Celebrity Expert: Ignorance, the Renewable Resource

Proper management of "e-Waste", WEEE, or scraps from used electronics is a very "niche" environmentalist concern.   When public attention, or a reporter, stumbles on a niche issue, it's hard to know who the "expert" is.   This leads to what I'd describe as "celebrity experts".    We know certain celebrities who are "famous for being famous".
"Even when a person's fame arises from a particular talent or action on their part, the term will sometimes still apply if their fame is perceived as disproportionate to what they earned through their talent or work."  wikipedia
Certain e-waste recycling experts are recognized as such because they've been recognized as such.

Photo owned by whom?
Ten years ago, Jim Puckett announced his organization was an expert.   He may well be an expert in Basel Convention, a truly niche environmental law.  But he got so many things wrong about Guiyu, that he's lucky the place was too obscure to recognize the truth behind.  Here on Columbus Day, we still call American Indians "Indians".  And people still think Guiyu was a resting spot for cathode ray tubes.  There are none there, or what few were photographed were small enough to be generated from homes in Guiyu itself.

But Puckett made Guiyu "about" a Swiss city, Basel, which I drove through last summer.   He did not explain the difference between the Basel Convention ratification by the USA and the ratification of an Amendment to the Basel Convention by everyone else - but he made the city name of "Basel" mean both, to most people in our industry.  His expertise created confusion.  Basel Convention, in Annex IX, allows export not only for reuse and repair, but actually for recycling (so long as no Annex III releases occur... so no burning, but if it's properly accounted for, it's legal.  See B1110).

The Basel Ban Amendment (proposed) was promoted in the mid 1990s as a cure for what Jim claimed was the "recycling loophole".  And this "amendment" has still never been passed by the Convention.  But hang on, derivatives of derivatives approaching...

File:Zsa Zsa Gabor - 1959.jpg
foreign, mysterious WEEE
Someone suggests that the "export for repair" legality in the Basel Convention should also be included into the proposed Basel Ban Amendment (the one still under "consideration" after 15 years).  That  suggestion was not voted in.   But now our celebrity expert gets National Coverage on not-amending-an-unpassed-amendment (Resource Recycling's E-Scrap News).  The headline becomes that repair is denied at a meeting of the Basel Convention.  

Nothing changed.  Repair is still legal under the Basel Convention (as is recycling).   And the Basel Convention "Amendment" still hasn't passed.  The wording to the 1995 Amendment was "not changed". And the celebrity expert, Jim Puckett, gets that into the national news.

Obscure meeting about 15 year old unpassed amendment generates headline.  See what he did there?  He can make anything a headline, just like Molly Cyrus, Tom Arnold, Kato Kaelin, or Paris Hilton.

BAN's an expert at being an expert.  You do have to grant them that. 

And BAN remains an expert in being an expert because no one covering the "digital dump" story in Africa talked to those accused of importing 80% waste, and no one covering the organization's work in Guiyu looked at the economics of silicon chip reuse.  It's easier to talk about toxics and show pictures of kids on piles of scrap.

And when another expert comes in to provide nuance or sophistication to the story, we are accused of not caring about toxics in playgrounds.  Katharina Kummer Peiry?  "She's no longer a spokesperson for the Basel Convention".   Josh Lepawsky?  "A newcomer".  Joseph Benson?  "Collateral damage." Subtly or not, the Expert in Seattle is trying to make sure no one else gets recognized as an expert.  Professor Eric Williams, Jim says, "shamefully advocates" dumping on the poor.

It's called "poisoning the well."  BAN has done a heck of a job making sure no one gets enough traction to compete with their "celebrity expertise".

It's an old trick. Chicago journalists, friendly with folks in power, ask the fresh new candidate "Have you stopped beating your wife?"   Or an honest reporter (like Chris Paicely of Chicago Patch last year) gets thrown a "brushback pitch",intimidated by BAN into thinking they could get bamboozled.  BAN scares the reporter from talking to the other "experts".   Some of these tactics come out of Saul Insky's "rules for radicals".   Some of them just happen because of "groupthink".  Jim once looked me in the eye and threatened me.  "We don't want to have to go after you."  What he didn't know is that I knew he already had.

"I had 80% tattooed on my butt because of BAN!"
Groupthink occurs when well meaning people try to clear up their ignorance by reading up what has been written about the niche issue.  They find a statistic, that 80% of electronics Americans think is being recycled is actually dumped and burned on beaches.   Or that 80% of used electronics Africans import is simply burned and dumped.   Those two statistics actually (mathematically) contradict each other if your pen is sharp.   But when you have enough people "experts on posing as experts", like a celebrity for being a celebrity, the ignorance fuels the perception, and the statistic metastasizes.

Reporters are supposed to be trained in asking another point of view, in vetting the story.   And CBS 60 Minutes did do that.      Michael Rey, Nicole Young, and Solly Granatstein all called me before the story aired.   But they had all gotten the brushback pitch from BAN, the same one Paicely got.   That the story that CRT monitors are primarily imported by warranty repair, remanufacturing factories, is crazy.   They cannot find any film in Guiyu of any CRTs there.  But the film they have is ugly as sin.  And the 80% number is everywhere.

Eighty percent, the number Jim told Bloomberg that BAN never, ever said, resurfaced again last month in our USA Today coverage.  Oops, Jim said it again.   It's USA Today, after all.  Can't miss a chance to be famous.

More from the Wikipedia article on "famous for being famous".
The term originates from an analysis of the media dominated world called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), by historian and social theorist Daniel J. Boorstin.[3] In it, he defined the celebrity as "a person who is known for his well-knownness".[4] He further argued that the graphic revolution in journalism and other forms of communication had severed fame from greatness, and that this severance hastened the decay of fame into mere notoriety. Over the years, the phrase has been glossed as 'a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous'.[3]

No comments: