Blog Reads Down: Externalizing Value

The steady growth of access to this blog has taken a dip since April.  Part of that was a correction from a record high April and Earth Day showing (hard to live up to the Motherboard article).   But part of it may also be the Laundromat-Mode of e-waste recycling.  We will not always be interesting.  The Nestle Boycott was fading away before it was settled. One way or another, e-waste 15 minutes of infame will end, by bang or by whimper.  All sides of this debate are mortal.

Discarded electronics are something that most people have, by definition, lost all interest in...   It's a challenge for both sides of the Digital Divide / Digital Dump debate.  We are all headed for a sober and mundane landing.  I remember when "plastics recycling" was a buzzy topic, and "post consumer recycled content" was on everyone's lips in the 1990s.  "E-waste" and "exports" are going to normalize, after a ten year stroll along the red carpet.  Singapore can join OECD at any time, they are virtually pre-qualified.

Electronics recycling will remain environmentally important, just as all recycling is important - for sustainable materials management on a finite planet.   It will just lose its "hard rock star" chic.  Environmentalists of my generation remember the alarm over copper, silver and lead mining in the 1970s and 80s. We discovered that our metal mines were moving into countries like Peru and Zambia and Indonesia, recycling earned our attention.  The challenge will be to reform and improve e-waste recycling, like the professionals (Bruce Babbitt and Dale Bumpers) who brought positive changes to hard rock metal mining two decades ago.

But domestic reform of mining in the USA led to investors externalizing the mining costs overseas.  Is reform of electronics recycling doing the same thing?  That is the position of "e-Stewards".  Their solution:  SHRED IT before it escapes.  The metals may still be hand-sorted as "commodities" in China, the labor may still be illegal immigrants speaking the same language.  The losers are poor people for whom a CRT was "good enough" to run a blood bank in Lagos.  The losers are the young women who will die in childbirth.  Externalization is real, but it is not all "harm".  Externalizing repair jobs is externalizing VALUE, not harm, and "tested working" from a country which is the worst at repair is the very definition of inefficiency.

Most of the call of this blog is to de-sensationalize the export debate (make it pretty boring).  We need to stop throwing around loaded emotional words ("witches brew of toxics" to describe a laptop?).  We need to adjust our eyes when a single dirty child is placed with a single TV at an African landfill, presented as evidence that "most" electronics repairpeople are dirty little monkey people.  It's freaking outrageous, and the anger overseas is all directed at USA environmentalists, who seem tone deaf that their concerns are parlayed by dictators to tax and seize internet cafe owners.   I am forced to call people "accidental racists" just to get their damn attention, and they continue to destroy the same human beings that is raising money to promote.  For a former Peace Corps volunteer, anti-mining activist, anti-obsolescence person like myself to see 20-year old Techies in Ghana thrown under the bus by "stewards" is freaking crazy.

Ghana Geek meets Free Geek Middlebury VT 2011
The coming decade should see less alarm and better documentation.  Like the sweat shops that made Kathy Lee Giffords line of clothing, the overseas markets for ewaste will normalize and improve.  My business plan is to spend a lot more time overseas, making that happen, and working handshake-to-handshake with the enterepreneurs in Spanish, Malay, Faso, Fulfulde, Pidgin and Cantonese.  Jerry Powell will retire.  But some future Jerry Powell will emerge, perhaps from Nigeria or Madagascar or Kuala Lumpur.  Yes, this is externalization of recycling - but calling used computers "toxic" and "hazardous" and "witches cauldrons" completely ignores that proper recycling of solid, immobile metals is not dangerous, and that the externalized value (jobs, internet, avoided mining) proportionately obliterate the harm.  Jim Puckett may as well protest the discarded package from the malaria medicine, or the discarded sack from rice sent to starving Ethiopians.  There has to be a net measure of externalized value to externalized harm.  BAN is amputating hands over slivers and blisters.  Their own pretend image of perfect is terrorizing the actual good.

Withdrawing from export trade, breaking equipment into pieces, to keep our consciences nice and shiny, is worthless.  Recyclers in the USA need to actively invest in partnerships with recyclers overseas.  We have no hope of resisting the elective upgrades in wealth nations - working monitors and TVs will be replaced by newer and better, and perhaps that drives the economy.   But we can make progress as sustainable as possible.  The carbon and toxics from mining and manufacturing, embodied in working electronics, must not be shredded.

Coincidentally, Exports Coffee
Having played our roles in establishing laundromat-like collection points for used electronics in the USA and Europe, we need to establish similar collections in the developing nations which are generators in their own right.   My way will be to take nice working stuff they could not otherwise afford, and use the nicer Western PCs to establish "needle exchange" or "cell phone for clunkers" campaigns in Sonora, Semarang, Lima, and Alexandria.  We'll use Good Point Recycling in Middlebury as a meeting place and training ground, cross training and communicating.  Another way is to set up big crushing machines overseas, which the OEMs are very busily investing in right now.

And recycling will become normal, like a morning cup of coffee.   The threatened "coffee boycott", the liberals first response to "exploited" coffee farmers, was the idea so singularly and incredibly bad, which set my bloody hair on fire when I returned from 30 months in Africa.  No one thinks about giving up coffee, switching to tea, or growing robusta in California.   The USA was "externalizing" its coffee labor costs and getting coffee too cheaply, and the anti-globalist response was to stop drinking coffee... and it still is.   The "coffee boycott" was surely a bad idea, surely going to fail, a Napoleanic strike at the Silk Road of trade.   But the threat had a positive effect.

People involved in the coffee trade met with people who had spent time overseas, and we tried to work out a fair trade solution.   As "fair trade" marketing matured, Journalists like Tom Knudson reported where "fair trade" labels were abused in Ethiopia, and people got as tired of paying a premium for "fairtrade" as they do of paying more for "post consumer recycled content".  It was not all smooth sailing, but dialectic and communication worked.

I'm rolling my special bitter expresso-grind coffee in my mouth as I write this at 6AM-7AM this morning.   My wife returned from Yaounde last month, with a big old bag of Cameroon Arabica.  Our visitor from Angola, Miguel, is also anxious to start a coffee trade (beans for Apples?).

The important lesson is not that liberal reactions to blue jean sweatshops, poor coffee bean pickers, and e-waste refurbishers are "wrong".   They are a canary, a barking watchdog, an alarm bell.   I'm sure that Nike today runs better shoe factories, with better pay for workers, as a result of Kathy Lee Gifford and Michael Jordan's time in the crosshairs of liberal activists.   I'm sure that Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, visiting plantations in Central America, will have a keener eye on child laborers, worn shoes, and will keep its house in more order.

Jungle primitives prefer 17" SSG to "tested working"
In E-Waste Recycling, we have BAN to thank for the money I can leverage or invest in "Fair Trade E-Waste" recycling programs in the world.  We have BAN and SVTC to thank that we are able to raise money to help the Geeks of Color to drop their buckets and lift as they climb.  Harmony is a two-sound system.

My two part harmony is still singing the praises of trade and alter-globalization.   I am singing the songs of discovery of Chicas and Arab Spring internet cafe owners.  I like externalizing, because I see the net value of externalization can be positive, bringing jobs and wealth to Indonesians still recovering from the first Tsunami.  They are externalizing value back to me.  We are improving each others lives.  We are getting dirty, learning new languages, making mistakes, and making improvements.

Too bad if BAN wants to harp against a smaller, smaller, shrinking percentage of "exported harm".  Refusing to distinguish between a tons of imploded CRTs dumped on Souleymane in Senegal by guys who ripped him off in New Jersey, and the tiny stick of RAM (256) electively upgraded (replaced with 1 gig) in Ethiopia... they are going to run out of wind.  There are too many cameras, too many geeks at USA universities, for common sense to and good works to fear them.  They cannot possibly continue to convince people that the SKD monitor refurbishing factory in Guangdong is the same thing as the Guiyu wire burning yards.

BAN took our jobs, food from families
At our meeting in Washington, DC, this week, Jim Puckett remained 100% equal, adamant, and rabid in his condemnation of removing a tiny plagued capacitor (from Dell Optiplexes imported to Taiwan) as he is of the burning of an entire TV in Ghana.

EXTERNALIZATION. He refuses to distinguish between blacks;  if they are performing part of the work (repair, testing, recycling), then it is exploitation. His model is Made In USA, delivered "tested working" directly from white hands to African schools.  African children must receive the working product from the Great White Father in Washington.

He's so buried in text editing that he cannot distinguish between a Pentium 4 made new again by the replacement of a 1/4 inch transistor from the scrounging of copper from a burning ewaste crime.  He's certainly not alone, and plenty of regulator bureaucrats and reporters and diplomats are walking the tightrope towards prohibition of trade.  Tested working.  Fully Functional.  It doesn't matter what people PAY FOR, what they REQUEST.  It doesn't matter that the engineer from Taiwan who has patent on cathode ray guns wants non-working Korean model CRT, and NOT tested working Japanese grade.  There is no dialogue with the Techs of Color.  Pages and pages of explanation of what they want, what they do with it, how many people they employ, their ISO14001 certification, it matters not, they are the same as an innocent, ignorant child to the Stewards.  "It puts the lotion on the skin, or else it gets the hose again."

It's not too late to moderate.   If BAN retired now, they would earn a place in eco-heaven.   The folks who screamed at Nike for externalization had a positive result.  They got air conditioners put into the sweat shops.  They did not save Levis 14 factories from closing in the USA, and they did not get the textile industry to uproot from Honduras and Vietnam and reopen in South Carolina.

One shredding job in USA = 100 reuse jobs overseas
Being stubborn, accidentally racist, and wrong on the law of Basel Convention, does not disqualify someone from meeting with me in open dialogue with university researchers.  Any time, any place.  Dialectic.  Dialogue.  Talk to me baby.

Loudly singing, even off-key, can make for a better choir.  In sixth grade, at Figarden Elementary School in Fresno, California, I sang in a choir.   The girls voices had been drowning out the boys.  The Choir leader told the boys to sing louder.  And I did.  Niall Yoshizumi told me after the concert that I'd had a tremendous effect... he delicately explained that my voice was so bad, and so off key, that the other boys had been a) less embarrassed about their own voices, and b) had tried to drown me out.  The effect was a better choir.

Whatever your job or role in society, be it running a laundromat or selling hot cups of coffee or signing in a sixth grade choir, you can make the world better, despite your limited talent, by trying and listening to others.   You just have to realize it when the world improved in a different way that you intended, that shooting the head off the geek who reformed his shop in China because what you wanted was relocation of the high tech industry to the USA, you just shot the wrong damn guy.

Great White Father in (Seattle) Washington
e-Steward activists made the choir better by singing loudly, even when singing it wrong.  But there is a limit when Geeks of Color in Cairo or Indonesia are closed down by tyrants using your "ewaste" banner.  Damning it all, in eco-sanctimony, is badness.   Stop the fatwah over elective upgrades.  Externalization is a form of interracial marriage.  It's here, its now, right here, right now.  Please stop the hateful, degrading insults.  Please stop the war on fairly traded "e-waste".

Thank you.   We are all better now because of you.  Now sit down and watch. I can convince overseas investors to get permits now, to get ISO14001, to invest in their workplace, much like USA coffee traders get better conditions at the plantations.  Its getting better, I promise, and you will get some credit.

Shred before externalizing = value subtracted?
But you may have to take account for what you have done.  When I suggested you turn your gun towards Africa, you made "Digital Dump", and thanked me for alerting you.  But you still shot my friend in Indonesia in the face two years later.  Told face to face the damage you had done to the families and technicians in Semarang, Indonesia, you babbled some kind of nonsense about "loopholes" and jobs, like we are going to rebuild the monitor manufacuring factory in the USA which we outsourced 20 years ago (they were making new monitors).  You take away warranty repair from the factory, you take away reuse and sustainability, and you do it with a twist of the knife.  The tsunami of 2003 took away so much of the business, like a second tsunami, you have wiped the sustainable jobs, and source of affordable display devices, off the map, with two words "tested working" - two words explicitly voted AGAINST at Basel, which voted to allow this very factory - repair and refurbishment (Annex IX, B1110) to operate.

You have a good heart, but a unique inability to admit to collateral damage you are causing.   You are taking away sustainable jobs and doing very bad things now, you have mistaken your positive effect on the choir for musicianship.   You are singing too loud.

Even if this blog has only 1,000 reads per month (10%), I am morally obligated to engage this topic.  I have turned my energy towards disarming you because my friends overseas say they don't trust you anymore, that helping you by communicating through me earned them nothing, and your racist slog across Indonesia refurbishing shows you must be disarmed.

Shredding does not equal Testing
Napolean, too, had great intentions.  Just accept our thanks, let fair trade and alter-globalization happen, stop aiming the rifle of righteousness at the best and strongest environmentalists overseas.  Our day of being interesting at the California parties is almost over, we are getting close to laundrymat time, we are going to be boring our friends with our debate.    Let the geeks of color be, dude.

In other words, this blog only needs one or two readers.  I don't care if the 10,000 reads per month takes a hit.  It's part of our cause (coffee, textiles, and e-waste) "normalizing", the party conversation turning to other topics.  But it's also permanent record, and I hope if you are handed another photo of another sea container, you will do the right thing and check with me before turning Gordon Chiu into the Boston Globe.  If you do that, and Gordon has been buying from your press-loving Pledge Signers, my loyalty is to Gordon, and you will be confronted with your collateral damage.   Blaming me for being negative, and abandoning the California Compromise, when there are other people willing to replace me in the conversation, and I am willing to write good things when good things are done, that was mismanagement.  The world is changing, the Asian Tiger economies are all going to be OECD soon, the self-generated waste in China is continuing to eclipse the imports.

Just as you improved e-waste trade by criticizing it, I hope that you will rethink the tactic of silent treatment to WR3A, fair trade recyclers, and technicians and geeks overseas.   Quit attacking them while you are ahead.  Quit using their kids pictures to build a USA bureaucracy.  It will fail.  The effects of anti-globalization, the effects of restraint of trade, like the effects of bans on interracial marriage, are poverty and ignorance.

As I've said many times, all right then I'll go to hell.   Huck Finn made the only choice Nig*er Jim's friend could honorably make.    WR3A meets with the techs, trades what they WANT (not more than 30,000 per month if they want only 30,000 per month, working or not.   If they say "fully functional", that is what we send.  If they send a definition of "key functions", that is what we ship).  You don't have any friends in Africa, Asia, or South America, these people hate you.   To have the very best and brightest technicians in developing nations mature as haters of green environmentalist Seattle Americans is NOT a good outcome for the earth.

Yeah, I had too much coffee this morning.  I'm wired.   The blog is too long, the analogies too trite.   But I'm writing everything, from helpful flattering blogs, to articles in Motherboard, to Top Ten Myths, to draft legislation.  There's nothing in this world to stop me worrying about that, girl.

1 comment:

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