California Literary Review

Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pearce

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December 21st, 2008 at 1:00 pm

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Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pearce
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
by Fred Pearce
Beacon Press, 263 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Surprisingly Optimistic Take on the Environment

One picks up this kind of book with trepidation. Am I just going to learn more things to feel guilty about? Will reading this increase my sense of responsibility for the (apparent) fact that the world is going down the tubes? What else am I going to have to give up?

Fred Pearce is a British journalist who writes for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, the Times Higher Education Supplement, Country Living, and New Scientist magazine. Based in London, he is said to be one of Britain’s finest science writers on the subjects of the environment and development issues.

On the first page, Pearce notes: “One scientist I met recently told me he reckoned that the average household in Europe or North America has so many devices and such a variety of food and clothing that to produce the same lifestyle in Roman times would have required six thousand slaves — cooks, maids, minstrels, ice-house keepers, woodcutters, nubile women with fans, and many more. …The trouble is that in our charmed world we know little about what our footprints are.”

Pearce decided to follow the trails of many of the significant items in his home — from spices and cotton socks to his computer and the gold in his wedding band. He wanted to figure out, as best he could, where they came from and where they go when he gets rid of them (and more significantly, how the millions of similar trails to and from the rest of us in the West are affecting people on the other side of the globe as well as the planet as a whole).

It’s a fairly simple idea on the surface, but Pearce’s mission took him more than 110,000 miles, to at least 20 foreign nations. The resulting narrative, pleasantly written and surprisingly informative despite the National Enquirer-ish title, covers a lot of ground in its swift 263 pages.

In short, highly readable chapters, Pearce tracks gold to South Africa, coffee to Kilimanjaro, fish to the coast of Mauretania, oregano to Turkey, palm oil (which sweetens most of our desserts and serves as the lathering base for soaps, toothpastes, and shampoos) to Malaysia and Indonesia, aluminum for beer and soda cans to north Queensland, Australia, and oil to Prudhoe Bay and Siberia.

He follows his own trash on barges down the Thames, and discovers that waste paper may travel through Münster, Germany on its way to Jakarta and finally Kuala Lumpur for recycling! He finds that a lot of old clothes from England and the U.S. end up in a “Global Rummage Sale” in East Africa.

Casual facts and figures astonish as they breeze by. More than one-third of all the gold mined in the world comes out of the Driefontein mine in South Africa, whose cage elevators descend three miles — farther than the bottom of the Grand Canyon or the ocean itself — and an estimated 44 tons are stolen every year from this gold field by illegal miners and syndicates. Two tons of rock, 5.5 tons of water, 30 tons of air, and 10 man-hours of labor are consumed to provide less than an ounce of gold for a wedding ring.

The cotton for the average T-shirt requires three ounces of fertilizer, 0.10 ounces of active pesticides, and 500-1,800 gallons of water to grow; and about 2 pounds of carbon dioxide are released by the growing, 3 pounds by the manufacture, and 9 pounds in the average washing cycle (say 25 times) of its life as a shirt.

The banana “hasn’t had sex for thousands of years. The world’s most erotic fruit is a sterile, seedless mutant” that was first propagated by humans in Southeast Asia at the end of the last Ice Age. Today’s constantly cloned copies are critically vulnerable to soil fungus. Pearce notes other fruit monocultures — pineapples, sweet potatoes, garlic, peanuts — that are rarely if ever cross-bred or reinvigorated by mixing with their wild forebears and relations. They could conceivably disappear in our lifetimes.

More important than the simple sources of raw materials that feed our Western lifestyle, Pearce talked with (and therefore writes about) the people who mine, harvest, and process the materials that go into our “stuff,” and the wastes that result from it.

Sometimes it does get as bad as you can imagine, or worse. Tiger prawn fishermen in the mangrove swamps of Bangladesh are menaced by large farms who lean on them with musclemen, and a “ludicrously overelaborate supply chain” ensures many middlemen add little value yet take their cut. Palm oil farmers burn hundreds of square miles of jungle in Malaysia and Brazil each year.

Young women in Dhaka work 11-hour shifts in sweat shops to make our sports and brand-name clothing. Ten-year-old children in Mondali, India dunk old computer circuit boards in oil drums filled with acid to remove the copper, and have no protection other than rubber gloves; they pour heavy metals into the sewage trenches and ground, undoubtedly to be absorbed by the vegetable gardens that feed these same workers.

Wars play a surprisingly prominent role in the supply and pricing of our valued goods. Leonardo DiCaprio alerted us to the human cost of blood diamonds that adorn our wrists and necks. The U.S. State Department’s Web site currently has a travel advisory out for the Ivory Coast, due to an ongoing civil war and rebel terrorism, and that is where 40 percent of the world’s cocoa originates.

Tantalum, which stores and releases electrical charges and therefore goes into 20 billion capacitors a year (much of it for cellular phones), comes from an ore called colton, and 80 percent of that comes from the Congo, where warlords use it to finance civil wars. Amnesty International reported that colton financed a war that cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, and though the UN investigated, nobody was called to account.

In the future, because Western technology has made us dependent on exotic metals like gallium and hafnium, palladium and platinum, “crucial resources we need to run our lives will increasingly fall into the hands of criminals and warlords.”

It is astounding where Pearce’s detective work sometimes leads him. There’s the aforementioned paper recycling, which may take waste from his laser printer across two-thirds of the globe. Some Marks & Spencer “fair-trade” cotton socks, normally manufactured from Indian cotton, may have made a roughly 7,500-mile journey because the company, Agrocel, found itself overwhelmed with orders and had to get more raw cotton from Cameroon in West Africa. From there the raw material traveled by ship around the Cape of Good Hope to Mumbai, 300 miles inland to Maral to be spun into yarn, back to Mumbai, through the Suez Canal to Turkey for dye-ing and knitting, and finally by truck across Europe to England.

Eighty percent of the world’s Christmas decorations and 60 percent of its children’s toys come from Yiwu, China; 60 percent of zippers and buttons are made in Qiaotou, and 70 percent of all reusable cigarette lighters in Wenzhou. Two-thirds of all the computer mice in the world come from a single factory in Suzhou. (On the other hand, one can also still buy animals parts and human placentae — for medicinal purposes — in the bazaar at Chengdu.)

Though Pearce relates most of his findings efficiently and avoids heavy-handed judgments, a few situations simply cannot be passed over. Of the palm oil industry, he writes:

While I nibble a cookie or open a packet of chips or brush my teeth or whiten my coffee or tuck into an ice cream, I am helping wipe out the rain forest and reduce the most diverse ecosystem on the planet to a botanical desert. … This is an industry that appears to be out of control, where the growing corporate claims of sustainability have yet to get much beyond greenwash. The commodity is still often produced in an ethical vacuum. And we consumers are given little choice but to be part of it.

Similarly, the devastating history of Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, which supplies more cotton to the world than any other country save the U.S. and Australia, commands censure. Stalin used slave labor to grow cotton for the Red Army’s uniforms. Eventually, the lower Amu Darya river, which once carried more water than the Nile, dried up. The Aral — once the fourth-largest inland sea in the world — has receded 60 miles from former seaside resort towns. Farmers now need to use half their annual irrigation just to flush poisonous levels of salt out of their fields. Pearce declares, “If I can put this simply, the obsession of many people . . . with ever-cheaper jeans . . . is also helping enslave Uzbeks, desecrate their land, and finish the emptying of the Aral Sea.”

The Kenyan farmers who are paid $1.60 a pound for their coffee beans despise Starbucks because that pound is worth $12 by the time it reaches the consumer. “Some see fair-trade coffee as cynical marketing of a ‘premium’ product, an ethical veneer for an industry built on exploitation,” Pearce observes. He concludes: “I drink fair-trade coffee, and would encourage you to do the same. But I do think it is a misnomer. … If we convince ourselves that we are paying a fair price, giving the coffee farmers a proper return, then we are deluding ourselves.”

Pearce thinks carefully before making such calls. In some situations the “right” decision is still painful, or not even certain. Take the young Pakistani women making jeans and sports gear for Wal-Mart, the Gap, Sears, Asda, Sara Lee, and Reebok. They live and work in overcrowded conditions, sometimes putting in 120-hour work weeks, for wages of about $30 a month (and rent for each woman, five to a room, is $7.20). “The alarming truth was that these women, for all their pitiful surroundings, were the rich ones in their families.” Brothers and sisters in their huge families back on the farms yearned for such jobs, and the sweat shop workers send money home to them.

The founder of Awaj Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that helps such workers with labor issues, told Pearce it would be bad for Western consumers to boycott the companies that buy from these sweat shops. As poor as the jobs are, they are empowering women in Pakistan.

What is the Western reader and consumer to make of all this? There’s no point in simply feeling bad, particularly when information is so complex and difficult to obtain. The answers are rarely clear or easy. (Several times, Western companies who trumpet their ethics admitted to Pearce that they really couldn’t track the sources and destinations of their products.) But it’s good to keep looking and trying different strategies, one by one, with little steps that — if we all were to make them — might add up to a lot.

I had given up land-based meats a year before I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which mainly confirmed things I already sensed and believed. Carole and I have been carless (with membership in a car-share organization for those two or three trips a month that are useful or necessary) for something like seven years already — long before I could half facetiously justify it as a blow for the war against terror. Last month, I tried boycotting elevators, which struck me as one of our sillier and more wasteful luxuries, but this was not easy: I live on the sixth floor and work on the seventh, and one day I climbed (up and down) the equivalent of 51 stories. A complaining knee ended that experiment after a week.

Almost imperceptibly, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner shifts into causes for optimism. Apparently, the long-repeated scare story of desertification, at least along the southern and western regions of the Sahara, is a myth. Agricultural production is up in Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and higher population density has not necessarily proved to be a liability.

Already more than 60 countries have fertility rates below replacement, including Italy (one of the bastions of Catholicism), Japan, South Korea, Brazil, China, and Thailand.

Urban centers have been coming up with piecemeal solutions. Melbourne city council called for hanging gardens and more water fountains to cool the air. San Diego garbage trucks run on methane retrieved from the landfills they supply. Reykjavik has hydrogen-powered public transport. Curitiba, Brazil pioneered bus-only roads, and offered groceries and bus passes to the poor in exchange for recycling. In Germany, green-roof high rises grow food, encourage wildlife, collect rainfall, and cool the streets below.

Even today, one meal in five around the world is grown within city limits. Were overfed Westerners to cut most of the meat from their diet, there would be plenty of food for everyone else.

But Pearce knows more fundamental rethinking will be necessary to keep our species going. “The worst twentieth-century crime of urban planners was to design cities around cars.” We have to transform cityscapes “to make the car … irrelevant,” he writes. “We simply have to give up flying as much as possible.” He thinks the dangers of nuclear power have been “overblown,” and admits coal may be necessary to tide us over, if we can effectively bury its emissions.

I think the best thing one may say about this book is that it is refreshing. You learn a lot without feeling in the least burdened or discouraged.

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