Published on Thursday, July 19, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Our Greed Causes Third World Suffering
Wealthy nations are increasingly dependent on the poor to stay poor and powerless in order to provide cheap labor.
by Rachel Giese
As surely as the fashions of the '80s are back in style, the unapologetic greed of the decade is back in spirit.
It's hardly a new observation, but it hit me quite viscerally the other night at the movies, after I shelled out more than $20 for tickets and snacks and then had to sit through 20 minutes of commercials for cars, perfumes and soft drinks before the trailers.
First I thought, just how much money does Cineplex Odeon need to make? Then I wondered, when did all this over consumption become normal: super-sized drinks and gigantic tubs of popcorn, cellphone, pagers, and multi-television households, SUVs and jet skis, the relentless advertising in every possible space, even the corporate sponsorship of a suicide prevention device on the Bloor Viaduct?
The accelerated pace of globalization and its inherent injustice is as good a place as any to begin to lay the blame. Wealthy nations are greedier than ever and increasingly dependent on poor ones to stay poor and powerless in order to provide cheap labor and resources.
According to the Mexico Solidarity Network, a new World Bank report on Mexico released in May recommends that in order to attract more foreign investment, the government change its labor policy to increase the "flexibility" of Mexican labor Severance pay, collective bargaining, obligatory benefits - essentially all federal labor laws - should be eliminated in order to obtain "the greatest benefit from (the workers') human capital."
Labor aside, First World consumption has another devastating impact on the Third World. The Red Cross recently reported that natural disasters caused by climactic change created by greenhouse gases emitted by gluttonous developed nations are increasingly devastating the developing world. So much so that the aid agency believes it will soon be unable to keep up with the need of countries wracked by floods and draught and earthquakes.
One of its themes of this weekend's G-8 summit in Genoa is "promoting democracy." At least someone has a sense of humor. As George Monbiot noted earlier this week in The Guardian, these eight men, who will make decisions and deals that could have a catastrophic impact on the rest of the planet, represent just 13 per cent of the world's population. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair has the gall to denounce G-8 protesters for "not being elected" and "not representing anyone."
Our very own Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is bringing two of his own pet issues to the table: the reduction of world poverty and the improvement of the environment. Apparently no one has briefed him on the fact that Canada ranks among the least generous donors of the 22 nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or that it has refused to commit to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming after U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew from it. Speaking of Bush, one of the most despicable aspects of his presidency so far is his utter disregard for the environment. He's even fabricated an energy crisis to push for drilling in protected lands and the development of more nuclear power stations - all for the benefit of his corporate cronies.
For all of the empowering rise in activism around the world, creating profound and lasting change still feels nearly impossible, requiring an overthrowing of our entire economic system and culture. It's easy enough to decry the actions of world leaders and corporate CEOs, but some of the blame must be directed at each and every citizen who benefits from someone else's poverty and suffering, whether by purchasing affordable goods made by almost-slave labor or food farmed by malnourished migrant workers.
In her excellent new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes about attempting to make ends meet at minimum wage jobs (as a cleaner, a waitress and a Wal-Mart salesperson) in three U.S. cities. It's no surprise that she couldn't. She found that the plight of the poor in North America is the same as the poor everywhere. It is on their underpaid labor that our economies thrive. And it's our greed that keeps them suffering.
"The working poor neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for," Ehrenreich writes. "They live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high."
Rachel Giese's column appears in The Star on Thursday.
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