Everything has a biography

All commodities have a biography – the coffee and tea we drink, the fuel for our car, the clothes we wear, the toys that children play with, the packaging that is discarded.

The biography of all those things includes what they are made from, how they made and under what conditions, and how they are traded and marketed. What happened to the earth and the sea where the raw materials came from? Who made the things I bought and what is their life like? The end of life for all those commodities is a part of that biographical journey – will they be recycled, added to landfill, or discarded on the side of the road or in the bush.

We could be tempted to see our food and our clothes and the energy we use, as only existing where they are with us, but they have histories and futures and to deny those would be a lie. Environmental degradation, sweat-shop labour, and manipulative marketing are all part of the life story of a great deal of what gets bought and sold.

A news story I was reading yesterday reported on the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where still 800,000 litres of oil a day leaks into the ocean from an exploded rig. The report reflected upon the ongoing ramifications of another famous oil spill over 20 years ago. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker leaked over 50 million litres of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. Twenty years on, the ongoing costs are enormous – tons of oil still under the ocean bed, herring and fish stocks that never recovered, local fishing villages gripped by alcoholism and domestic violence that rose along with the unemployment rate as the local fishing industry perished along with the sea birds.

The sins of heavy industry are not the only ones – there are lesser known, ongoing stories, in which we play a part too.

In Cote de I’voire, where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, poverty is endemic, with children, many of them from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, held in forced labour in places where there are no clinics, no schools and no electricity. They know little of the future of the cocoa beans they work long days to harvest. The issue of child trafficking and cocoa is complicated – ingrained poverty, cocoa trading by large transnational corporations, the varying advocacy efforts of fair-trading co-operatives. It is a complicated web of contingencies, often with no clear flows of cause and effect, but laced with plenty of injustice and misery. The chocolate we consume joyfully and readily has a biography too, and it is a shady one.

But must I spend my days wracked by guilt? After all, to function socially where I live, and to earn a living and contribute to society, I need some things – clothes, tools, books, transport. And I need to eat. Constantly researching and worrying about the origin of the things I buy is wearying, and seems almost pointless – a lonely drop in a large ocean. There are other drops but they are never enough to change the tide. Ignorance is easier.

Resignation is an option too. Human history, amongst other characteristics, is one of harshness and exploitation, of one group’s power over another, of earth and sea constantly changed. Perhaps this is life on our lonely planet.

This seems inadequate though. Dissatisfying, lazy, weak even. What if we just resigned ourselves to the fact that if a child gets sick, they might die. What if the East Timorese had resigned themselves to never being free. What if a girlfriend beaten up resigned herself to the fact that it will just keep happening. Resignation is what people do when they’re leaving somewhere, and even though we will all die at sometime, most of us are staying for the moment. If we never sought change, our humanity would be diminished.

I can’t change, know or understand everything. But ignorance and resignation would be too lazy a response.

* I first read about this concept of biographies in a 2005 Arena Magazine article called “After Affluence”, written by Kim Humphrey

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