THINGS I NEVER HAD AN ANSWER TO – part 1

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good communicator. I am weak in debates, getting lost in my own arguments, because I do not have the facts nor the figures ready to impress people. Facts and figures, is what you need, in order to be convincing. Time, on the other hand, to develop my argument and look up the exact numbers and ways to express myself, is what I need.

There are these situations in which I get annoyed, mainly because someone is coming with an argument I partly disagree with, but I cannot truly explain why. I tend to lose discussions, mainly because I cannot find the right words to explain what I actually mean. In the past few years, there have been several statements made by various people, that I disagree with, but never could explain exactly why.

My goal is to slowly but gradually collect these statements, and write down what my answer to those statements is, after having given myself the time to think about it from several perspectives: a process of considering, reconsidering, reading, trying to remember and learning.

I have therefore decided to start a series with statements that I consider to be false, and what my answer to them would be.
Things I never had an answer to, until now. Part 1:

 

“Our consumption is a good thing. Because of us, all these people in Asia have jobs.”

This statement first of all raises one question in particular: were all these people in Asia jobless, before we started consuming as much as we do today? No, these people were mostly living on the countryside, farming, doing there daily lives. Was this not good enough? Well, apparently not. (Read more here)

People in Asia also can see, how Western people are wealthy, how they can travel the world, live in beautiful houses, have proper education, proper health care, beautiful cars and gadgets, and so forth. What is not to like? Of course this looks highly admirable! By remaining a farmer, the idea is, you will never advance in your life. A factory job, however, creates the feeling that you, at a certain point, can take a step up in your career, to start earning more money, and thus be amongst the rich and happy.

The thing is, this phenomenon is a bit of a myth, and the explanation why is called “Unequal Exchange”. The funny thing is, that a factory worker in Asia most probably not even can afford the pair of jeans that she (I say she, because most of the factory workers are women, read more here) herself sews. It is not only underpayment which is unequal in that sense, though, As Alf Hornborg explains in his book on Global Magic (2015:84), ecological unequal exchange is “an asymmetric net transfer of material inputs in production, rather than in terms of an underpayment of material inputs or an asymmetric transfer of value”, which means that it is not only about the price paid, but also about the amount of land ánd time used. And, as Hornborg argues on page 152, “recent research has shown that the core regions of the modern world-system – the United States, the European Union, and Japan – are all net importers of both embodied raw materials and embodied energy, as well as embodied space.” John Bellamy Foster has written a few excellent articles on (ecologically) unequal exchange as well, that go further in this. Find them here.

To explain this with an example: let us imagine a Western apparel company selling cotton t-shirts. The apparel company buys 12 tons of raw cotton, worth €1000,-. For this raw cotton, 33 hours of foreign labour were needed to produce it, and 58 hectares of foreign land were needed to grow it. The 12 tons of raw cotton then gets processed into cloth in a 1 hectare factory, for which 4 hour labour is needed. By doing this, the material gets more expensive. When processed, only about 3 tons of cotton cloth already has a worth of these €1000,- which means that by processing the cotton, the cloth already becomes worth four times as much, making the original 12 tons of raw cotton not worth €1000,- but €4000,-. That does not mean that this amount of profit, being €3000,- goes to the people who have processed the cotton. Only part of it will be used to pay the labour, and the rest will be profit for the company. Last but not least, the cotton gets produced into clothes, which then get sold on the Western market, where only 1 kilo of cotton clothes might be sold for €1000. (Remember that the company then again can buy 12 whole tons(!) of new raw cotton with this!) To sell these clothes, only a few squared meters are needed, and very few working hours. To put this short: a lot of working hours and land space are needed in order to produce this cotton t-shirt, but not a lot of working hours and land space are needed to sell that cotton t-shirt. However, the profits end up with the seller, not with the producer of the shirt. This means that the seller hardly has to work to earn, because the work already has been done. This way, the core gets richer, and the periphery poorer.

So, if you say that it is a good thing that factory workers in Asia have their jobs because of our needs, think of the fact that the profits, in the end, go to us, and that they need way more hours and land to come to the same level in terms of profit. This causes the economic rift to grow bigger. Our Western luxury way of living is attractive, but to get rich, money needs to be transferred from one place to another (and thus make someone else relatively poorer). This means not all of us can get rich (also because richness is relative!). And I then have not even talked about the ecological effects of all this production and the Western lifestyle. These factory jobs will therefore in the end not help Asian factory workers to get richer, but will help the country to impoverish, since the wealth will be tunneled into the wealthiest area’s, where the stuff gets sold.

The solution? There is no easy solution, and this short blog post explanation is by far complete, but… Let us start by make us in the West to buy less, to buy locally produced (including locally produced raw materials) and making most of it yourself. That will definitely be a fine start. Please start googling “Degrowth” now.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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