Environmental Injustice and Work By Hand

The theme of the blog has been a defense of work done by hand.  Solving the E-Waste Problem [StEP], six years after we met at E-Scrap, has started a Best of Two Worlds campaign to champion the advantages of hand-disassembly of e-scrap.  They don't go far enough, in my opinion, towards defending trade between rich and poor (the poor prefer to hand-disassemble and repair rich people's stuff).  But it's progress.

In every developing city, there are people who have jobs that are "beneath" rich people.  [Useless Lists of Jobs Beneath Wealthy People is one of the top ranked posts of 2012].

If you take a camera very close to any job of any hard working poor person, you may frighten someone.   The butcher shops are "nasty".   Working in an auto garage exposes one to carcinigens and mutigens. Bleaches at the laundry and in mop buckets.   Repetitive tasks, risking motion injury, at assembly plants.  Mining.  Petrochemical factories.  Forestry. Smelters.   Working in 105 degree heat, smelling lignin, at a recycled toilet paper factory in Massachusetts may only look good to a migrant worker.

This technique of bringing a camera very close to one of the workers that picks our organic cotton "by hand", and making us feel guilty for using, owning, accessing things, is cheaply reproduced by even worthless idiot "non-governemental organizations".   It's like camera proliferation, arming idiots with the ability to combine poverty+unfamiliar-race+trade to impugn... anything.   Anything good or bad.  Even recycling.

In the past 3 posts [E-Waste Racism] I focused on the particular reaction - by Interpol - to stories done in the UK Guardian and Telegraph on Africans who buy used internet and television equipment.   The black Africans reuse and repair 85%, according to the UNEP.   The final bit they may scrap out by hand at the local dump.   When they are finished with the reuse TV in 10-15 years, it will also go to the dump.  I wonder if the same reaction would happen if the worker - an African businessman who was arrested as a "waste tourist" - was white, buying off lease equipment for resale.  Or would he be a hero?

What has been done to organic cotton agriculture in Burkina Faso,  to cell phone assembly in Shenzhen by NPR, and to laptop repair by the Guardian, has been done before.  The articles on the Blackstone River led to the closing of textile mills in Worcester Massachusetts less than 100 years ago.  The mills moved to the unregulated areas around the Carolinas.   Later, the textile dying mills moved to Guiyu, China, and to Bangladesh.    Greenpeace now focuses on the state of our clothing, manufactured in China... but doesn't mention Guiyu, whose river pollution (caused by textiles) has been "tagged" by their e-waste campaign.

It's not that this kind of gotcha journalism, or this environmental justice campaign, is necessarily bad.   In China, protests have made a positive impact when news covers pollution [Bloomberg].   Slavery, too, was hard work done by hand.  Child prostitution, coltan mining, copper mining, petroleum in Nigeria... there are a few other places I'd like to see the cameras point.

It is profoundly disturbing, however, to see this camera slinging used against sustainable jobs like repair and recycling and other jobs based solely on their correlation to the pixelized city slums.  People with cameras have discovered that you can get much the same reaction from organic cotton and recycling that you can get from wartorn Viet Nam footage.  Misguided rich guilt, pointless empathy, and racial fears will close down the recycling export business the way they closed down the sewer workers during London's Big Stink.  Find poor people doing ANYTHING, photograph it, and start your OWN NGO!  The barbershop action network could finds something going on it Guangzhou which looked bad (burning hair coiffed with toxic Revlon).

An entire generation of environmentalists is being lost on a frenzied, ill-researched campaign to take scrap jobs away from the poor.  As Mowgli said, they give white boy scouts merit badges for recycling.  But if you take that same recycling job, and put it in Dehli, a person with a camera can make blur the lines between love and rape, between defense and offense.  A mud hut to go home to makes employing you "exploitation".   So if we don't buy your cotton, your coffee, or your oranges, and we won't sell you used shoes or used electronics, and we ban you from migrating to the rich nations to do the same work... where do we say you belong?

The Perfect should not become the enemy of the Good.

The Basel Action Network and Greenpeace have wasted a generation of well-meaning environmentalists time on a shoddy journalistic campaign taking not just random jobs, but environmentally sound recycling jobs, and anti-resource-curse repair/tinkerer jobs, away from slums.  They have also taken the camera away from the environmentalists arsenal, because the outcome of a poster child campaign eventually turns to shrugs as people are numbed to it.   If it turns out the e-waste jobs were good after all, what is the average American or European to think of a photo campaign on tantalum mining or conflict metals?  The friendly fire will cause Kony to smile if we don't hold our fellow environmentalists to the same scientific method and vetting that we would hold our corporations to.

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