The Guardian E-Waste Shoot: 3 Facts Behind "Poverty Porn"

It's the mining stupid.

The Guardian is actually a pretty excellent journal, compared to much of London's Yellow Press.  So when it "recycled" some photos of scrappers in Agbogbloshie this week, actually calling it "the largest e-waste dump in the world", it got a lot of 're-tweets'.

I called them out earlier, and a journalist at Fox News called to quote my reaction.  Read to the bottom of Jeremy Kaplan's piece on the "Ghana's E-waste Nightmare" to see "poverty porn" in a quotation in major news media, a possible first.

It's the mining stupid.

 Six pieces of WEE sited at African city dump!!    OOOGA BOOGA OOOGA BOOGA

Here are the facts:

1) None of the vintage electronics in those photos is typically purchased by African traders today.   Agbogbloshie is the "end of pipe" for Accra's piping hot interenet, which grew ten-fold in the past decade (see 2 blogs back).  (Eric Prempeh, Good Point's head tech, is over there now, measuring demand).

2) The article distracts from actual environmental nightmares, including those the Guardian has covered.
-  Tin mining on coral islands of Indonesia (The Guardian hits the spot)
-  Gold mining in Ghana (The Atlantic)
-  Kabwe, Zambia, lead mine, the MOST TOXIC PLACE ON EARTH...
-  Today on VOA, Gold Mining in Uganda

- We could go on and on here, OK Tedi Mine in Borneo, Zinc smelter spills in Guangdong, smelter spills in the Danube, lead mining in the Andes, 14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites in the USA, conflict metal mining for tantalum in Congo's river basin, zinc mines of Kunming....

It's the mining stupid.

3) Had the devices at Agbogbloshie, imported ten years ago, been shredded, African cities would still have e-waste at dumps.   Had the devices, imported for reuse ten years ago, been shredded, MORE MINING would have taken place, more carbon spilled, unless you want to assume Africans never got electronic media.

"Using a used CRT for 10 years is better than mining for a flat screen" 
- Captain Obvious.

Frozen in time by copyright laws
"Back to Eden" says Interpol...?  maybe we like our pictures of Africans in pretty Tarzan settings.  (Oh wait... that's right, there are no Africans in Disney's Tarzan.)

Ok, now I'm ranting again, when I'd promised a brilliant college thesis-level blog (coming up).   But please, for this Earth Day, can we lay off the computer tinkerers, TV repairmen, cell phone unlockers, chip harvesters, and scrap metal pickers, just this once?

Psst: It's the mining stupid.

Focusing cameras on environmental problems small enough to perch a child on is a complete waste and distraction.   Cities like Lagos had 6.9 MILLION households with television six years ago, and if they keep their TVs going twice as long as Americans, you will find scrap TVs in the African city dumps.

Here's a map showing what is going on, thanks to Josh Lepawsky's team at Memorial University (plenty of shout outs there).  It shows that what comes to Agbogbloshie does not come out of London, Geneva, or New York.

What Africans imported 3 years ago
BBC Track My Trash - all 17" what a coincidence
Remember, the sea containers seized following Lord Chris Smith's speech to Interpol were examined by researchers, and found to be 85-91% reused in an objective 3rd party study.  People clinging to their primitive profiling now suggest that they will "soon fail", but that has no more research behind it than the 80% waste hoax.  It's like a juror, finding they've hung an innocent man, speculates that perhaps the man committed other crimes... the "just world fallacy".  We said it was 80% waste, now we want to believe it's "soon" going to fail, and that the Africans who pay for the goods are somehow stupider than we, and continue to make the same mistake over and over so we have to arrest them for it.

What it needs to show, in my opinion, is the sites of the raw material mines.  Those are the sources of the forest roads which lead to gorilla poaching, jungle elephant slaughter, cyanide leaching visible from outer space.

For God's sake, @TheGuardian Pleeeeeeeaassseee.  I know you mean well, but arresting geeks of color is SOOO primitive on the evolutionary scale of environmental thought.  Interview some professors, read some journals, interview some Africans, stop taking cues from NGOs who earn their money on kids photos and share NOTHING with the kids.

Stop with the planned obsolescence and dictator-internet-scourging campaigns.

Dear Lord Chris Smith...

"It's the mining stupid."

Q: "What hath we wrought?" - Jim Puckett  A Place Called Away, 2011
A: "It's the mining, stupid."  - Robin Ingenthron  A Place Called Obvious,

Actually, my response to the flurry of arrests triggered by Lord Smith's repetition of fake/disavowed/hoax statistics was simple.   I did what I hoped I would have done if this was a more literal lynch mob.  I posted "I'm Proud to Be an Exporter" in May 2010.  It was a little frightening to see the post climb in the rankings, watching the hits, during that year of "breaking CRT glass".   Whether it set in motion the forces aligned against my company today, I don't know.  It was during a period when a national scale competitor was offering "free recycling" to every one of our Vermont clients, a carpet-bombing of incentives due to the passage of the new Vermont E-Stewardship bill that year.

In fact, our exports were lower than they had ever been in 2010, the supply of used equipment had already shifted to "Asian Tiger" economies which were buying newer flat screens.  It would have been much easier to "see the light" and embrace the mob.  But sometimes you bet against a mob, and you wind up making friends with other people of intelligence and integrity.   The point isn't to boast, there are a lot of people who spoke up in defense of the "geeks of color" that year.  The point is to say, this isn't economic profit or opportunism, the path of least resistance is "the just world fallacy".  As Cees van Duijin of Interpol said to me, "perhaps these exporters have committed other crimes, or done other things".  When you put peoples faces on the page, and say "touche pas a mon pote", you wait to hear what these allegations are.  It has been eight months since the 3 day period when I interviewed both Interpol in Lyon and Joe Benson in London, and I have yet to hear what the mysterious other crimes Benson may have committed are.  It looks more and more like application of "just world smokescreen"... my term for the application of the "just world fallacy" by the very people who commit environmental malpractice, to cover their tracks with innuendo.

We can't change our natural impulses to nurture kids in photos, or to fear new risks like toxics, and we shouldn't.  But we can use our powers of reason to properly assess the risks, the "better angels" of our nature (as Steve Pinker describes the triumph of rationalism), and to use science to evaluate the best responses.  The Africans who mine rare earth metals are far more worthy of our attention than those who import, repair, or recycle end-of-life scrap from African cities.

It is time to look at conflict metal mining, and dredging of ocean reefs, with the scrutiny we have given reused computer screens and non-friable solids entombed in Subtitle C RCRA landfills.

CNN Interview of Psych Professor Steven Pinker
"...It's hard to question the basic finding that your chances of meeting a sticky end, all else being equal, are vastly lower in 2014 than they were in 1014.
If Pinker's message has proved hard for some to swallow, that may be because our standards are
 improving even faster than our actual behavior, giving the misleading impression that things are getting worse. "Hate attacks on Muslims are deplorable, and they ought to be combated, and it reflects well that we're concerned when they do occur," Pinker says. "But by the standards of past pogroms and ethnic cleansings, they're in the noise: this is not a phenomenon of the same magnitude as the ethnic expulsions of decades past."
We've even witnessed the emergence of whole new categories of condemnable acts. Take bullying, says Pinker: "The President of the United States gave a speech denouncing bullying! When I was a child, this would have been worthy of satire." As we continue to construct a social environment that activates more and more of our peaceable dispositions, and fewer and fewer of our aggressive ones, the remaining instances of bad behavior stick out like ever-sorer thumbs."

KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid

Thanks for the KISS, Mr. Carville

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