Raymond set me off (again) on a trajectory of thought (which is why I keep in touch with him). He sent out a link to a “green” designer product for growing food in an apartment. I had already come across “the green product” a few weeks ago and I called it out for what I think it is – yuppie bullshit – a “green” feel-good fashion product (I wonder if it will come with an iPhone app) that will fail to do what it sets out to do but will surely sell loads of useless green-plastic.
To this Raymond ultimately replied with Comfort is one of modernity’s biggest promises!
… and here we go!
Potatoes in Romania
Yesterday I posted, in humurous spirit, some amusing and interesting numbers that appeared in one day of arrangements in the village. The last part of the post was less humurous and leads into this one.
Our neighbors, a charming and pleasant couple with a lovely teenage daughter (who spends weekends and vacations here at home with her parents and lives the rest of the time in another village close to a nearby city living with her grandmother so she can go to a better school then the one here), are farmers who make a small living from selling their produce in two city markets. They are real farmers – they actually do all their work with their bare hands. They are well organized and work a relatively small plot of 1.5 hectares. She has occassionaly had to work during the winter months (when there is much less work to do at home) in other European countries to make more money so they could, for example, buy a car. They have managed to gradually create a comfortable and pleasant home (central heating, running water, toilet with septic tank, etc.).
They exist in a Romania that is under, what I perceive to be an, attack of western commercialization and industrialization. Cities are overtaken by large super-market chains that offer imported produce all year long in a comfortable environment – heated, sheltered from the rain, pleasantly organized and offering overwhelming variety. These super-markets are spread throughout the city neighborhoods offering both easy walking distance to many and spacious parking lots to everyone else.
These super-markets lure people away from the more traditional farmers-markets which have traditionally been a main supply of food to the city (this, mind you, compared to other more advanced countries where farmers-markets are just coming into fashion) . However it doesn’t stop there. Over recent year, cities (often corruptly managed, like many public services and institutions in Romania – a social residue of communist / dictatorship times) have decided to “upgrade” farmers-markets. Where once there were open spaces with stands, now there are closed mall-like spaces (sometimes with an attached mall with, you guessed it, a super-market) which are more “comfortable” for consumers. Usually these spaces end up in the hands of someone connected to the corrupt-local government. When once farmers paid a small symbolic fee for selling their produce in the market (in our once-a-week village market – farmers pay a token 1 lei for a space in the market) now they are charged outrageous fees (100 euros a month for 2 or 3 days a week).
Between the “comfortable” super-markets and the now “comfortable” farmers-markets local produce is being driven out of the city. Obviously this is bad news for the farmers who make a meager living from selling their produce and are driven into further poverty. Its also bad news for city people who are being drawn away from much healthier local produce to industrialized foods that travel great distances. “Comfort” is being traded for poverty, health and sustainability.
Worst of all, and for the most part unnoticed, is that an entire culture of self sufficiency is being wiped out. Villages are being driven into poverty, ageing and dying. Youth are flocking to the cities. It’s only a matter of time before the knowledge of how to grow food will fade and cease to be a common thing.
Apple in China
Then, a short time later Raymond sent out a link to a CNN article about a couple of NYTimes articles about the abusive conduct of Apple and its gigantic supply and manufacturing chain. They tell a story in which many thousands of Chinese are enslaved (the word slavery isn’t mentioned, its elegantly avoided) by greedy corporations. Its well written but (to me) completely predictable.
I was tempted to pull out quotes and highlights, but there are simply too many to choose from. So go ahead and knock yourself out and read the two articles How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work and In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad … I did.
Feeding on the Poor
I do however want to make a connection between the two stories. I believe that both exemplify a similar injustice – one on a local scale the other on an international scale. Both phenomena are possible because there is a rich upper class willing and able to feed on a poor lower class.
Our neighbors, though self sufficient, have to generate some income. They are farmers because that is what they know how to do – that is a given default when you are a peasant. Food is a reliable market place – everyone has to eat. The farmers-market business is simply a social medium – where supply and demand can meet. It can be governed to create an efficient and frictionless mechanism (an efficient low cost space where farmers can setup tables for their produce, in our weekly village market peasants pay a symbolic 1 lei for setting up in the market). It can also be governed as an abusive obstacle course designed to suck life out of it – as is the prevalent situation in Romanian cities.
A similar situation exists in China. Slavery pays better then no income. In a world where money is key to quality-of-life (food and shelter) … being a slave is an attractive option. Foxconn in China is an example of a place of business where supply and demand meet. It could be governed to create an efficient and frictionless mechanism (Apple has enough profit margin to share with its suppliers and for its suppliers to share with its workers). It can also be governed as an abusive obstacle course designed to suck life out of it – as it the prevalent situation in Apple (and apparently many other consumer electronics brands) which, by design, sets minimal profit margins in China.
In both cases:
- Choice lies in the hands of those who mediate and control capital.
- Greed has been the prevalent motivation.
- Greed has been funded by consumers who are “comfortable” with the way things are.
That last point is where the NYTimes articles fall short. The CNN article suggested that the NYTimes article may be a contender for the Pulitzer prize. I hope not. It is a sensational article that does not go the extra mile – the last mile. It is easy and fashionable to take a punch at economy when it is down. It would be much less popular to take a jab at the primary financiers of the failing economical machines – the consumers without whom no company would exist let alone be able to commit crimes we love to read about.
In Romania consumers have fallen for the industrialized food comfort-trap. They are becoming used to and dependent on it even though prices are constantly on the rise and quality in decline.
In the west consumers have fallen (deeper) into their own consumption trap and technology fad. They are becoming used to and dependent on it even though they know these devices are manufactured using human slavery.
In both of the scenarios consumers have the power to change things but are inhibited by a temporary “comfort” they have gained. That will change … for some, realization will come too late.
For King & Country?
In the not too distant history of humanity war used to be a romantic notion. It was a noble concept to subvert life to social concepts of king and country (heck, I was raised in Israel under the influence of an attempted brainwash that dying for your country is a worthy cause) . Two world wars wore out such romantic notions.
War was then subverted to supposedly higher, more intelligent purposes. It was, until very recently, quite acceptable to sacrifice lives for things such as human rights, freedom of speech, or freedom of oil. Yet that too is going out of fashion.
War is now taking on a new form. Maybe the most devious expression of violence to date? It is no longer fought by armies of trained soldiers but rather by armies of trained consumers. Consumers who like reading about the atrocities their most popularly branded company (Apple) commits against their fellow humans in China – its slave workers. Consumers who particularly like to read about these atrocities on their latest (soon to be upgraded) Apple made iPad devices – reading articles written by authors who like to write on their slick Apple made notebooks.
Yes dear Apple worshippers & consumers, dear Steve Jobs fans, dear Software & Product designers who grant Apple the highest of accolades. A veil of popular, intelectual, self-serving, fashion of comfort is blinding you from the fact that YOU are the most sophisticated criminals against humanity the human race has yet to produce. You are blinded by the superficial, you pursue and uphold aesthetics at the expense of purpose and dharma.
Your “comfort” has been gained at a terrible price. You who value a scratch-resistant screen in time for your Christmas shopping over the living conditions of fellow humans that make those screens (we had a blackout protest to protect internet freedom,and I’ve seen a call for twitter blackout to protest their censorship, yet I don’t see anybody calling for a ban on Apple products). You think that a few thousand poor enslaved Chinese are paying the price. But you don’t see that it is you who have paid the dearest price. The Chinese are better off then you. They know who their enslavers are, you do not.
How comfortable is your “comfort”? How much longer do you think you’ll be able to fool yourself?
Claimer: I am proud to have never owned a beautiful Apple product.