Two things I’ve seen recently have got me thinking about how the Western world solves its problems by exporting them.
First, over the weekend I saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a one-man theater performance from Seattle’s own Mike Daisey. It’s an absolutely brilliant show, at turns laugh-out-loud funny and heart-wrenching. It combines two concurrent narratives. One is about the history of Apple, the unique design genius (and personal ruthlessness) of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and — most amusingly — Daisey’s deep and authentic love of tech gadgets generally and Mac products specifically. (There’s a bit about how the new router makes the old router look unbearably slow that had me in tears. It’s like he knows me!)
The other narrative is about how Apple’s gadgets are made. And oh, man, is it worse than you think. They are made by the huge and secretive Chinese firm Foxconn, which makes 52 percent of all global electronics. Foxconn employs over a quarter-million people, most of whom work in a single gigantic compound in the Chinese “special economic zone” of Shenzhen. Daisey asks the audience to picture a cafeteria that can accommodate 10,000 people. (Think about it for a minute.) Now think about 25 of those cafeterias. Boggling.
The workers at this compound work anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day, doing the same thing over and over again. At one point Daisey ironically notes the Western affectation of “handmade goods,” pointing out that everything in your pockets is handmade. iPads and iPhones? Handmade. Why buy machines when labor costs are effectively zero? These workers perform these repetitive motions until their hands are mangled and ruined, at which point they’re summarily fired. They sleep in tiny dorms. They’re watched by cameras 24 hours a day. They are, effectively, indentured servants.
And oh yeah, they’re f*cking miserable. There was a rash of suicides at Foxconn last year that brought international attention. The company’s response? To put up netting between the buildings — yes, suicide netting — and force employees to sign anti-suicide pledges. That’s it.
Daisey actually went there to talk to some of the workers (the first time many of them had ever seen a Westerner) and what he heard is just heartbreaking. These are bright, ambitious people, many of them children, seeking a better life. They’re being chewed up, their lives ground to dust, to keep our electronics cheap. Not only do most of us not care, we don’t even know.
Then there was the latest column from George Monbiot, master of the art of depressing the crap out of me. He highlights the often-overlooked fact that most of the CO2 emission reductions in developed countries have occurred by virtue of the fact that heavy, polluting manufacturing has been outsourced to developing countries, which do not, under Kyoto, face mandatory reduction targets. This has allowed developed nations to preen and pose. It has allowed the U.K. to claim it will reduce its emissions by 50 percent. It will — by sending them to China!
Both these reminders, from Daisey and from Monbiot, add a crucial addendum to my post on happiness from earlier today. It won’t do for the U.S. to make its citizens happy if it comes at the expense of people across the world. We can’t improve our working standards by degrading theirs. We can’t enjoy the pleasures of information technology if it comes soaked in their blood. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for being sustainable if we’ve simply shipped ecological degradation somewhere else. Our foreign and trade policy must focus on social capital every bit as much as our domestic policy. And we may have to accept higher prices and fewer gadgets. There are worse things.
Also check out: “Like your dinner, your gadgets come from somewhere,” by Tom Philpott