Commodity trails and looting machines

10 April 2015 | Marijn van de Geer

Marijn van de Geer is the director at Resolution:Possible. Although our emphasis lies on sharing points of view by others, sometimes we like to share our own thoughts or experiences when they are especially relevant to the work of ResPoss. Enjoy and share your thoughts.

Over the past few weeks I attended two book launches, both brilliantly relevant to Resolution:Possible’s recent launch of Simple Things. The first was for On The Commodity Trail by Alison Hulme. Hulme looks at “the story of the low-end trinket” (Hulme 2015), following its chain of production from China all the way into our own homes. The other book, Tom Burgis’  The Looting Machine, follows the ‘thread’ connecting conflict and violence in African regions with “the pleasures and comforts that we in the richer parts of the world enjoy” (Burgis 2015). Both authors explore the impact of the commodities we buy, use and take for granted everyday on people in various parts of the world.

alison hulme; tom burgis; the looting machine; on the commodity trail

The Looting Machine

As a journalist, Burgis had reported that ‘ethnic rivalries’ were the cause of a massacre in Nigeria he had gone to investigate. However, later he questioned his own reporting: “rivalries over what?” (Burgis 2015), he asked. Nigeria makes ‘tens of billions of dollars each year’ from its crude oil, but most of its people are poor. Is this to do with ethnic differences, as seems to be given as the default reason for most African conflicts? Burgis “started to see the thread that connects a massacre in a remote African village with the pleasures and comforts that we in the richer parts of the world enjoy.” (Burgis 2015) The Looting Machine is the exploration of this theory.

Tom Burgis; The Looting Machine; Tavis Smiley interview; Africa; oil; resource curse

Author of The Looting Machine, Tom Burgis, on the Tavis Smiley show (PBS).

At the book launch the author was joined by a panel consisting of Lai Yahaya, Barnaby Briggs, and Dr Desné Masie, chaired by Richard Dowden (Royal African Society). Our mostly negative opinion of the extractive industry (like oil, diamonds, gold, copper; anything that gets taken out of the ground on a large scale) was confirmed but then also challenged, which was very refreshing. On the one hand we were given the example of a Denver-based Newmont Mining negligently spilling cyanide at its Ahafo gold mine [Ghana] in October 2009, resulting in water contamination and fish kills (even though according to Newmont Mining themselves cyanide is not toxic in all forms or all concentrations, does not persist in the environment, and can be used and disposed of in a safe manner). On the other hand it was also made very clear that millions of people rely on the livelihood brought in by the extractive industry and that a boycott would leave these people without an income. Shell in Nigeria employs mostly Nigerian people and taxes go to the Nigerian government, says Barnaby Briggs who worked for Shell for 15 years. The fact that tax money doesn’t reach the people of Nigeria is a different matter. The example of Botswana came up where the money of the diamond industry seems to be more fairly distributed throughout the country. The down side of this, said Burgis, is that diamond company De Beers essentially owns/runs Botswana, making it effectively a one part state.

Some thoughts I came out with:

  • The whole panel agreed that there is an urgent need to diversify Africa’s economies, moving away from relying so much on the extractive industry. Manufacturing and especially agriculture were suggested.
  • Burgis said that this small percentage of the world’s population enjoying the riches earned from Africa’s natural resources is a phenomenon we have seen before: empire. Today, as back then, rich countries and companies extract materials from Africa for “the pleasures and comforts” of the former colonialist powers and transnational networks of wealth and power; a small, elite layer of the global population.
  • Having said that, there are many entrepreneurs, advocates of economic justice and anti-corruption platforms emerging in resource rich countries such as Nigeria and Angola. There are people fighting the ‘resource curse’, trying to shape a positive future for the whole population of their countries.

On the Commodity trail

Alison Hulme’s book On The Commodity Trail follows the chain of production of ‘bargain store’ (a term Hulme uses to refer to any shop that stocks 1£/€/$) products. She tracks the journey of eight cheap £1 items “from its beginning as raw material on a Chinese rubbish dump to factories, international trade hubs, state-of-the-art distribution networks, business-to-business websites, overflowing high-street stores and finally to the home of the consumer”. To give you an idea, she chose:

  • a plastic garden gnome
  • a pet gravestone
  • a pregnancy test
  • a plastic bonsai
  • a model Buddha
  • plastic flowers
  • a Chinoiserie vase
  • a ship-in-a-bottle.
Alison Hulme; On the commodity trail; one pound shop; bargain store; China; Shanghai; Yiwu

Alison Hulme, author of On The Commodity Trail. Find out more about her past and current work on the politics of commodities and consumption on her blog – Commodity Tactics.

Although each item was chosen from a different place or shop she visited, she discovered that they all came from the same place: Yiwu, China, which in her book she calls “the world’s factory of bargains”.

The author gave us a frank and open account of the difficulties she faced while conducting her research, not least because most people involved in the industry do not want people to write negatively about what they do. Hulme was not allowed into any of the factories, but, as she says, the poor conditions of Chinese factories are much reported on already; the processes before and after the factories were her focus.

Before the factory stage of our  £1 goods, waste plastic is collected and in Shanghai. What really surprised me, however, was the fact that a lot of the waste plastic used to make £1 trinkets comes from our very own recycling bins.

Yes, you read that right.

A large proportion of the waste plastic used to make our cheap £1 trinkets comes from our our homes.

So on the one hand you have the waste pedlars in Shanghai collecting as much plastic which they then sell. But on the other hand there are large container ships setting off from the West filled with our recycling. Our recycling is sold and used for the same purpose as the waste collected by the pedlars in Shanghai: to produce our bargain store commodities.

My first reaction to this was: Amazing, we can buy cheap tat guilt-free, as it is all recycled! But unfortunately the conditions in the factories, materials such as oils used to process the waste plastic, not to mention the environmental cost of shipping our recycling to China and then back West again once it has been made into something new, are such that they massively outweigh the positive aspects of recycling plastic.

The other thing that struck me was the complexity of this situation: “If we fall out of love with ‘cheap’, the Chinese economy will collapse”, said Hulme, as it makes up about 25% of China’s national GPD. Like in some of the African countries Tom Burgis talked about, it seems new economies will need to be thought out before we can start to refuse buying bargain store products if we don’t want to cripple the Chinese economy.

Much more to think about came out of both these book launches and indeed the books themselves. But I will leave you with the above for now.

I have gained a small grasp on the enormous process objects we so easily toss in the bin go through. From the oil rigs in Ghana, Nigeria and Angola, to the factories in China, to the homes of consumers in the West, to then get discarded and recycled to go back again to the East, melted down, turned into something else and back to the West. Your silly £1 garden gnome may have travelled to more places than the average person.

Recycling; Simple Things

In January this year one of the Simple Things we asked you to do was recycle your rubbish. Now that we know much of this recycling is shipped to the other side of the world to come back as cheap trinkets, what do we think?

Both books address complexities when thinking of Resolution:Possible’s  suggested Simple Things you can do as part of your daily life. Here are some initial thoughts…

  • For Simple Things we advocated for recycling, however what actually happens to our recycled goods?
  • Having a bit of an idea of what is involved in its production, just because something cost you £1 doesn’t mean you should treat it as such.
  • The extractive industry and the cheap commodity industry are on the one hand perpetuating violent conflict, the gap between rich and poor, corruption, and environmental degradation. On the other hand, if we were all to stop buying products that are made using Africa’s natural resources or the cheap trinkets made from our recycled plastic in China, the global economy will be in serious trouble.

What is the answer? I don’t know. But we urgently need to start thinking about this.

Alison Hulme’s On The Commodity Trail and Tom Burgis’ The Looting Machine are now for sale, online as well as in selected shops. The ResPoss team have acquired a copy of each book, so get in touch if you want to borrow them.

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