Reversing Environmental Racism #2

This Good Point Ideas Blog has a dandelion in the background.  The wind is blowing the seeds. The image isn't random.

Some people consider the dandelion to be flower. Some consider it a salad green. But many consider it a weed.  Some of my earliest memories of "ethics" were my parents and great aunt's explanations of why I should be careful about blowing on mature dandelions, the "controversy" or "ethics" of spreading the seeds of a flower that will blow onto other peoples' lawns. My parents told me they don't mind dandelions on their own lawn, but others felt differently.  The issue, my dad said, was whose property the dandelion seeds landed upon.

On the first year anniversary of the passing of my dad, William J. Ingenthron, professor of Mass Communications and Journalism at the University of Arkansas (and Fresno State), I find myself reflecting on the dandelion discussion.  I was probably 3 and a half years old at the time, standing on the lawn at Auntie Maude's home in Columbia, Missouri, where my dad was to earn his J-School degree (I do have memories of 2 and a half as well, and possibly earlier).

"That is frowned upon here."

That "frowned upon" expression was expressed to me about 18 years later, when I had just thrown a lit firecracker out of a Carleton College dorm window.  And I did feel a little chagrin about that, though my friend and future Co-RA Peggy shrugged just afterwards, saying "I smile on it".  Using social consensus to define ethics is an interesting tool. Juries do it.  And consensus forms the crucible of the most important theme of this blog - Environmental Racism.  Accidental environmental injustice. Collateral damage. Friendly Fire...

It matters who we ask.  And after about 10 years, the chief "Authority" - Secretariat of the Basel Convention - has recognized that its first foray into screening used electronics sales had not asked enough people about the ethics and effects of used electronics exports. A little pat on the back here - I never attended a PACE meeting. But we were recognized for our contributions by SBC's Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE)...

The primary comment we submitted ten years ago was that Emerging Markets Technicians (not just regulators) had to be consulted in the drafting of the PACE Guidelines.  If OEMs (Planned Obsolescence), Secondary Smelters (Big Shred), and NGOs (White Saviors) were drafting the rules without consulting Africa, Asia and Latin America's Tech Sector, they were likely to do more harm than good.  As Emmanuel Nyaletey told the IERC conference in Salzburg, Austria, last month (my paraphrase) "writing rules for used electronics repair without consulting with African technicians is like writing a health manual without ever talking to a doctor."  The buyers know what they want, thank you.

Some consider used electronics to be a weed that must be kept on our own lawn.  Some consider them a flower.  And some consider them a source of income, a way to put food on the family table.

Here's an interview with a man, Olu Orga, who started in Agbogbloshie, and worked his way into Ghana's Tech Sector. If the Secretariat or the Basel Convention has something to thank American Retroworks Inc for, it's for keeping the doors and windows open during an echo-chamber of false claims and ewaste hyperbole.  As everyone sought to prove they weren't dumping on the poor, they became ashamed to admit friendships like this, if they were even brave enough to have them.

False Fears

Interracial marriage was another ethics topic I remember family members having arguments about, when "Loving vs. Virginia" was in the news. My dad's libertarian call was to let people love whoever they want to love, so long as it's really love, and not their egos seeking to make some impression. 

I remember the use of logic in that debate, and wondering whether fears others expressed about interracial marriage (for the sake of the children) were really any of their business. I was raised to be comfortable with other people, of different classes, nations, ages and languages.  And when that's done right, you don't worry about showing off, or being called a ###r-lover in school. 

Dad taught me logic.  Mom taught me how to trip bigger kids, trap them on their back, and hold onto the grass until they panic, and win fist fights.  And they both taught me that whatever anyone else says or thinks, that a dandelion really is a flower, and buying poison to kill them was a waste.

False Fears and exaggerated risks:  Most of the alarm on social media comes from inability to properly assess risk. Fear sells.  Fear the government is going to take away your handgun. Fear that Oklahoma hunters are going to shoot your children in school. Most "memes" on Facebook seem to be boiling down a fear to image proportions, playing on the 'confirmation bias' of our concerns.  Fear of Muslim refugees vs. fear of racial profiling.

I'm going to re-read the 2017 PACE documents this week, to see whether our comments really influenced the baby and bathwater, flower or weed debate.  But I'll publish this blog in the meantime just because this blog itself has been recognized as influential to European and EPA environmental justice.

We were not smarter than everyone else. We just asked more questions, and tried to walk a mile in the Geeks shoes. Fair Trade Recycling (members of WR3A) simply interviewed the Tech Sector in places like Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Dubai, Egypt, Ghana, Haiti, Indonesia, etc, etc, etc.  We sent out video cameras in 2007, and collected interviews with technicians in seven countries.  And we continue to collect the opinions of the Tech Sector, the often very small businesses in emerging markets that created the "Critical Mass of Users" who made investments in internet cable, cell phone towers, TV stations, and hydroelectric dams investible in the first place. 

You can't sell a light without a dark to put it in.

My dad was kind of proud of my amateur journalism.  He enjoyed hearing about how it influenced academic research. He enjoyed hearing about Memorial University's Fair Trade Recycling research, about Grace Akese's invitation to address EScrap 2016 Conference, about PBS visiting Retroworks de Mexico, about the writings of Josh Goldstein at USC, and Reed Miller at MIT, and the private discussions I was invited to with INTERPOL's (cringeworthy titled) Project Eden.  He was frightened by the 2013 bid process and 2014 enforcement by Vermont authorities, but proud that we sought and won an injunction, reversal of our Opt Out Plan rejection, and got the contract back.  He confessed he didn't "get it" when I wanted to work with junkyards and scrappers. But he was impressed at how it turned out for me.

There is so much in this blog that I learned from the home lectures, the dinner table discussions of Mass Comm theory. Dad was fiscally conservative and socially libertarian.  He told me about the psychology experiments of the 1950s and 1960s, like the one that studied "authority" (willingness to turn up a pain meter) and the ones where people, shown a photo for two seconds, recalled a black man pointing a gun (when that wasn't anywhere in the photo).

My dad and I had many arguments and debates.  They were frustrating at times, if I accidentally took the lid off a story I'd heard a dozen times before. But they were logic based. When they ended in a disagreement, it was clear that we just estimated differently the proportion of risk involved.  Risk to the environment, to social systems, to mismanagement, etc. etc. etc.  Neither one of us was thrashing in a quicksand of dogma.

Anyway, just reflecting on this anniversary of Dad's death by remembering his explanation of the ethics of blowing dandelion seeds.  Because I know that Africans like flowers, and food.  The chemically treated lawns of European and American Joneses, whose own interests were protected by the first drafts of the PACE document, are now defined.  It's more honest to call the restrictions on exports a "strategic interest in metals and minerals retention", or copyright or patent concern, or data security... not by racist images of geeks of color defined as informal and incapable.  Europe wants to keep the metals, not let Africans have them, and at least now everyone is on the same page.

Let's hope they listen to our new ideas about e-Waste Offset, mineral-neutral export/reimport, and value added by the secondhand industry exports.  Everyone at PACE now knows that ESteward NGO's estimates of 50-90% waste were a lie, and that Jim himself knows it was a lie.  Everyone saw through his NGO's selective placement of GPS devices, at my friends offices (not even public drop off points!).  Everyone knows that if BAN had distributed the GPS devices proportionately in all discards - with roughly half going into CRT and projection televisions that make up most of the e-waste collected - that somewhere between 5%-15% would have been exported (and only that many because of the way BAN hid the sabotage, or obscured the nice recycling yards in Hong Kong and led PBS to the worst he could find).

Dad's conservatism gave me the insight to see that people were making money off of the e-waste hoax. Like too many in the USA Bureau of Indian Affairs (in which he was a history expert, thanks to his grandfather Freeland, for whom I'm middle-named), the saviors have trouble transitioning when they are actually making a living or publishing or getting recognition based on something they were mistaken about in the first place.  "Without Jim, none of us would be here" said one EU Policy guy on a junket to Kenya.  Indeed.

He also influenced my sense of humor, though I would give Mom's side of the Ozark family most of the credit.

If I retired the blog this year, I'm pretty confident that people like Josh Lepawsky, Ramzy Kahhat, Eric Williams, Josh Goldstein, Kyle Wiens, Silicon Sam, Katharina Kummer-Peirry, Reed Miller, Adam Minter, Jon Spaull, Juan Solera, the many people at, etc., etc are now out there, with generations of edible flowers in their yards.  Dad always warned me to take my cause seriously, but not to take myself too seriously.  And the diversity of places you can now learn about the tech sector, Big Shred, Planned Obsolescence, Critical Mass of Users, Elective Upgrades, Collateral Damage, Environmental Injustice, Geeks of Color, Racial Profiling of the Tech Sector, Halloween exaggerations of "informal recycling", and the millions of Tinkerer's Blessing Repairpeople out there in the world to just ASK if you are prosecuting Joseph "Hurricane" Benson.  The window when major news outlets were fooled by hoaxes in Agbogbloshie, and upstream water pollution in Guiyu, has closed.  Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, etc. can now speak for themselves.

Whatever happens from here, Dad, we can be satisfied.
Though he always told me to shorten my posts.

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