Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
The Invisible Economy
“Lessenich calls this a ‘generalised desire for knowing nothing.’ ”
(The Imperial Mode of Living, Ulrich Brand & Markus Wissen, 2021, p.145)
If we mentally removed ourselves from the imperatives, routines and interests that absorb our time we might, in our absence from the theatre of life, see that the fabric of society, every cell and fibre of it, is sustained by a complex network of relationships we are not normally aware of. It is not only that our attention is so focused on living within the perimeters of our circumstances that we are ignorant of them but that the institutions that shape our society, the large corporations, powerful financial institutions and government, prefer that we remain so.
These relationships are environmental and economic. When we put an item into our shopping basket, one out of 3,000 different products many supermarkets have on display, it is extremely unlikely that we will know its life story. Our decision on whether to buy a product or not is based on our familiarity with it, the design of the packaging, quantity and price.
If the product is one we have never used before we will probably read the label to see if it will do the job we intend it for. Most labels list the product’s main ingredients, many of which will be completely meaningless to us. We can buy the item regardless or use the internet to learn about the ingredients. This, however, is time consuming and will only take us so far. There are 5,000 natural minerals and 170,000 synthetic ones. If any of the latter are in the desired product the company, wanting to protect its commercial interests, will have revealed little. If in doubt ask Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia to give you the list of ingredients in its drinks.
What companies most certainly don’t want you to know is the impact its products have on the environment in the course of their life-cycle and the remuneration the workers receive during each stage of their manufacture. The company though will have employed creative minds to lead you astray with uplifting visuals of the natural world assigned to the product you are thinking of buying, evocative and memorable catch-phrases about its health benefits and various capabilities. To discover the truth of these will involve more research.
If all is good you still can’t buy the product with a clear conscience as the company, even if it abides by the highest ethical standards, may use the profits to support products that are not produced in an ethical way. The truth is most of the things we buy have, during their life story, a negative environmental impact. The question is on learning of these, and the low wages paid to the workers who made it, are we prepared to do without. Many people take this option even though it can be a challenge.
Take the case of palm oil, an ingredient in over 50 percent of consumer products including margarine, breakfast cereal, chocolate, biscuits, shampoos, tooth paste and soap. It is also used as a biofuel for motor vehicles and power stations. The plant is mainly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia where tens of thousands of square miles of rainforest have been set alight and turned to ash in order to provide land to grow the crop. Millions of sentient creatures in the forests will have been killed by the fire and smoke including pollinating insects, orangutans and tigers. The indigenous people will have been expelled to live as paupers in a culture they were not socialised to survive and thrive in.
The 2016 report by Amnesty International ‘The Great Palm Oil Scandal’ found that in one of the plantations it surveyed the workers were not paid enough to meet their basic needs and that there were serious human rights abuses. These, the report says:
“included forced labour and child labour, gender discrimination, as well as exploitative and dangerous working practices that put the health of workers at risk. The abuses identified were not isolated incidents but due to systemic business practices.”
The ill-treatment of the workers on the palm oil plantations and the destruction wrent on the environment, in what can only be called ecocide, applies to the production of many of the products we in the high income countries consume without a second thought. These include tea, coffee, cocoa beans, cotton, bananas, and rubber as well as many types of clothing and electronic items.
The Guardian, 13 May 2021, used its centre-fold pages to highlight the environmental destruction and dangerous working conditions of people working in the informal gold mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt, another mineral of global importance that mostly originates from the DRC, is used in electronic devices that many consider as essential to their life as a set of healthy lungs These include mobile phones, laptops, digital TVs and smart speakers. Cobalt is a vital component in the batteries used in electric vehicles and other technologies which it is vainly hoped will reduce the emission of global warming gasses to the point we can continue our orgy of consumption with environmental impunity.
The out-of-sight human and environmental relationships that bind the global economy together need to be made visible. We have to release ourselves from the “generalised desire for knowing nothing”. Otherwise we will continue to act as if the terrible harms we do to sustain our way of life don’t exist. Not only can this situation last for much longer, as all the indices of biodegradation indicate, but in “knowing nothing” we are bad ancestors as well as our own worst enemy.