Environmental Malpractice, Part II: Accidental Racism

In Part I, "Due Disclosure", I asked BAN to come out on the record about the exaggerated mathematics about "e-waste exports".  Those fake numbers create false perceptions about importers, and wreck the reputations and finances of many "Geeks of Color" in the developing world.

PT Imtech, Medi-Com, and Joseph Benson are three solid examples of people who were doing fantastic things with "discarded" electronics they purchased from wealthy countries for elective upgrade and refurbishment.  They were arrested, or their goods seized.  In Vegas, Jim Puckett described this as "collateral damage."

In Part III, I will go into specific cases of this "collateral damage", where an importer or a market was unfairly characterized in the Western Press. 

"Recycling Safari" has become a perverse form of "waste eco-tourism".  Liberal activists go straight to the "source" of poverty, and declare "I was there".  It impresses millions who are at a comfortable distance from poverty.  But if you live near poverty for a long time, your eyes adjust.  Some things associated with poverty include hope.  You will find poverty aggregating around reuse, repair, resale, and recycling the way people in a deep well are gathered around a ladder.  Proximity of a solution to a problem... it's a crazy weird thing to raise money to attack.

Let's attack something we all agree about, anti-globalists, alter-globalists, and globalists alike.


It's hard not to be angry when the best hope for e-waste recycling get accused of "sorcery" (of importing mostly ghoulish witches brews of toxic harm).   In my anger over BAN ignoring the statisitics (and Jim Puckett was STILL using articles about Benson in his powerpoint in Vegas!), I raised the ante by openly discussing environmental racism and profit motives of E-Stewards.  As I wrote yesterday, Mike Enberg and Jim Puckett were visibly hurt, and angry at the term "accidental racism".

I know how it feels.  Not just to be accused of "poisoning people" (Jim's characterization of Fair Trade Recycling in an Op-Ed in E-Scrap), or of "dumping on the poor" (Donald Summers accusation in Chicago Patch)... I've also been accused of being a racist, recently, after describing my relationship with a close friend and employee who drowned in June.  It was no fun.

Here is a (brutal) accusation of my own "Covert" (intentional, as opposed to accidental) racism from a someone at the University of Vermont:
"I find a lot of the language in this post offensive and often covertly racist. For well-meaning people, pointing out their racism almost always results in hurt feelings (as opposed to looking into it) because fortunately the word racist has become a dirty word in our society but I think it would be worse not to mention it, especially to someone such as yourself who obviously cares for the worlds causes.
"To me it sounds like you are telling readers repeatedly how close you were... and also how you hoisted the white mans burden ... It seems that you are trying to make sure readers don’t forget he was your African friend, as opposed to just your friend, which from your account seems to reflect on you in a positive way at his expense seeing as how he was apparently manipulative, childlike, resentful for what you had, irresponsible etc.
"As opposed to what you stated in the first sentence here; “Yadji was a man,” I have a hard time believing, based on what you wrote, that you really ever saw him as a man in the same way you see yourself as a man. It at least seems as if you are a bit incredulous as you repeatedly compare him to anything but a man: Cindy Loo Who, Tom Sawyer, a box turtle. 
"History has proven that when white people compare people of color to children, and animals it has been anything but humanizing and uniting for mankind. Lastly I would point out that a concept often referred to as “the white mans burden” is the answer to why the missionaries in your parable were in fact to blame for damaging the ecosystem in the story. They are above all vain and pretentious."

I've never met Leah Miraj, the author of the comment, and she declined to respond to my invitation on LinkedIn.  I can see how Mike Enberg would feel at finally meeting me face to face, as if I imagined meeting Ms. Miraj.

Did I ever really see Yadji as a man?  Did I treat him differently as "my African friend", as opposed to an equal?  Wow.   As Yadji said, "the problem in the world is too much negativity."   It is hard to help someone in trouble, and not coming across as vain and pretentious.  I tried to intervene or positively influence Yadji's alcohol use the way I would - or had - with a member of my own family.  My friends know that to be painfully true in a way I can't go into.

Yadji was two parts hero, and one part fallen homeless person.   He had stared victimhood in the mirror and rejected it.  That's really hard to capture in a eulogy.  I could have glossed over it entirely... but he had left his own collateral damage in Michigan, and I felt his family there needed more than a sainthood nomination.

Irregardless, yes I know, as Ms. Miraj said, "the word racist has become a dirty word in our society".   If I committed "eulogy malpractice", I had to investigate.   Miraj's accusation felt to me to be vitriolic.  It felt as if she was over the line somehow.   I felt horrible.  And I can understand the way, as a human being, my writings have made people at Basel Action Network or E-Stewards feel.   But I rewrote the post, without returning to the temptation to heroicize Yadji Moussa.

Did my stream-of-consciousness eulogy of Yadji reveal subconcious, accidental, or even "covert" (intentional) racism?  I was heartened that his family didn't feel that way, but chagrined at how the tribute read to a stranger.. The point is I changed it.  I didn't just delete Miraj's comment or ignore it, the way BAN has ignored my pleas over Benson, Chui, Hamdy, and other Geeks of Color.

After the re-write, it took 3 posts on Accidental Racism over the following weeks to excorcize the stain of "racism".  I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on my vacation (another work which was seminally brutal in exposing exploitation of Leopold's Congo, while tripping many nerves in its depiction of Africans). Puckett and I are fellow whities, trying to have an open discussion about the use of photos to describe trade with 6 billion people (the "non-OECD") to other Euros.  Ms. Miraj led me to read Yadji's blog from another viewpoint.  And I changed it.   And I would hope BAN would look at its "Pieter Hugo" campaign the same way, and see how the grass skirts imagery looks to "non-OECD" engineers in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Egypt, Senegal, Singapore and Peru.

In the end, Commenter Miraj helped me to empathize with the position Basel Action Network and E-Stewards, or David Fedele, or Donald Summers, found themselves in.  They go to bed at night, thinking they've protected exploited poor people from toxic dumping.  The surgery done, they don't like to wake up and hear about the swelling, side effects, and complications.

First do no harm.  It's about due disclosure.

I agree with Miraj that racism is a dirty word, but it's worse to ignore it.  Whether exploitation is covert, accidental, or subconscious, let's agree to do no harm.  Let's stop environmental crimes without profiling, and let's react to "collateral damage" in a timely manner.

I'm asking BAN to make statements on the record about collateral damage.  I want to have an open conversation about specific cases of importers who they have taken a perverse credit for.  The stories of PT Imtech of Indonesia, and Joseph Benson of Nigeria, adorn BAN.org's website like a perverted collection of e-waste scalps.   In my meeting with Jim, he acknowledged "collateral damage", but defended "rule of international law" as being worth the price.

OK then.  Make the case that Indonesia's PT Imtech and Nigeria's Joseph Benson, Egypt's Medi-Com and Chicas Bravas (who won grants from EPA and recycling contracts from the City of Tucson, but had them taken away based on "concerns" over export), were collateral damage.

Then make the case for the greater good under the future Basel Ban Amendment of the future (Basel Convention itself clearly allows import for recycling and reuse in Annex IX, B1110).  But to cast the majority of importers as villains, or ghouls, or witches brewers, causes harm.  Whatever the outcome of the defamation cases between BAN and Intercon Solutions, BAN is showing powerpoint slides and putting up news stories that say the geeks of color were "waste tourists" (something not applied when David Fedele, Pieter Hugo, or Scott Pelley is photographed heroically on their "e-waste safaris").
"History has proven that when white people compare people of color to children, and animals it has been anything but humanizing and uniting for mankind."

In Vegas, I looked Jim Puckett in the eye, and urged Puckett to take a hard look at a few cases where businesspeople in emerging markets felt harrassed or profiled for recycling while black. Perhaps they will prove to me that there's not a stitch of evidence of environmental malpractice or collateral damage.  But silence is not the best defense.  I have admitted to export mistakes (WR3A puts me on the record, unlike E-Stewards).

Don't try to pretend you are a brilliant surgeon if you are operating with a club.

Basel Convention's use of OECD as a litmus test for trade was at best a blunt instrument, and in the case of professional repair and refurbishment or clean recycling practices, it's "Ban Amendment" is potentially a serious bit of malpractice against the holistic lifecycle health of development studies and sustainability.  OECD has always been criticized in racial terms... I didn't invent the "white man's club" reference.  Greece is a member, Singapore isn't.... Heck, even Japan was left off the original dance card, and Korea wasn't admitted for an embarrassingly long time.

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