May 2, 2011 § 1 Comment
(CNN) — When I met George Awudi, a leader of Friends of the Earth Ghana, he was wearing a bright red T-shirt that said “Do Not Incinerate Africa.” We were both attending the World Social Forum, a sprawling gathering of tens of thousands of activists held earlier this month in Dakar, Senegal.
Amid that political free-for-all — with mini-protests breaking out against everything from Arab despots to education cuts — I assumed that Awudi’s T-shirt referred to some local environmental struggle I hadn’t heard of, perhaps a dirty incinerator in Ghana.
He set me straight: “No, it’s about climate change.” Specifically, the combative slogan refers to the refusal of industrialized nations to commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since the hottest and poorest countries on the planet are being hit first and hardest by rising temperatures, that refusal will mean, according to Awudi, that large parts of Africa “will be incinerated.”
He was quick to clarify that he did not think that people from wealthy countries actively want Africa to “burn” — it’s just that they want “to hold on to their interests,” including “interests of profit-making.”
But there is something deeper at play too, Awudi said. “It’s a mentality that they have imported from the colonial days. A mentality of looking down upon people” from Africa. It is that mentality, he argued, that makes it possible to barrel ahead with economic policies that carry growing and glaring risks.
I decided to focus my TED talk on the psychology of reckless risk-taking, because I see that impulse at work behind so many of the catastrophes of recent years: the BP disaster, the invasion of Iraq, the financial sector collapse, and the ongoing refusal to take meaningful action in the face of climate change.
Again and again, policymakers ignore mountains of evidence warning of catastrophe, opting instead to roll the dice and hope for the best.
There are all kinds of explanations for what drives this sort of short-term decision-making, with greed and hubris cited most frequently. Less discussed, but possibly more important, is the phenomenon that Awudi referenced: that the people taking the risks often feel distinctly distant from, if not outright superior to, the people most endangered by their decisions.
Many of our greatest risk-takers are also convinced that they personally will be spared from the worst consequences should things go terribly wrong.
In most cases, this is not an irrational assumption. The U.S. government’s decision to invade Iraq was disastrous for Iraqis, whose country spiraled out of control, but in large parts of the U.S., that war is virtually invisible.
Multinational oil and gas companies are so hypermobile that a disaster in one part of the world just means concentrating on new “energy plays” somewhere else. And then there are the bankers who caused the 2008 collapse. Billions around the world have paid the price for their recklessness, but the financial sector itself has been largely insulated from all but the most token reprimands.
With climate change, the gap between those who created the crisis and those who pay the price is widest of all.
It is the historical emissions from the industrialized world that are responsible for the dangerous accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. Yet in North America and Europe, where we have the infrastructure to deal with extreme weather (just don’t mention New Orleans), many of us feel we have the luxury to debate whether the phenomenon is even happening.
Meanwhile, African nations like Ghana, that contributed least to the crisis, are already facing crippling droughts and devastating floods, without the tools to cope.
All of this has led me to conclude that the central challenge of our time is tackling deep inequality, and changing the stories that we tell ourselves to justify our enormous privilege.
In a deeply divided world like ours, there is simply too much distance between the people with unchecked power to make grave mistakes and those who have to suffer the effects.
Only when we feel that our fates are genuinely intertwined will we understand that a fire that starts in Africa will eventually incinerate us all.
August 30, 2010 § 2 Comments
This is the story of my favourite jeans. I bought the jeans a while ago at a Mexx store, and fell in love with them because they fit me so well and matched with many of my wardrobe items. Tonight I looked at them and wondered about their journey before they got to me, who might have manufactured them and in which country. So I decided to look it up:
I first looked at the label and discovered that they’re made in China, like many many other products out there. Naomi Klein devotes a small section to factory conditions in China entitled “Not Low Enough: Squeezing Wages in China” in her work No Logo. She says:
“[E]veryone’s wages are high compared to China [i.e. other countries that have major manufacturing zones]. But what is truly remarkable about that is that the most egregious wage cheating goes on inside China itself.
“Labor groups agree that a living wage for an assembly-line worker in China would be approximately US87 cents an hour…Yet even with [the] massive savings in labor costs, those who manufacture for the most prominent and richest brands in the world are still refusing to pay workers in China the 87 cents that would cover their cost of living, stave off illness and even allow them to send a little money to their host families. A 1998 study of the brand-name manufacturing in the Chinese special economic zones found that Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Esprit, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Nike, Adidas, J.C. Penny and the Limited were only paying a fraction of that miserable 87 cents – some were paying as little as 13 cents an hour.” (212)
I looked up Mexx to see whether its manufacturing practices would be considered similar to these other brands Klein discusses, and found that Mexx is in fact a division of Liz Claiborne. Klein specifically outlines the working conditions for two Liz Claiborne garment factories in China. The figures are from 1998, but they at least give a general idea of the conditions of the sweatshops. The Shanghai Shirt 2d Factory in 1998 paid workers 25 cents per hour, with 66 hour work weeks (12 hours a day, 6 days a week). There was no union and workers were fined if they did not work overtime. The Shanghai Jiang District Silk Fashions factory paid 28 cents an hour, with 60-70 hour work weeks (11.5 hours a day, 6 days a week).
So my jeans may have come from a worker not even paid a dollar and hour for her labour? And how much did I pay??? My being cheated is one thing, but the real crime is how little of that money reaches the worker who actually made the product itself. As a result of this exercise, I don’t really feel much of that love I previously held for those jeans. And the sad truth is that all of my clothes probably have a similar story.