BullyBoys 14: Environmental Justice, Diapers and Cell Phones

Look out, this will be a strange blog post.

See, it started out as an email to a pal who is publishing a paper on the e-waste trade, and he wanted some comments.  And it's a really intellectual kind of a paper, you know?  Real Ph.D stuff.  And I start out by trying to make some intelligent comments.

Then that isn't working, the email's getting really long, and really meandering all over the place, and I'm gonna have to cut it.  But then it wound up in this really incredibly important place, explaining two things that I realize I thoroughly believe.  
  • The poorer a person is in an completed exchange, the more likely they are to be the expert, and the more their opinion should be valued.
  • Activities that reduce property value tend to take place in areas with lower property value. 
The first is really kind of the complete opposite of the whole EU, Interpol, Basel E-Steward thing. But the second says that nevertheless, there is a point to environmental justice.  

You don't fix the second problem by Bullyboy-ing Joseph Benson.

Who is more likely to know how to change the spark plugs on a car, a Beverly Hills lawyer or a farmer in Bakersfield?  Should trade of used cars between wealthy Californians to Modest-o be considered suspicious?  On the one hand, you'll find more junk cars in poor lots than you will in rich lots;  they are unbeautiful and unmoving things.  Property values tend to discourage waste.  But is that because the wealthy are better stewards of their exhausted junk cars?  No, of course not.  They trade them to people who know how to maintain them, and buy new cars.

Gerber baby ch-ch-chh-changes
So wealth is not an indicator of expertise.  And in fact, it's that lack of need for expertise which attracts the less affluent experts to buy from the wealthy.  Jim Puckett comes from a nice OECD city, Seattle.  But he doesn't know jack about monitor repairs, and is in the position of writing standards and laws about the practice because he's rich and white and Joe Benson isn't.  So Benson gets arrested based on Jim's lack of understanding of television repairs.

And Jim is profiled in a course on "Environmental Justice" at Middlebury College, a hero for getting Benson arrested.

In my view, the poorer the person engaged in the trade, the more weight their opinion should be given.  A very rich person may not have the time to realize they are tossing a cell phone vs. a diaper, both are "waste" if they are in the person's way.   The wealthy person is a very poor expert.   An African with a few hundred dollars saved up is very astute when it comes to spending that money on cell phones or on dirty diapers.

The real environmental injustice here is the bullyboy economy of power, the ability of green do-gooders to create "functionality" laws that stifle trade and create nooses for nerds.

If I'm Natalie Portman and I have upgraded my cell phone twice, and also have a used baby diaper, the two old cell phones lying around the house and the rolled up dirty diaper all have something in common.  They are taking up space.  I live in high value real estate, and if I don't need something, I may as well get rid of it.

If you put a dirty diaper for sale on Craigslist, you are not likely to move your waste, no matter how motivated you are for it to go away.   Traditionally the pure definition of waste was something abandoned, dead, unwanted, avoided, like the dirty disposable diaper.   The drums of toxic waste in Nigeria were abandoned on the beach.  That's dumping.  Anyone buying something is not likely to dump or waste it.

But that is different from a lack of motivation to fix something.   Portman doesn't need the cell phone.  But should she be concerned if a trader from Nairobi or Cairo wants to buy them?  She is more likely to have used tech equipment.  She's less likely to be motivated to fix it and make do.  But she's less able to tell the difference between cell phones and doo-doo.  And because she's an educated liberal, she might be more likely to believe Annie Leonard and BAN.org when it comes to Hamdy, Chiu, or Benson.

African mobile subscriber growth
Which came first the cell phone or the tower?
Trying to define something as a waste based on the lack of desire of the possessor to keep it means the USA is dumping "corn waste" on Ethiopia.   The fastest trade there is, is when one person doesn't want something, and another person really really needs it.  THAT's why the shipments of used computers were so fast and furious.  And that's why you'll never ever find a "stack and pack" economy for dirty diapers.

As industry creates wealth in new cities, electric grids pop up, property values change, waste changes, and enforcement changes.  The entire map has always been driven by property values which is purely economical.   Cattle Slaughterhouses don't get built on 5th Avenue or Cleveland Heights.   And mining and raw material are never exploitable under a city, no matter how rich the ore - mining is too polluting.  Environmental Justice is right about this - It is the property value which dictates environmental enforcement.

Unaweza kusikia mimi sasa?
The simple fact is that property values are changing faster than lines on maps can be redrawn, and Basel and OECD cannot keep up.  It's not just like trying to keep track of AFL teams in an expanded NFL market.   It's as if steroids were dumped and every high school football field was being played upon by super pro athletes.   The NFL might stop being relevant, or at least tickets would be easier to come by.

If there is a way to remap the entire world by land value / property value, you will see value added activity change.  Through that lens, the rich person has a need to replace something that works with something flashier and newer, and the rich person also has dirty diapers to dump.   To call both "movement" is true, to call both "externalization" I'm not sure.   Because the used cell phone the rich person wants to get rid of is going to make an African or Mexican kid very happy and greatly increase their income, a dirty diaper will not.  The most efficient way of telling whether a movement is a dirty diaper seeking a lower property value to dump on, or a cell phone seeking a hungrier market more willing to repair it, is probably the movement of money not the movement of the material.

Africans don't enforce against diaper dumping as well as Beverly Hills would because they have other worse problems to enforce, and lower property values.  So that's a possible incentive for dumping.  But there is NO incentive for an African to buy a plane ticket, come inspect the diapers, and pay for shipping of them in order to dump them.  The poorer the country, the less likely that scenario is.   Bur poorer countries don't use disposable diapers.  They create less waste. 

So the big question is why Environmental Justice experts believe Basel Action Network rather than the African traders?  Because they know more about trans-boundary movement and property values than they know about fixing capacitors and refurbing tech gear.

Here's the secret to finding the good in Fair Trade Recycling.  The African businessman/buyer and Asian Geek buyer are the bloodhounds, the best experts of what is waste.  Shut up and listen to them, E-Stewards.  You've had your say.  Please, Shut up and listen.  It's not your turn to speak any more.

- -d - - - ~ ~ -- ` . [blog end]

I think Basel Convention has outlived its relevance. It is to international treaties what Florence Henderson is to celebrities (a very impressive party guest to people over the age of 45).   

OECD's decline, population growth, and manufacturing bases have made OECD or Annex IV into something rather meaningless.  Like the "American Football League" (AFL) in the 1960s it meant a lot.   Now the AFL has been merged into the NFL, there are far more football teams playing.   Basel works as if we should still be trying to keep track of which USA teams were originally in the AFL.   It's just confusing.

That isn't to say that dumping waste in poor places isn't a problem.  That's a universal problem.  The rich neighborhoods in Mexico City or Cairo dump their waste where the property values are lower.  But they also sell a lot of used cars, used phones, used clothes, used bikes... and to classify all movement from rich to poor as "exploitation" is throwing the baby out with the bath water.  

Too much on the movement of the "waste" is a mistake.  Not everything unwanted is discarded. 

Today, the property value lines are still relevant, but like the National Football League, the wealth has spread farther and faster than the "OECD" list can keep up.  In part, that's due to urbanization... cities get wealthy.  A city state like Hong Kong or Singapore could become OECD more quickly than a country like Brazil.  Brazil has very modern cities like Sao Paulo, but they are perhaps held back by the huge national boundaries of Brazil.  Or perhaps the definition of national boundary just isn't a very functional tool for tracking waste except because of the trade friction or measurable inefficience which the border creates.

In the 80s, when Basel Convention was being drafted, the term "third world" really meant no industry, or very dirty and base industry.  Today, most industry is now in the non Annex IV countries.   By trying to measure how trade between OECD/IV and non-OECD nations, we miss the fundamental point that those "lines on the maps" were losing relevance in the 80s, were a poor fit when Basel was passed in the 90s, and are comical today.

My theory is that trade happens the way it happens on Craigslist, in a pure free market economy, but that lines on maps (national borders) and customs agents create market friction.  I think Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore are an interesting area to study because so many of the transport issues are made of water instead of being made by lines, and while there are border inefficiencies between Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore is easier to get to than Malaysia's Borneo.  I

Economists are trying to reduce trade friction in the EU, NAFTA, etc. at the same time as Basel attempts to create a new friction or barrier according to a definition of something as "waste".   

No comments: