion) at negotiating.   The fact that property value is lower is contributory or causal to more than one thing.   Yes, it draws less regulatory attention, and Environmental Justice can correct that.   But lower property values also correlate to affordable housing, which correlates with poverty.

And there are many things that and actuary will find "correlate with" poverty.

Lack of education.
Lack of parenting.
Wage competition.
Drug and alcohol dependence.

And the number one cause of poverty in slums, worldwide?  Transboundary movement - of humans.  Places like Agbogbloshie in Ghana were refugee settlements.   Their story begins where the "Grapes of Wrath" ended.  The slum is not there because people were living well and an exploitation or toxic ju-ju "happened" to them.  The slum is there because people have kids with mouths to feed, and moving back to the dust bowl is even worse.

People are moving from EVEN POORER conditions in the countryside, INTO the city slums.  Poverty itself is imported.  It was like that in the USA during the dust bowl crisis.  Grapes of Wrath is an American novel about the journey that African, Indian, and Asian families make every day.   But it had worked its way out in the USA to a degree that we think, correctly, that slums are the source of poverty, the place for poverty, and we have trouble imagining hillbillies in the Ozarks moving to California to enjoy electricity and hospitals.

The exploitation does not create the poverty.

The most rapidly growing, affluent ecomomies, were POOR before they started improving!  See Fareed Zarkaria's excellent column in the Washington Post, China's Economic Crisis.

When the car repair work moved OFF of 5th Avenue, it was a WIN for Queens!

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