Grasping At Straws: The Net Liability of Extraction

Let's assume that people without a sense of environmental conscience don't spend time on this blog. Longtime readers know that I'm in recycling because of "religious" or "philosophical" experiences I had in the 1970s. In distilling the ethos of hippies and hillbillies (elderly god-fearing folks I also admire), I might have coined a term "Agent of Conscience".

Time to "recalculate the route" of environmental strategy. We know that we need people who care, and we know that it needs to be science based. We hope to develop cures for planet health the way western medicine cured smallpox and polio. And borrowing from the March of Dimes polio strategy, we aren't above using poster children if the timing is right.

First, we need a personal end point or destination, a true north. At least, that's where I started. Without history and accountability and scientific method, Environmentalists will be left Grasping for Straws.  In the big math, the net cost of extraction vs. reuse/repair/recycling, finding novel things to make people to feel guilty about isn't going to get us to our sustainable destination.

Grasping at Straws.... 

Why we need to press pause on the plastic straw ban | The Big Issue
A retrospective map, or historical path already travelled, is easier to account for.

The route of Hernan Cortes and his band of Killer Katholic Spanish Brothers

Don't be Cortez.  Recognizing then the themes of religious hypocrisy, and feeling socially misfit in my Arkansas hometown, I was seeking a "higher power". Actually spent enough time in the pursuit to map the pitfalls of spiritual materialism, pride, and taking oneself too seriously. My thesis became that I felt confident in myself as a judge of history, of things like slavery and subjugation, things that "white guilt" carried across generations from my forefathers.

Simply, I decided to spend my time on earth as a "decent forefather" of generations in the future.  Not necessarily my own kids, as after 500 or 5,000 years those would be unrecognizably geodispersed and genodispersed.  Yeah, don't be that Hernan Cortes guy. Don't be remembered for torching Aztec libraries, genocide, disease, extinctions and burning down forests.

Little known fact - Cortes raid of Montezuma's kingdom was against the orders of his Spanish naval superior officerDiego Velázquez.

With that modest premise [Don't Be Cortes in Retrospect], let's take a look at where environmental religion is going.  What are the Priestatollahs thinking these days? How are environmental bloggers deciding what a new generation of altruists and agents of conscience should be talking about?

Imaginary Aztecs Are So Exotic
Well, if you use Journalism (Data or Photo) and the News Cycle for your environmental bearings, you are probably better off than learning environmental stewardship from the Bible, Tao, Upanishads, or Koran. There are a lot of clouds obscuring those guiding lights. But Journalism is almost oral history, it is closer than we care to admit to mere gossip, and the sharing of news stories by social media is making it ever more so.

It's about metal.

For me, the map of environmental (and many other) harm originated in urban populations and speared itself into habitats in search of metal.  And other natural resources.  Hernan Cortes and his gang bangers were sent to look for silver and gold.

The search for metals led to "civilization" of course - the Akosomba Dam (river Volta) of Ghana was planned in the 1950's at the behest of the Aluminum Bauxite mining industry.  And today, China is investing in Ghana's infrastructure with the same aluminum bauxite mining as collateral. And the risks to the rain forests posed by aluminum bauxite mining are as acute as they ever were.

When Cameroon allowed logging roads to be built into the dense rain forests of its south, while I was a teacher there in my 20s, the same roads that brought old growth timber allowed poachers with machine guns access to gorillas (and pygmy villages), in a map not unlike the Spanish Conquistador's. Logging builds roads for mining of tantalum for cell phones, deep in places out of sight of amateur photojournalists.

It takes a hell of a lot more work for a journalist to win access to the tin mining on Indonesian Coral Islands like Bangka than it takes for a 10 minute taxi ride from Accra's Movenpick Hotel to Agbogbloshie's recycling yard.  The Kabwe lead mine in Zambia is much more "hellish" than Old Fadama's Agbogbloshie, but there are no burning tires. Awal, Razak, and Yaro tell me that adding gasoline to a tire attracts the journalist's cameras, getting the scrapper an interview, and perhaps a meal. (As @ItsSashaRainbow blew out of all proportion, but even our Deauville-bound Benson documentarians fell for that).

So in conclusion, we need to map out a strategy for Environmentalists, to organize our fellow Agents of Conscience to achieve reforms.

We can use poster children sparingly, as March of Dimes tried to do, if it's the environmental equivalent of curing Polio. But if the "Evil" of "Sodom and Gomorrah" and "E-Waste Hell" we are depicting is a bloody RECYCLING yard, we have failed to calculate the NET COST OF EXTRACTION.  Focusing on the city of Accra to the west, where the Akosomba Dam delivers electricity to consumers, will lead us to the urban mining of city scrap.  Focus on the bauxite mining to the EAST of the Akosomba Dam, and the net benefit to carbon, species preservation, habitat, etc. of the Agbogbloshie aluminum scrappers might be obviously not the right camera focus.  The scrappers in Agbogbloshie produce tons of aluminum that save 95% of the energy, and carbon, used to make the same ton of aluminum from the bauxite mines.

We need to assess our past steps, and where we have created Collateral Damage (like Project Eden vs. Joe "Hurricane" Benson), admit to and re-mediate them quickly. Primum Non Nocere.

We can use the sense of personal liability and guilt of our wealthy cities to map better paths to development, and help Emerging Markets avoid some of our own waste legacy. But in so "selling" our message, we must not focus solely on "familiar" images of "post consumer waste".  That creates a false sense of net liability.  I compare it to if long-form journalist Upton Sinclair had focused on a vegetarian not composting the leftover vegetables, without describing The Jungle's slaughterhouses.

The challenge to Journalists who would report on the true NET ENVIRONMENTAL COST of extraction vs. reuse, repair and recycling, should be obvious. My working theory is that journalists have to pitch "gotcha", the same sense of sin and liability used by the Priests to summon parishioners. The concept of guilt, conscience, liability, is easier to personalize with recycling, just as it is easier for parishioners to feel better about themselves for recycling in the first place.

It is far harder for journalist and reader, or priest and choir, to wrestle the liability for demand for more stuff, for tossing rather than fixing (or quickly donating or reselling) things, than it is to visualize our role in mining and forestry.  We tend to visualize those "sins" of the past as "colonialism". That has a lot of racial baggage which is important, but separate, to realize than the harm of extraction. The "colonialism" guilt is as easily harnessed by the foes of recycling, the false priestatollahs of "e-waste", as reform of mining and forestry.

The inter-generational harm of the General Mining Act of 1872 extends far beyond the USA and North America.  The same strategy Ulysses S. Grant used to send millions of gold-rushers into the Apache Indian Wars land, the same impetus for striking the Dakota Sioux from the Black Hills Gold territories that decade, is alive today.  The IMF and World Bank have institutionalized the General Mining Act of 1872 in places like Indonesia and Brazil, sites like OK Tedi Mine, and other historic and pristine sites out of the range of EPA Superfund.

  • Give the land for a token lease per acre (GMA 1872 was set a just $5, and it remains $5 in 20180.
  • Demand no public share of the royalties, no payment for the gold, bauxite, copper, timber, itself.
  • Demand no cleanup or realistic closure plan, no guarantee the land will be replanted.

The problem in Ghana isn't "ewaste dumping". The problem is that 80% of the countries forests have been harvested - mostly illegally - in less than 30 years.  That isn't just colonialists, or China, has not even much to do with large extraction industries.

The cost of extraction remains blurred, or completely unrecognized, or is filtered through soulless statistics like "net carbon". The machine-gunning of chimpanzees is lost in an ill-defined tire-burning crimes.

Visualize the true north.  Visualize what our children's great grandchildren will remember about us.  They won't remember me, or you, or almost any of us personally. It is about extinction, and extinction follows extraction, and extraction is driven by consumption.

Recycling is good.  People who say it isn't good when, if, or because, it is done by blacks are not helping our cause.  It distracts us from the limited amount of time we have to focus on extraction. It's the mining stupid.  Attacking recycling is like Cortez, the killer, setting ablaze his own fleet to keep any conscientious objectors from retreating to Spain.

Jerónimo de Aguilar deserves mention. Cortes priest learned the Aztec and Maya languages and translated them, and preserved the only scrolls. He had learned the local languages during his 8 years as a slave to the Maya, when he and his 16 cohorts were captured.  A facile look at History tends to frame the "winners" as "bullies" and the "conquered" as "victims".  

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