by Madame Blavatsky
Some people seem to be getting all upset over the concept behind Capitalism is Over if You Want It. What, they ask, would you replace it with? And let’s be straight here. Goods and services have been traded since humans gained senscience, and that will never change. Hard core Communist societies have black markets, and all that changes is price, availability, and of course, consequences. Everyone I know, myself included, will be implicated in this little rant, and there will be consequences, though probably not as severe as trading in a black market economy. Consumerism is riddled with unconsidered consequences, which I think is the real focus of this project.
When it comes right down to it, we don’t actually need all that much. Intangibles like love, camaraderie, satisfaction with the work one does are essential, but for now let’s talk commodities. For the sake of argument, I’m going to list necessities for someone living in a contemporary Western society, as you could argue the Masai get along just fine without shoes. Shoes may be necessary in the West, but then, how many pair do you need, and do they have to be Manolo Blahniks? Necessary commodities are just good food, shelter, clothing/shoes, medical care, transportation, and arguably, a communications device such as a computer or phone.
That isn’t to say that treats or desires are wrong, but the manufacture of these things as needs gets them all out of proportion, even in people who might otherwise be conscious of the consequences of their actions. I would even argue that the fewer objects of desire you have, the more you value each. Saving for something helps you to savor it, and to value it further when it finally comes. Fewer things also means you appreciate what you have more, and it means you either work less or have more money to spend on charity or experiences. The New York Times addressed this very thing a couple days ago:
Most people I know are fairly non-materialistic, but even some of them have their weaknesses….
A good example of this is the cult of Apple. Apple has, for the most part, a great reputation as a good company with good products. Yet, even if you have a job that requires constant connection, if you owned an Apple iPhone3, do you really need an iPhone4 as soon as it comes out? What’s wrong with your old phone, bucko? Why should I care what you buy?
Whenever you’re buying something, even from a company with a relatively good reputation, you have to ask yourself what kinds of resources you’re exploiting, and what the back end consequences will be. It’s necessary for any company to make a profit, or in the case of a non-profit, to make it’s payroll and expenses. However, problems arise when companies look at a single bottom line (profits) versus the triple bottom line (people, environment, and profits). Though Apple has had a fairly decent reputation in the past, they rely on Chinese manufacturers for their iphones and ipods, and Chinese manufacturers have notoriously poor records in both labor and environmental factors.
Though Apple tries to ensure decent working conditions, according to a July 14, 2009 report by Bloomberg News, 45 of the 83 factories Apple audited in 2008 didn’t pay proper overtime and 23 provided less than minimum wage. These numbers may be low, as many workers fear retribution for exposing the truth. Apple says they have been requiring their suppliers to adhere to strict principles on payments, worker rights and social responsibility, and I hope that’s true, but abuses are rampant in China and difficult to police. Now imagine if you’re buying new from a company like Walmart or Nike (or any number of other companies with notoriously bad labor standards)—you’re putting money directly into the hands of a company who profits from the suffering of its workers.
In doing so, you are facilitating that suffering. In short, if it wasn’t profitable, big companies wouldn’t do it.
And what of the materials computers and cell phones are made of? Many of the rare minerals needed for them come from the Congo. In fact, according to the Enough Project, up to 80% of these minerals come from the Congo, and support militias who rule mineral-rich areas through terror and rape. Miners work with wooden sticks in rough conditions, and many are as young as 11. For further info and photo documentation, check out these links:
According to the Enough Project, Apple has plenty of problems with conflict minerals:
But wait, there’s more! What happens to those obsolete electronics? Some are resold on secondary markets, but a high degree of planned obsolescence means that many units, particularly those with some sort of design flaw, end up as e-waste. According to an article entitled “Poison PCs/Toxic TVs Executive Summary”, by the Silicon Valley Toxic Corporation (2006-11-13) and a 2007 Mother Jones article entitled “iWaste,” 70% of toxics in US landfills come from e-waste, though electronics make up only 2% of the trash. And that’s just in the US. Much of our e-waste is exported for recycling, which is something most people feel unequivocably good about.
However, e-cycling also has a price, both human and environmental. For a look at Guiyu, China’s “e-waste village,” take a look here: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1870162,00.html. E-waste apparently brings Guiyu $75 million a year. It also brings poisoned groundwater, high rates of lead poisoning in local children, and some of the highest dioxin counts and cancer rates in the world. Other developing areas suffer a similar fate as they are cash starved and lack all those pesky environmental regulations we have here attempting to keep us safe. E-waste goes out of sight, out of mind.
And what of the packaging that your spiffy new toy comes in? Even if you reuse it, as we do with plastic bags for our own garbage, it will probably eventually end up somewhere like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which the LA Times estimates to be twice the size of Texas and growing. Normally, I sneer at people who use Wikipedia as a citation source, but this is blog, not a research article, and I a bit pressed for time. There’s a great article, with citations, there on the Pacific Trash Vortiex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch.
If not in the ocean, it could end up in one of our landfills. According to the Discovery Channel, every year Americans produce more that 82 football fields piled 30 feet deep in trash.
But, you protest, it’s just ONE little iPhone (or laptop, or whatever). Yeah, that’s what we all say, and then if you multiply that one by all the other ones, you come up with a sordid little non-ecosystem. Now your purchase has not only exploited and sickened children in Africa and Asia; contributed to rape terror in the Congo; and poisoned drinking water; it’s also added to the garbage in the ocean and further endangered the ocean as a food source (or taken away arable land and further risked the local water supply).
If you aren’t motivated by your ability to influence corporate actions through your spending, consider this: all your toys and, in the case of cell phones, the accompanying contracts you are required to buy, further enslave you as well. And for what? If you were one of those people who had to have the status of being the first on your block to own an iPhone4, you would be sorely disappointed by that little antenna problem they seem to be having. And you’re on the hook for the monthly contract that goes with it, deepening your unholy connection to workin’ for the Man.
Capitalism is no longer a question of “finding a need and filling it.” Commercial culture is dedicated to creating “needs” where none existed, and to blurring the line between “needs” and “wants.” No matter how much we reduce, recycle, and reuse, we will have an impact on people and places we may never see. The trick is to reduce it. We can reduce it by buying fewer new things, and keeping them out of the waste cycle (by helping other reuse, not hoarding) for as long as possible. When we spend less, we have to earn less, and when we have to earn less, we have more time for the essential intangibles: love, camaraderie, and working on things that really matter.
Neil Young agrees. Check it out:
The New York Times is thinking like this too. E-waste in Ghana: