There seems to be a fresh awareness of the ways we impact the world when we buy stuff. Maybe our own suffering has made us more sensitive to the suffering we contribute to. Maybe social media has given a better platform to those who have long wanted us to know. But I’m encouraged by this conversation, and I’m learning. There’s so much to learn.
As Bill Clinton points out, capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty worldwide, and that’s important. But there’s a difference between frameworks like fair trade or microlending, working with dignity toward economic independence, and brutal conditions that separate families, and lead to physical and psychological breakdown, dependency.
A couple of documentaries from Netflix have given me a visual picture of conditions for millions of factory workers in China. Both films are admirable in the way the directors get out of the way and let the stories tell themselves. Last Train Home begins with a couple trying to get train tickets for the 1,000-mile trip back to their village at New Year’s, in what the film calls the largest migration on Earth. One hundred thirty million peasants live in a few tiny rooms and work, as these two do, bent over worktables in low light conditions, sewing for hours. They left their small children to be raised by their grandmother. The story slowly shifts to the couple’s teenage daughter (the girl on the cover) who seems resentful that she was abandoned by her parents, and confined by her rural poverty. Her parents are devastated when she quits school to make the long trek, herself, to the city to work. Even though their lives are dramatic, the film is quiet and understated, using the visual scene to create an understanding.
Manufactured Landscapes features workers all over the world. It’s visual, only: no words, just scenes of people at work. It opens with African men climbing out of a slippery muddy pit with heavy sacks on their backs. All day, slipping up the narrow path, then back down. The shots in China are incredible – minutes of panning across unthinkably massive factories, like the cover shot of groups of workers getting their morning pep talk.
During a good chunk of the ‘00s, I lived on student assistantships, and while it was hard, it taught me to weigh every purchase. Do I really need that? I’ve been trying to hold onto that way of thinking as my conditions improve. I’ve also tried to add another question to the equation: if I buy this, what impact does that have on the world, on the environment, on someone’s life? I say try because I don’t always get there.
In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell’s dad tells him that if he moves one grain of sand in the desert, he changes the history of the universe. That’s enough encouragement to keep trying.