Monthly Archives: May 2013

Are my hands clean?

NewImage

Are my hands clean?

That urgent question, sung some years ago in the plaintive voices of the band Sweet Honey In The Rock, haunts me this week. As this horrifyingly tender image from the tragedy also haunts anyone who has found themselves arrested this week, by the above photo.

[youtube u9sBRnVeUuI]

Are my hands clean?

The question haunts me. As it should all of us, if we are paying any attention to the death toll that continues to rise from the most recent collapse of garment factories in Bangladesh, which has taken 800UPDATE (13 May 2013): now 1100—lives so far. And counting. Factories where underpaid workers labored long hours under blatantly unsafe conditions to produce garments most of us would wait to buy when they appear on the sale rack at the local big block store, or grab during the stampedes of Black Friday, happy at finding another cheap deal.

Are my hands clean?

Sure they seem clean. After all, it wasn’t you or me who built that factory and ran it so brutally, nor were we the ones who failed to inspect the facilities and ensure even minimum safety. That was the Bangladeshi businessmen, and their government’s lax enforcement. It wasn’t you or me who outsourced the jobs to that factory. That was the multinational corporation. It wasn’t you or me who manipulated the laws of both that country and ours, forcing governments everywhere to turn blind eyes to such tragedies repeatedly, so long as “world trade” kept flowing smoothly, and cheaply. That too was, is, the work of corporations greedily anxious to maximize profits and maintain a “healthy” bottom line to please Wall Street. And of politicians anxious to keep the corporations and Wall Street happy and sustain their political bottom lines. All you and I want is that occasional cheap deal on some decent clothes to wear. All most of us can afford are these cheap deals. What can we, mere individuals, do when they come at such a high human cost? It was someone else’s greed in service of your and my need.

Are my hands clean?

Why is it that the high human cost of our globalized consumer culture never part of the price on that sale tag? After all, this is not the first such tragedy in a third world factory producing cheap goods for the global first world market. Nor will it be the last. How is it that the corporations, at least some of which have honestly humble origins, and must contain some ordinary human beings not unlike you or me, feel free to ignore these enormous costs from their balance sheets when reporting their earnings to share holders? How have we allowed these corporations to claim a citizen’s right to participate in (and hijack with money) our very democracies, yet not force them to also accept the minimal responsibility towards other citizens and human beings that is routinely expected from you and me? Why don’t we make them face the question?

Are my hands clean?

Replace the factory collapse in Bangladesh with the BP oil spill of three years ago, and you face the same question in the funhouse mirror, telescoped larger. Only, instead of 800 human beings (and counting), the victims number in the unfathomable populations of uncountable species of other living beings affected by the oil spill. For, when we allow corporations to ignore even basic human rights in their pursuit of profits by satisfying our desire for consumer goods, what chance is there of any honest accounting of the environmental costs of their business, and our deals? Replace both of these examples with the greenhouse gas emissions from our global corporate industrial consumer civilization, and we face an even more unimaginably horrendous cost, to human beings and to the rest of life on this planet. Profits before people before nature begets misery for all in the long run. But that quarterly accounting tape must stay in the black. Thus does short term greed trump consideration of long-term needs.

Are my hands clean?

Some economists are beginning to call for a truer accounting of corporate balance sheets, reflecting the true costs and benefits of their supply and production chains, not merely in dollar terms, but in human and environmental terms. Some environmentalists are challenging public institutions to divest from greedy companies that hide the enormous ecological costs. The benefit you and I derive from the sale price of a product must surely be balanced by the real total cost of its production. A recent analysis by Trucost, an environmental consultancy engaged in this endeavor on behalf of TEEB, concluded that none of the world’s top industries would make any profit if they were forced to account and pay for all of the costs that are currently external to their balance sheets. Externalities. Not lives cut short or homes and habitats and futures destroyed. Mere externalities. That’s the dispassionate dehumanized term economists and business accountants may use for these costs, if they even acknowledge them. Of course there are positive externalities too, but TEEB’s work and the Trucost report shows these to generally outweigh the negative ones, overwhelmingly. These externalities must be paid for, surely, if we are to enjoy our consumer goods without the guilt of the human and environmental costs they currently hide behind their enticing price tags.

Are my hands clean?

When are we going to start demanding that the price tags on our clothes and other goods reveal the full cost of the product, from the environmental costs of the extraction of its raw materials to the human costs of its manufacture? And this is not just about cheap goods which carry hidden externalities, but also expensive consumer products we like to be seen with, high-tech toys and fashionable raiments, shiny baubles and decorative kitsch alike. After all, many of us are willing to pay a premium price for trendy goods that cut us at the bleeding edge, or come with the stamp of creativity from a brand-name designer. Or rare items scoured out of remote parts of the earth, perhaps by slave hands we would never know about. If the creativity of the human designer can be fairly compensated, why not also pay for the dignity of the human labour in mass producing that creative design, or extracting that precious rare element? Why not, moreover, also pay for nature’s evolutionary ingenuity in producing the ecological services that enable the human labour to transform the creative idea into a mass-market product? Why not demand, as consumers, and as shareholders, that the corporations start being honest about their business, and force them to take seriously the full responsibilities of true citizenhood?

Are my hands clean?

Ah but who will be able to afford the truly-costed goods then, if the price tag covers the entire production chain? Only the richer among us? Like the ones now shopping for fair-trade organic groceries at Whole Foods AKA Whole Paycheck? Or may be more of us too, if we start getting real life wages to be able to afford these goods? And even scale down our wants, to focus more on our needs. The economics of the global market are complicated, they tell me, and it is not a simple matter of consumers demanding better practices from companies, and even boycotting a few goods. It is all too complex, this business of global trade, our world too tied up in corporations and banks that are “too big to fail”. So we should stop worrying about ever changing the big picture, shed a tear or two over that haunting embrace, buy another rock album with a conscientious song, maybe donate some money to some BINGO (Big/Business-friendly International Non-Government Organization) offering to help ease the burden on those Bangladeshi workers. Maybe they will even bow down a bit to our pressure, the greedy politicians and businessmen, and tighten some loopholes to reduce the frequency and magnitude of these tragedies. Push them down them below the safety valves of our placid reservoirs of outrage. Keep them where they’re easy to sweep underneath the carpets of our collective conscience. Meanwhile, they tell us, just move along and keep buying those goods because otherwise the whole world economy will stall, and collapse!

Are my hands clean?

Over the past century, labour activists, especially in the developed world, fought for their rights collectively, and managed to improve their own lives, in the here and then, making corporations pay more of the costs of human labour. And their societies and countries too flourished, leading in no small part to forming the First World, as we now know it, the successful global North. Little did they anticipate, though, how corporations would displace those costs to other places, other workers, other times. Across the border. Over the horizon. Beyond the oceans. Out of sight, out of mind. And later, even bring them back home in the dark of the economic night, after the collective actions of past generations were forgotten, disguised under austerity, the new mantra of the first and third world orders.

Are my hands clean?

And what of the ecological costs? Those externalities, even more external to the corporate ledgers? Well, we only woke up to those costs more recently, and haven’t really been able to force businesses to pay for those consistently yet – except piecemeal, in the aftermath of disaster. Capitalism and the free market won the cold war after all, didn’t they? The market will solve all these problems, won’t it? So why won’t it, hasn’t it, yet? What’s it waiting for?

Writing 22 years ago last week, soon after the free market West won the cold war against the East, Ecuadorean writer Eduardo Galeano asked us in the global South if we really wanted To Be Like Them, up in the shiny global North. Can we be like them, given that

“Our poor planet is already in a coma, severely poisoned by industrial civilization, and squeezed nearly dry by consumer society”?

Do we want to be like them, he asked? Leading lives of drudgery, “marked by the confusion of means and ends, we don’t work to live: we live to work. Some people work increasingly longer hours because they need more than they consume, while others do the same in order to continue consuming more than they need.

And those externalities? Galeano ended his essay by observing that:

“In the West we see justice sacrificed in the name of freedom, at the altar of goddess Productivity. In the East we saw freedom sacrificed in the name of justice, also at the altar of goddess Productivity.

“In the South, its not yet too late to wonder if this goddess deserves our lives.”It is over two decades now since he wrote that essay. The free market won, and that goddess continues to claim lives. We made that choice he warned us against, to be like them. Even as the bankers and businessmen and politicians have dragged many of them into lives increasingly like ours. We chose to sacrifice lives, human and non-human, by the millions, at that same altar, and continue to persist on that same path whose folly we never paused to ponder.

Are my hands clean?