Does the Sun Orbit Our Compassion?

Guiyu, China is a polluted place.  Part of it is polluted by the textile industry.  But these burn-houses for circuit boards are real, and no one is saying they are good.  Not much "e-waste" recycling is done by the river, there is no CRT business in Guiyu, and the sophistication of the chip sorting and reuse business really deserves more credit.   But there is pollution there, enough pollution for children to have high levels of lead in their blood samples.  Without question, we can see it.  Guiyu deserves our help.

My fair trade recycling campaign is not about making excuses for the sale of circuit boards to places like Guiyu.  What we propose is that trade can be used as a lever to incentivize reforms.   Just as we lowered the price of SKD monitors sold to Malaysia in return for ISO14001 certification and glass-to-glass recycling of residuals, we believe that Guiyu's economics can be used to negotiate improvements to the standards for children.  This is a math problem.

My African Neighbors, 1985
Agbogbloshie, Ghana is really the same story.   There's no denying that its sad to see a kid busting a CRT tube with a rock.  I'm not sure why someone does that... there's not much inside a CRT tube but a metal shadow mask.  But I've seen it on film, and even if the TV was  used in Ghana for years, I'm not heartless.  Lead in children's blood bothers me a lot.

My fair trade recycling campaign is not intended to make excuses to send "toxics along for the ride" to Ghana or Nigeria.   It's intended to reform the trade, so that people keep their jobs, their repair jobs, their reuse jobs - even their recycling jobs, if we eliminate the burning. But most of all, it's about observing the constellation of the recycling trade more closely, listening, doing Q-sort, and not selling the conclusion that the sun orbits the earth.

Some people only care about money and won't sell in a fair trade umbrella unless they get something.  But other people think boycotts are a solution to improve local economies.  On a personal basis, the boycotter stewards are nice people to have a drink with.  But I prefer my friendships with the Geeks of Color in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.   And they are most threatened by the so-called environmentalists.  The toxins from wire and board burning is a threat, but not much of that supply is imported (importing nice things from rich people is for the reuse market, generally).  Most of the e-waste comes from their own homes, businesses and apartments.  If you interview, and measure carefully, you might find that the science of e-waste pollution is less about photos of children, and more about measuring percentages and setting goals to improve them.

Who generates the most money for the people in Guiyu and Agbogbloshie?   Fair Trade Recyclers allow them to keep more of the money, reducing the price of goods sold as an incentive to make improvements.    R2 actually REQUIRES those improvements, so it's a stronger standard than an "incentive" ... though I'm not sure which does more good.    Free market, best price, leaves less of the money with the importer, but promises more material and more volume.

File:Johannes Kepler 1610.jpg
Johannes Kepler
I think the least benefit to these places comes from E-Stewards, which are ironically the most expensive USA recyclers.   Where does the extra money go?  If they show a few dollars going to Guiyu, show a few dollars going to Lagos or Rio, I could really turn around and applaud them wildly.   But if they are, for now, the worst option for my Geek friends, and the money goes into a negative marketing campaign that distorts facts and defames as a marketing incentive, we need them to grow up.  It turns out that how much you care about children and poison isn't necessarily the best indicator of what's good for them.

Environmentalists need to understand Kepler.    Kepler, like Galileo, studied the heavens with a telescope.  But he convinced the king and clergy in Austria that the math and physics of the movement of the planets and setting of the sun could be best explained by eliptical orbits of the planets around the sun.  And he got them to accept, like Aristotle, that truth is good.

Kepler showed that the amount of time you spend LOOKING at the stars and TALKING about the stars isn't the same as measuring the stars and really studying closely what you are looking at.   A close study of the children's lives - their educations, their family incomes, and where the mass balance of toxics comes from - will reveal that prohibition is unlikely to do anything to stop the problems.

The real study of economic development and environmental improvement of the developing world deserves the same degree of study as the orbit of the planets.

The sun does not revolve around our compassion for the victims.  Getting people to recoil from images of poverty is not even compassion.   We have to care enough to measure, interview, and study both the good and the bad.  

1 comment:

Toby O said...

Good post - I have recently taken an interest in e-waste and recycling of electronics. It seems easier to find 'statements' and 'policies' than to find statistics and facts.