New Scientist environment and development consultant Pearce (With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, 2007, etc.) looks at the stuff our consumer dreams are made of, drawing dire conclusions about globalization along the way.
The author is interested in our personal footprints, the amount of materials, labor and fuel that supplies us with luxuries. “The people and the pollution that sustain us are invisible to us,” he writes. He sets off on a globetrotting tour to find out where “the coffee in my mug and the shrimp in my curry, the computer on my desk and the phone in my hand” come from. Pearce takes a populist perspective, spotlighting the humanity of both consumers and often-impoverished producers, but the book is nonetheless a disturbing indictment. Nearly every chapter suggests that key resources are becoming scarcer and more sought after, resulting in a deepening inequity even as vaunted “fair trade” practices in industries like coffee purportedly lift some boats. The voracious tastes of Westerners for inexpensive fashions and cell phones have damaged places like Bangladesh and rural China, causing both environmental despoliation and unexpected social gains for women, who are preferred in many factories for their perceived nimbleness. Pearce illustrates the slippery nature of these transformations with observations such as, “child labor is largely banished now from the factories that Western buyers know about.” He argues that we can barely conceive of how the elaborate supply chains of global trade are transforming many far-flung societies. Our love of jeans is apparently destroying Uzbekistan, where much cotton is now grown with ruinous ecological effects, and we may have but a few decades left of many of the metals and resources necessary for our beloved high-tech lifestyle. Pearce delivers this news in an incongruously sunny tone and ends with several optimistic chapters arguing that we can still control population growth and climate change, but his underlying thesis remains grim.
An able exposition of many of the ugly realities behind the global marketplace’s attractive exterior.