You know that book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff ... And It's All Small Stuff? Yeah, I never read it either, but lately I've been applying that same logic to that ubiquitous phrase "Think Global, Act Local." Think global, act local ... and it's all local. If that hadn't been hammered home enough during the global financial crisis, it was certainly hammered home on Tuesday when people from all over the world rejoiced over the election of Barack Obama. Why? Because very simply, what happens in America affects the entire world.
Every act you make now has global consequences. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Deep Economy, American demand for plastic shower curtains produced in China is helping to pull many Chinese young men and women out of poverty. While I might not encourage people to buy new plastic shower curtains from an environmental point of view, I cannot deny that shower curtain factories produce jobs for people who desperately need them. In The End of Poverty Jeffrey Sachs talks to some Bangladeshi women who work in sweatshops producing clothes destined, most likely, for America. Although their work environments are poor, still, the women are grateful for the work, and for the opportunities they see arising from their paid labor.
I've always been a little wary about the idea of buying locally simply because I feel it ignores this component. And when locavores don't ignore the component, such as Bill McKibben, they often seem left with no ready answer. McKibben points out that globalization has increased the prosperity of many Chinese people, and I give him credit for that. But he never resolves the issue for himself. How do we deal with the legitimate environmental concerns related to shipping products around the world, and yet still ensure better lives and more opportunity for those workers in Chinese factories? If we, as environmentalists are telling people not to buy cheap plastic goods produced in China due to the hidden negative externalities of cheap plastic, what is the engine that produces equality?
Because here's the thing. The surest way to get less cheap plastic crap on the market? Is to make that cheap plastic crap more expensive to produce. And a great way to make that cheap plastic crap more expensive is if labor becomes more expensive. That is, if people have more opportunities, and better job possibilities, then working in a shower curtain factory is suddenly not so appealing. Why are there almost zero shower curtain factories in the United States? Because people don't want those jobs. Because labor is expensive. Because most people living in America can find better work that pays MORE.
So right now our global corporations send those jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. Essentially, in my opinion, the answer isn't to boycott goods made in China, but to reduce inequality. Because, frankly, when the whole world is making say, between $15,000 and $20,000 a year? Those plastic shower curtains are going to become veeeery expensive to produce. Why don't people fix their DVD players when they break? Because it's cheaper to buy new. But those $10 DVD players, rampant consumerism, and a need to buy new, new, new are built on the backs of cheap labor. Once labor starts getting expensive, so do the DVD players.
But besides all that, here's the truth. Those Chinese workers in the factory? They are part of my community. They are human beings, and thus, my people. And they have as much right to their dreams as does the person who lives next door.
So what am I saying? Am I saying that we should all start buying produce from South Africa because it enhances South Africa economy, that we should all start buying plastic shower curtains by the dozen from China?
No. But what I'm saying, is we need to start framing things differently. Buy local food, by all means, but buy your sugar fair trade, and your chocolate fair or equitrade. And next time you're dying for a banana, then get yourself a damn banana, just get it fair trade. Buy goods at your local mom and pop green store, but if the shoes you buy happen to be ethically and sustainably produced in China, treat that as a WIN, as opposed to a loss. Take the money you save by forgoing the plastic shower curtain, and lend it to someone in the developing world at Kiva.org. And the next time you have to talk to IT support in India, instead of griping about how you can't understand the accent, take a moment to remember that these IT jobs have enormously benefitted India, have pulled thousands and thousands into the middle class, and that the environmental negatives for phone support are fairly small.
We must stop viewing the world in terms of us versus them. There's only us. Think global, act local, but remember it's all local. So by all means, buy products from your farmers' markets, support the seamstress who lives next door. But remember, that the choices we make directly impact people all over the world, and not just our neighborhood. Remember, we are all human beings. We are all entitled to dignity, to food, to health care, to work, to education. We are all entitled to dream big.
*This is my post for the November APLS carnival. There is STILL time to get your submissions in. Write your post about buying local and email it to aplscarnival (at) gmail (dot) com.*
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