In Europe: On the Trail of the Great Grey Whale

The Great White Whale, from Moby Dick, is a story which combines the medieval tales of obsession (Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Jaborwocky) with the exoticism of travel and foreign adventure.

This isn't one of those literary blogs, but I was in Lyon France yesterday (home of Interpol offices), and next week I'll be driving through Geneva, Basel, and home of the European Union (Strassberg).  I flew in with my family to Denmark (spending 3 nights with old Scandinavian chums), and we drove south, stopping in twice in Germany and Luxembourg, then Lyons, and now find ourselves in Perpignan.

Next week I leave them here and drive back solo, hoping for a series of gams on WasteCrime policy, WEEE rules, with the final stop in London.  It's not just a chance to charge part of the trip to business (though it's legitimately that as well), but also hopefully a chance to meet Joseph Benson, face to face, outside Heathrow.

Most of the Europeans I've spoken to an this trip know as much as the average American about used appliances.  Our Scandinavian friends told about how their package delivery man (an African immigrant) asked them to buy an old freezer one day, which he saw outside the house.   They said it was for the dump and he could have it. and he explained that on his trips back to Africa, he always sends a sea container of repairable WEEE for friends and family to fix.

Photo: Scandanavian reservation
Euroeans gam on stoneage Europeans - whoa
The friends are both archaeologists or anthropologists at a Norwegian university, and are able to talk about cultural tools and relics from stoneage times (we visited a Stoneage Village outside Vinderup, Denmark, see photo).  We drank, and talked about what would be left of our time for future archeologists and anthropologists to comb through?

Then talked about fake antiques, like the fake-vintage-toys I saw for sale at a French highway rest stop (possibly refurbished, but no way were these "as is" condition, and I suspect they were just "made in China" like every other toy at the rest stop).   The way age and value intersect can make the marketplace, and is easy to study in economics.  But when the trade is layered by race and nationality and geography, it becomes too complex a legal maze, and the burden of proof shifts against the Africans I recklessly presumed to be innocent.

  • Fake antiques.
  • Actors playing in stone-age villages.
  • Used electronics, sold for reuse

The Europeans are very comfortable with rules about nationality, rules about conformity, rules about what makes an antique vs. vintage, rules about the definitions of class, and citizenship, and dues.  They have had centuries of practice before defining a right to vote or intermarry or make transboundary movements.

The story of Ulysses, or Moby Dick, are stories of trips to places where new rules are discovered, and old rules are found never to have applied.  A short trip across Europe makes the odd incongruous seem improbably familiar.

The rules of the Basel Convention, we are told, make the export of used product a "waste" if it is not fully functional.  The "waste toys" to the left could not legally have been re-manufactured if they contain an Annex III element (such as lead joint solder).  And if they were given lead paint, they could not have been re-imported.  Or is it simply a grey market, demanding a precautionary principle, a set of white experts to draft a "guidance document" prior to legal trade?  The secondary market is a whale of market... the used automobile economy in the USA is seven times the volume of the new car market.

My wife's uncle in Lyon complained that the rules for getting a used car through 4 year inspection have become so rigorous that one might as well buy a new car every 5 years.   I searched for the Japanese word for "bingo", for that is exactly the type of standard Planned Obsolescence industries salivate over.  And European precaution is giving Japanese obsolescence laws new currency.  No doubt they have rules established for the toy antique cars I photographed.   Does Interpol check whether the antiques were refurbished in Europe, or by overseas laborers?   I would guess the answer is yes.

What exactly is the "precaution" at stake?  How bad is the job in the Chinese toy-refurbishing factory?  How much better is it to mine new metals and make consistently fake toys?   Then it's not an export issue, but a fraud issue if the fake antiques are sold as "old".  Keeping track of these rules in a bustling international marketplace must seem a "thankless job".

When Therese Shyrane of Interpol spoke (from Europe) on the potential that an African arrested for export of E-Waste might be guilty of a separate (unnamed) crime, it was the old prohibition argument.  If alcohol sale is outlawed, only outlaws will sell acohol.  But I could put up some photos of teenagers drinking beer in Bremen, and tell a story about Prohibition which Europeans were wise to avoid.

Having avoided it, they apply rules.  The word "champagne" is regulated.  The amount of sugar or sulfide that can be added to wine south of Rousillion is different from what can be added in Bourdeau.

Europe is held up to Americans as a standard for well regulated "waste" trade, and "vintage" rules, and as a place where "greens" have their very own political party.  As I travel here, I see how strange rules come into being, and are being applied.

The joke at the Scandinavian historic village was that American visitors believed the "stone age" people (who camp there for the summer, making "life in stone age" a family vacation, in symbiosis with the museum) were Vikings who live like Navajos on reservations, preserved somehow as life passes them by.

In conclusion, I guess the same ideas about Africa and Asia may pass as a basis for rule making at Basel.  Europe sees Sleeping Beauty as something to leave asleep, rather than kiss awake.   The kiss by the prince which wakens the maiden is something avoided, as some kind of taboo, among those in her own kingdom.

Operation Eden is conceived as a plan to arrest the African men and women who would buy used European electronics, and repair and reuse them, like some kind of illegal Chinese toy refurbisher.   Africa should be like a Stone Age Village, preserved for Europeans to visit on holiday.  The images of traffic jams in Lagos, or TV repairmen in Accra, or jerry-rigged cell phone artists in South Africa, or CRT resellers in Cairo, none of these images seems to fit with Europe's post-colonial comfort zone.  The melting pot of trade is something to be avoided, a red light zone where diseases lay.

For a billion Africans, South Americans, and Asians who achieved 3B3K status (earning $3,000 per capita per year) in the past 4 years, it's a limbo.  Especially if they earned the $3,000 per year by using technical repair skills they learned in high school. The young browns can neither afford new brand new product, nor can they legally buy used products from Europeans who have finished with them.  Africans cannot trade their way into Aristocracy any more than they can marry into it.

Impass Paradis.

(My apologies for the low-quality of the HTC Evo camera photos I have to rely on this trip.  I was thinking about buying a newer smartphone with a better camera, but would hate to shred this one, and I have to make sure it's not bought by some colored refurbisher).

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