E-Waste Tragedy 4: The Perils Of Guidelines Drafted from False Perception (Ipsos MORI blog)

Ipsos MORI meets South Park's Satan...

This is the fourth part of a series of blogs following the documentary "The E-Waste Tragedy".  Emceed by Jim Puckett, premiered at the E-Scrap Conference 2014 in Orlando, the film by Cosima Dannonitzer purported to show junk electronics, dumped in Ghana.   They "followed the trail" back to the electronics origins in England.   I viewed the film with Emmanuel Eric Prempeh Nyaletey, who grew up a few blocks from Agbogbloshie, Accra's scrapyard.  He was carrying a petition to #FreeJoeBenson, the Nigerian expat sitting in prison in the UK for "violating e-waste export guidelines", and no one at the conference wanted to sign it.

Ipsos MORI is one of the UK's leading research organizations.   The website describes Ipsos MORI's 16,000 research staff in 84 countries.  Like Q-method, the organization relies on face-to-face interviews.   They get the real data for IMF, World Bank, and UN factbooks.   Last Month, Ipsos MORI published research titled "Perceptions are Not Reality:  Things the World Gets Wrong".

The Perceptions are Not Reality publication focuses on the "top ten" things which the majority of people in a society (14) perceive wrongly about themselves, about their own, local and national, civilization.  The web page starts with statistics, perceived and real, about facts on the ground in Great Britain:

"In Great Britain we get a lot of things very wrong…"
  1. Teenage pregnancy: the British think one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%.
  2. Muslims: we hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims in Britain – we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty).
  3. Christians: in contrast, we underestimate the proportion of Christians - we think 39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.
  4. Immigration: we think 24% of the population are immigrants – which is nearly twice the real figure of 13%.
  5. Ageing population: we think the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.
  6. Voting: we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.
  7. Unemployment: we think nearly 24% of the working age population are unemployed when the actual figure is much lower at 7%.
  8. Life expectancy: we overestimate our life expectancy by three years, thinking the average for a child born in 2014 will be 83 years, when the actual estimate is 80 years.
  9. Murder rates: we are however one of the best informed countries on the murder rate: 49% saying it is falling (which is correct), and only 25% think it is rising

Unfortunately if not surprisingly, the USA perceptions aren't even as accurate as the UKs.

The perceptions of risks, and how those (mis-)perceptions are monetized when they go viral, has long been a theme of this blog.   But mis-perception and misconception, by itself, is not a tragedy.

Knowledge of the world around us is increasing, societies are becoming more aware of one another, and if Ipsos MORI continues to survey people over time, I hope they find that the trend in the perceptions will become more accurate.  We are more frightened by ebola than we should be, but 50 years ago, would we have known about ebola at all?

Misperception of facts do not make a "tragedy" unless we gear up to act on those "faux facts".   And what motivates society?


Got misperception?   Use it to motivate and market to regulators.

Desire and aversion.   

Dopamine and adrenaline.  

Chase and escape.   Many of the same forces behind international recycling policy resemble too closely the psychology of fish and rabbits, predators and prey in the free trade economy.

The tragedy, in my opinion, is the leveraging of genuine caring.  Society's best evolved nurture instinct, caring for children, or empathy, is being mixed in a test tube (or cathode ray tube) of hoax statistics.  I don't want us to stop caring or nurturing, but beware the 'friendly fire'.

The mix of bad stats and genuine concern in "wastecrime" has resulted in "Guidelines" developed by an obscure side room (PACE) in a UN committee, where people who have never lived in Africa act on falsely perceived statistics of what Africa is importing.   And it's the fear by the USA that these "committee hijacks" at the UN are pandemic that keeps the USA from supporting "international law".   Organizations like BAN.org were all over the PACE guidelines (last week they basically admitted they'd gone too far on tests for laptops).

Look at how the "international law" is being bent in the Hurricane Joe Benson case, and you can imagine the USA's concerns over American personnel in dozens of analogous situations. 

The "E-Waste" Guidelines are distributed by good people, like David Higgins of Interpol, distracting his staff from the heinous ivory poaching in Tanzania.   An African born TV repairman with 25 years of experience in the trade, a person they should have been interviewing, is instead set up by an NGO which makes hay out of greed and fear, and finds people who see opportunities in non-trade barriers to cut African competitors (for scrap) out of the picture.

FILE - Confiscated ivory is displayed at a chemical waste treatment center in Hong Kong, May 15, 2014.
Tanzania seizures - At least it's not "e-waste"

Its a compliment to hear I'm saying something ingenious, but as Satan tells Stan Marsh in last week's South Park, it's not rocket science.

Rabbits and foxes evolve with adrenaline and dopamine producing glands, which they need to reward them for escaping capture or feeding themselves.  We've now evolved into a society with so much access to instant gratification, and so little real risk, that its incredibly easy to trigger these glands.   Like diabetes, the over-stimulation of "greed and fear" glands can lead to addictions and other things.

The best diagnosis for what has gone haywire is free market trade.  What would the Economy do if raw materials weren't subsidized, or their extraction effluents enforced to the degree that the toxics are released?  What if mining copper and coltan was as regulated in rain forests as it would be in a city neighborhood?   

We have genuine, and good, concerns over environmental risks - toxics and extinction, we care about it, and I care about it more than most.   But when people confuse use with fake statistics and risks to children, they turn our environmental regulators into a source of "friendly fire" and "collateral damage".   Instead of putting an African Ivory Trader in jail, they have bagged a TV repairman, a tinkerer, the guy who helped 6.9 million Nigerians watch the World Cup on television, the people who vote in Africa's largest democracy, and the people who are outraged by Boko Haram.

I'm not against international law and regulation designed to protect the ecosystem, any more than I'm against modern medicine to protect us from dangers.  But the history of western medicine includes chapters on mass distribution of mercury as a laxative, and being "waste centric" is not holistic.

The best mining is worse than the worst recycling, pollution wise, and the free market rewards that.  If the Guidelines that put Joe Benson in prison are also disrupting the MSW or recycling hierarchy, destroying reuse, keeping industrial minerals coming out of mines instead of recycling programs, then we need a correct diagnosis.   The free market isn't perfect, but tinkering with free markets should not violate the "do no harm" in the environment.

The E-Waste Tragedy is the misperception of reuse as dumping, the mis-measurement of dumps in emerging market cities as "recent imports" from the West.  Ignorant regulation is a magnet for NGOs and big companies and dictators with strategic interests.   They aren't evil, they are just following the same economics as African and Chinese importers.

We just need to harness the misconceptions.   If 91% of imports to Ghana work or are repaired to work, and the majority of regulators think that 80% of them are "primitive dumping", you wind up with rules written by people with access to rule-making.  E.g., Authoritarian governments and big pocketed companies, the only winners from shredding working and repairable display devices.

Joe Benson had no such access.   And it's environmentalists' loss.  Like Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird, the jury never really got to know him.   Environmental Malpractice is the new Environmental Injustice.  We have met the enemy, and he is us.  

South Park by Parker by Stone and Parker is our generation's Pogo by Walt Kelly (1913-1973).

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