"Dead Reckoning": Cross Cultural Risk Part III

Cross Cultural Risk Comparison, Assessment:  Part III "Dead Reckoning"

"Let's take working PC displays away from African hospitals, grind them to dust, and apply it as wind cover in USA cities." - USA E-Waste Policy Expert

Part 1 went to the philosophical morality of risk, as defined by our ability to care about wider and wider circles, in geography and in time, etc.  From selfishly caring about oneself, to caring what one's mother thinks, to caring about decades later, and about people on other continents, and on to the spiritual and supernatural...  The highest risk, for environmentalists, is extinction. Things people do here on in a lifetime on earth that leave a mark, until the next supernova.  We need to value genomes, genes, more than we value carbon, and more than we value individual human lives.

Shark attack child
Part 2 zoomed inward.  Individual human lives, individual acts, small risks.  Thanksgivings past and present.   The blog analyzed the risks of "wasting food", and liabilities for serving "risky" food, from the perspective of my own geography (Ozarks) separated by generations and time.  The perception of risk relates to actual risk.  What is risky in a rich nation - serving blinky food - is risky not to do in a poor nation.

In the third and final part, we turn to risks of leaded glass and childbirth.

Lead is dangerous.  Banning leaded gasoline was the best environmental law the USA ever passed.  Childbirth is also dangerous.  The number one cause of death in Africa is from blood loss during childbirth.

But is the risk of a pound of lead in a working computer monitor at a hospital in Africa the same as a pound of lead ground up in a USA landfill?  The perception of risk, by a USA or EU regulator vs. by a young African mother, is altered through the cross-cultural lens.

Over the holiday I skimmed an article in a journal called Risk Analysis: Vol. 24, No. 3, 2004  "Dead Reckoning: Demographic Determinants of the Accuracy of Mortality Risk Perceptions" (Jahn Karl Hakes1 and W. Kip Viscusi).  From the Conclusion
"One theory for the high degree of observed risk aversion in public policy decisions is based upon public overestimation of small risks and underestimation of large risks, as argued in Viscusi.(20) According to this theory, the public’s difficulty in distinguishing between differing magnitudes of risks leads to similar amounts of spending for reducing each risk. As a result, the resulting regulatory costs per statistical life saved are much higher for low probability risks, whereas the greatest gains in lifesaving will be from reducing very large risks.
"Improved policy treatment of risks, assisted particularly by improved communication of risks, holds the potential to increase the cost effectiveness of public policy."
The paper tries to correlate opinions of risk to actual risks, and how the outliers lead to inefficient regulation and public policy.  This is really germane to the Good Point Ideas Blog  (see "Cognitive Risk: E-Waste Cell Phone Cancer").  How do Africans, North Americans, Asians, Europeans, Oceanians, and South Americans weigh the risk of "e-waste"?   If we broaden the geography of the risks being debated, and the cultural geography beyond USA, does "improved communication of risks" remain associated with "educational attainment"?  Or can the well-educated get something wrong?  We all have our ju-jus, our gri-gris.

Tom Cruise in Risky Business Totally Looks Like Leonard Nimoy in Get Smart Episode
Spock logic vs. Cruise appearance

Hakes and Viscusi's point about valuing educated opinions over less educated opinions is well taken (see reference to Reed Miller's weighted survey work at bottom).  As an indicator of education levels, the paper correlates educational degree attainment to the difference between the respondents' estimates of risk of death, and statistics about actual occurrences of death from those risk factors.

The bookish tend to get higher scores in risk analysis tests.   Populations who rank lower on "educational attainment" seem more likely to rank "shark attack" (very low risk) above being struck by a train (approximately 1,000 deaths per year in the USA).   However, the measure of "education" (college degree) I think is one indicator of exposure to information.  If educated people are actually reading disinformation (like "80 percent of USA electronic scrap is exported overseas and recycled in squalid conditions"), it will skew public policy more than an uneducated opinion (why would Africans pay their own money for transport of junk as a favor to the USA?)

I question "Educational Attainment" as an indicator of expertise generally (Hakes/Viscusi don't mean the degree is anything more than a marker or indicator), and particularly as the risk is physically distant from, and unfamiliar to, the responder.   Native South Americans in the Amazon will have a better clue which snakes and frogs and mushrooms to avoid.   Measuring the differences between perception of risk against "actual risk" means that someone, somewhere, knows the actual risk to measure opinions against. The further afield we judge risks, the more prone we are to be shooting in the dark, no matter our level of education.

The Hakes/Viscusi Risk Belief study (table below) takes college degrees and compares average opinion of "true risk" to actual data samples.  Degrees correlate to better risk prediction.  But I didn't read to see whether it was the strongest correlation, vs race or geography or age or respondent.  And I notice that on some topics, the correlation is much weaker than other topics.

It would be interesting to see the data split up by rural and urban opinions.  Does a high school drop out in the Bronx score lower than a midwestern valedictorian on shark attacks and asthma?  Probably.   But ask them about being pushed by a nut in front of a moving subway train, or of getting caught in the crossfire of a gang fight...   Ask either one of them which color frogs are most dangerous to lick in the Amazon, and it may be a toss up.

Table of opinions/beliefs about risks 

Hakes and Viscusi's main point, which I agree with, is that public expenditures tend to be made based on a democratic perception of risk, which is driven by headlines.   Per the argument in E-Waste Cell Phone Cancer blog, journalists tend towards "man bites dog" stories, and "if it bleeds, it leads".   What makes a headline is something unique - and rare - about the story.

What's scarier than a burning computer?  SHARKS!

Man killed by shark vs. Man killed by moving train.   The first goes "above the fold", it's novel and it sells newspapers.   But if you REALLY want to sell newspapers, there's a missing ingredient.  Children.
The odds of a child being killed by a train are exponentially higher than the risk to a child from shark attack.  But just throw "child" into either story and measure the perception of the risk (and placement of the headline).  My point is that throwing the safety or nurture of a child into the picture, increases the perception of risk in the story.  Pics of kids elevate our concern.

And rightfully so... We have evolved to nurture, and like it. But we still need to make rational decisions about expenditures and policy based on statistical risk.

Lead poisoning is a huge risk to children.  Lead dust from paint (or from wind-blown ground up CRTs used as daily cover?), can have a dramatic effect on a city.  The chart is from a famous Mother Jones article on a study correlating lead in gasoline with crime rates in cities (with high auto traffic).  Was lead dust from auto exhaust affecting children's mental development?  Yes.  Was that manifesting itself in higher crime rates as the children grew up?   It makes a strong impression, especially to the people with college degrees who can read the story and find it fascinating.  (Others might claim that better public management led to both declines).

There are hints of "real life exposure" education in Hakes/Viscusi's paper.  Educated people more correctly predict the risk of death from asthma and stroke.  But take "homicide", "accidental firearm discharge" and "birthing difficulties", and you get a much closer range of estimates between people with degrees and the less educated. Urban crime correlates with lower education levels, but people in those neighborhoods know a thing or two about urban crime, and don't create the same opinion outliers.  Proximity to the risk increases awareness of it.

Like the SAT, the test can be criticized as being designed for people who know how to take tests.  If Hakes/Viscusi had chosen risks which were known to be "city" risks, like subway accidents and gang fights, would the study have shown urbanites predict risk more accurately than mountain folk?

For geographical contrast, I similarly skimmed a 2007 Paper by John C. Anyanwu and Andrew E.O. Erhijakpor of the African Development Bank and Delta State University Nigeria.  "Health Expenditures and Health Outcomes in Africa" has statistics correlating death of children under the age of 5.  I cannot draw a chart like Mother Jones, but take it from me, the increase in hospital beds per capita, and computers in hospitals per capita, correlates with a decrease in child mortality.  (Postscript, there's fodder here for my 1990s thesis that hospitals correlate positively with increase in AIDS in Africa, which I speculated could be due to reuse of syringe needles, which was commonplace when I lived there).

"Why worry about something that might kill me ten years from now, when there are so many things that might kill me today?"   That's the proverb in the international development community, and it bears a foreboding sense of caution about "externalization" of harm.  If any job is toxic enough to kill someone over the course of ten years, it's still a candidate job in a poor country.  And that force is something to be reckoned with.  It's those real risks that drives hard rock metal mining overseas.  The worst forms of recycling are bettter than the best mining.

For those particular children in Africa, whose premature deaths correlate with higher birth rates and population booms in poor nations, they really have nothing to worry about from lead poisoning... they are statistics, dead by the age of 5.  And many of the mothers die in childbirth, too.  Post partum bleeding is the leading cause of death of women in Africa, because of a shortage of blood banks in Africa, and computer systems to maintain those blood banks.

fair use tourist photo of my African buddies 1973

So how exactly did my friend in Egypt, whose company "Medi-Com" sold Computers to Medical Establishments, wind up with his loads of computer monitors seized?  In 2008, dictator Hosni Mubarak started a crackdown on affordable internet.   Hamdy and I found a legal way around the ban (below), remanufacturing the displays in a former CRT assembly plant in Malaysia, for reimport as new.   We both felt we were doing something important.   This guy in Michigan tries a short-cut, simply placing new date labels on the monitors.  Not as sophisticated as my response, really.  It's fraud.  But it was NOT and environmental crime, despite EPA's press release to the contrary.  According to the court, and to EPA's own press release, the Michigan monitors were sold to the Egyptians at an average price of $21 each.   That has to be working.  There is no way on earth to break a computer monitor and find $21 of copper in it!

EPA has associated "export" and "CRT" with health risks to Africans.  And as a result, CRTs pile up here in the USA, and get chopped into pieces.  There is a glut of CRT glass cullet, as a result, and American companies start putting the leaded glass onto city landfills as "alternate daily cover".  That's the last layer you put on a landfill, at the end of the day, the protective layer between the trash and the wind.  Wind blowing over ground leaded pieces with high surface area.   Cue Mother Jones.

Fewer computers in African hospitals, more leaded dust in American cities.  But my friends tell me to go along, become an E-Steward, join the anti-export band.

Environmental policy about "e-waste" is such a peculiar niche.   On the one hand, we all have junk electronics we don't know what to do with.  Chinese cities, African cities, Indian Cities, Brazilian cities... every place that has had electricity for more than 50 years has a lot of used electric and electronic material in storage.  And most of us have evolved to want to nurture kids, like the ones Jim Puckett likes to decorate the Basel Action Network's webpage with.

But how educated are our "E-Waste Experts"?  How many people really know whether "Moore's law" on chip obsolescence has anything at all to do with retired display devices?  How many of us know which handheld devices can be multiple-analogue use, capable of receiving cell phone signals on older cell phone towers repurposed in western Africa?  How many of us know whether ink and toner are "focus materials" (toxic risks)?  How did so many people repeat the fictitious 80 percent statistic for so long, to the point of grinding working equipment into lead dust, and sending Interpol's "project eden" to arrest geeks of color?

In any relatively new "niche" of concern, like e-scrap recycling, we have fewer people competing to be the expert, the priest ayatollah, the source of wisdom (and the money that brings).   Many people with vested interests in certain "solutions" may have elevated the risk of "e-waste" based on little or no research at all on the risks posed to entrepreneurs in Pakistan, Ghana, or Peru, who want to spend their money to buy the goods we don't want.   When someone in Seattle has the ability to take Joseph Benson, or another African entrepreneur, and ruin their business, take away their clients and their income, and command and control their marketplace, someone should ask whether he knows what he is talking about, or is making it up as he goes along.

Typical day in Chicago
Based on my experience in Africa, educated people are better able to envision risks to poor people in developing nations than poor in developing nations can envision the risks we face in America.  The Cameroonians and Congolese I lived with knew about America mostly through Hollywood movies, and thought we all carried guns.  (That was in the 1980s, before the plethora of zombie flicks... you should have heard the audience during The Blues Brothers movie).

So in a relative sense, Americans and Europeans aren't clueless.   An American may know 80% of the risks in the USA, and 50% of the risks in Africa, whereas an African may know 70% of the risks in Africa, and 20% of the risks in the USA... the table may well apply.   But The African knows more about risks in Africa.  And the more educated people run a real risk of lynching the wrong guy when they send Interpol out to arrest people based on a risk to Africans broadcast by a guy who gets paid by people who shred the stuff.

Ask Americans to rank the risk of a hippopotamus attack to a lion, shark or crocodile attack.  You'd find more educated Americans are likely to have read that hippos kill far more Africans than any other animal, and no doubt would outscore less educated Americans on the risks in Africa.  But if you ask a rural dwelling African, although they may have achieved a lesser degree of "Educational Attainment", they are likely to score well on hippo attack risk.   And if you ask them about the number of Africans who die in the act of childbirth, vs. an imported computer, they will often have a first person - sister, mother or daughter - experience to convey.

In April 2013, EPA experts applauded the conviction of the American for exporting CRT monitors to Egypt - monitors which were sold for, on average, $21 apiece.   Educated Americans found themselves backing a policy which took away computers from Medi-Com, based on a dictator's critique of e-waste.  The result is fewer doctors with computers, and more CRT glass crushed in the USA.

And because of this environmental enforcement, more Africans will die.

Medi-coms largest clients were Egyptian, Libyan, and Sudanese hospitals.   And they had learned that the growth of hospitals was a great market for CRT computer monitors.   The hospitals needed displays, they did not need expensive displays that cost as much as 3 additional hospital beds.

African Hospitals all know that the number one cause of death in Africa is blood loss during childbirth.   And they all wanted computerized blood banks.   And they wanted displays they could afford and which last a long time and resist heat and don't get stolen after hours.

Medi-Com was named Medi-Com because the sold computers to medical establishments.  Medi= Medical, Com=Computer.   And it was run by two Palestinians in Cairo who earned biomedical engineering degrees that were over-kill (so to speak) for the actual needs of the African marketplace.  But their degrees put them in close proximity to computers, and they started a used computer business.

When Mubarak didn't like affordable internet any more, I worked with the Medi-Com boys to find a way to get "new" displays that were actually affordable into the north African market.   We partnered with a Malaysian CRT refurbishing company, Net Peripheral, in Penang Malaysia.   We tested the monitors (to NP specifications, not ignorant "fully functional" specifications that result in wrong working units), shipped thousands from Vermont to Malaysia, where they were refurbished, put into Medi-Com boxes with labels, and sold under warranty.  Warranty work was done by the skilled repair people at Medicom, who in turn could take back older and non working monitors in exchange, creating an opportunity, but making my company seem "more risky" to Vermont regulators who were averse to exports, because they read about them from Basel Action Network.

When I talk to people in Vermont about cities in Africa, and the 7 million households with TV in Lagos (2007), and the Rio de Janerio dumps in Wasteland, and the small dump in Guiyu, and the big leaded silica pits from mining around the world, I see aversion and unfamiliarity mix in peoples eyes like a caldron of "witches brew".   Vermont is a small, quiet place.  Lots of white people.  Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia (where Vermont's ANR wishes to send our e-waste jobs) seem already hostile, strange and dangerous.   Cities in foreign continents?  Romulans, Klingons and Borg.

From Mother Jones:
The convergence between big and small cities is startling, and the biggest cities have shown the biggest drops. Violent-crime rates have declined by more than 75 percent in New York City and Los Angeles since their peaks in the early '90s.
So the surprising truth is that big cities are only a bit more dangerous than small ones. For a few decades it seemed otherwise, but this was mostly an artificial difference driven by higher concentrations of gasoline lead. Take that away, and it turns out that Los Angeles isn't much different from Modesto.
While we haven't done direct business for years, I still follow the Medi-Com men of Egypt, ten years after I stared selling them used computers for the university students, hospitals, and internet cafes that would mean so much to Egypt's future.   Friends on Facebook, it gives me a little window on what people are thinking in that corner of the globe.   The political cartoon, below, is making fun (I think) of Muslims and Coptic Christians who attack one another.   It could be a strip describing any number of "divided we fall" groups, I guess.

(Update 1/2/2015 - political cartoon in Egypt disappears online - news at 11)

Risk is relative.   Some groups (MRM) actually ban exports of fully functional CRT monitors, even to OECD countries, because one day they will stop working.  Even though a new LCD does not last as long in Africa as a 5 year old CRT, they have defined CRT exports to be verboten.  That's like banning Thanksgiving Turkey leftovers, even given to family.  The group no doubt has legitimate reasons to put a stop to the liability trail, but it's sad to deny importers like MediCom from buying systems for a blood bank or a maternity ward in Africa.  It's the 'liabity' for serving leftovers, applied to starving people.

This was the philosophical basis for my position as a stakeholder in EPA's "R2" Group... when the group tries to find a consensus (e.g. fully functional vs. key functions, or defining "de minimus quantities" of focus materials in a shred) without buyers represented, it's easier to default to "must be legal."  But that just hands off the ball to government, when people are still arguing about what is legal, and conflicts between Commerce Law (WTO, Doha Round) and Environmental Law (Basel Convention).


Redirecting the broken arrow strategy to the friendly fire.  It's a moral predicament.  When your crew and your position is being attacked from allies or your own tribe, do you call in "broken arrow", and direct bigger friendly fire to your own position?

Most military experts would say no, but they would say stand your ground and make sure the friendly fire and collatoral damage is recorded.  If it was done purposefully, you've outed a traitor, and are a hero.  If it was done unintentionally, you record it for the history books, for future generations.

In the end, my business did what it set out to do, and not only generated a decent (but not robust) living for me, but created jobs for people in Addison County Vermont, people in Fronteras Mexico, people in Egypt, and Malaysia, and Indonesia and China.    I remain a philosopher.  I'm fascinated by the dialectic and debate over "waste exports".  In the end I agree with Nitin Gupta of Attero Recycling, in India.

"We believe it is not waste, until it is wasted."

That goes for turkey, for human beings, for scrap, and genetic code extinction.    I'm calling in Broken Arrow, but will try to do it in a way that teaches authorities a kind lesson, a passive lesson, which turns another cheek, but which refuses to abandon Arjuna's army on the battlefield.   My main weapon is my passion, which must be harnessed and placed in the back seat when the time is not ripe and the table has not been set.

MIT's Reed Miller worked on an interesting study which polled people, similar to the polls on risk by Viscusi and Hakes.  But in the MIT derivative polling method, individual respondents who answer questions more precisely are given more "weight" in the poll, and the weighted average of the poll then balances truer than the weight of an "educational attainment", per Hakes/Viscusi.   

That is a less "democratic" way of setting policy, it's more oligarchical or republican.  It is hopefully the way environmental philosophy goes.  And in the end, in the big picture, wasting our environmental movement committing friendly fire and creating collateral damage is the biggest environmental crime.

[insert favorite Huck Finn quote here]

- - - ~ ` ~ [ - -_- - - ~ ~ blog-end.
When I was 18 years old, I wanted to be a Philosopher.  Or an international relations expert, someone who works with developing countries.   But I wanted to pursue "karma yoga", physical activity which accomplished something decent, during my time on earth.   Recycling was a way to increase the sustainability of our livestyles.  This entire vast blog is about that journey, from reading Plato, the Tao and Bhagavad Gita, to Siddhartha, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and the New Testament of the Bible.

The danger in trying to be the best you can be in ethics and morality, is that you will become your own source of moral code.  Reading Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche, and Emmanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative gave me warning.   It's easier to practice Christianity and Buddhism if you just paddle a ferry boat, or meditate, outside of competition, completely a-competitively.  It is harder to accept a higher power among men - authority - when the authorities won't be bothered by reading the laws the enforce.  When the authority breaks its own rules, and then reacts in anger at being discovered for that act in a courtroom, one is both thankful for meditation on morals an philosophy, and challenged to execute day to day activities in a "perfectly legal" and "perfectly ethical" fashion.

It's much easier to thread the needle if you can be profitable doing it.  I tried to be profitable, at the risk of not closing a deal, so that I could pay our workers better, and allow them to work in a safer environment.  Cathy Jamieson's twisted logic was that paying us more would result in an Independent Plan for manufacturers being approved.  How stupid?  That's how stupid.  Then she tried to cover it up by denying our Indpendent Plan and by paying the alternative Standard Plan vendor MORE than we asked for in the first place.   How stupid?  That's how stupid. 

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