[Marxism] Where stuff comes from

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 08:02:53 MST 2004


(I've often said that I would love to do a study of where the goods in the 
Korean delis--ubiquitous to NYC--come from and what impact that has on the 
local economy they come from. Turns out a new book deals with questions 
exactly like these.)

Village Voice, December 13th, 2004 5:10 PM

The Voice's James Ridgeway reveals who controls what
Raw Deals
by Matthew Fleischer-Black

It's All For Sale
By James Ridgeway
Duke, 250 pp., $18.95
Buy this book

The aluminum pan you cooked your egg in this morning began as a bauxite 
deposit in a mountain in Jamaica. The cinnamon on your toast was once the 
bark of a tree in Sri Lanka—not a cinnamon tree, either. The cut flowers on 
your table? From Colombia.

Start questioning where everyday things come from, James Ridgeway tells us 
in It's All for Sale, and often you will get a surprisingly simple answer. 
Behind the scenes of it all, he says, a small group of private companies 
governs trade of the world's materials. Five companies control the flow of 
petroleum. Four corporations reign over the grain trade. Three each 
dominate timber, uranium, and tea. Two lead the way on fresh water and 
coffee, while one each runs diamonds and cigarettes.

Ridgeway, the veteran Washington correspondent for the Voice, traces the 
journey made by many of the natural materials we depend on. The book is 
organized by resource. For each item, he sums up how its market developed, 
where in the world it comes from, and who controls the business now.

Across the chapters, Ridgeway's preoccupied with compiling all the tactics 
that mega-corporations use to keep their invisible role supplying us. They 
take over an entire supply chain. They underreport reserves of exhaustible 
resources and overstate demand, inducing the public to fixate on shortages. 
(The natural-gas industry once failed to report to regulators 8.8 trillion 
cubic feet of fuel.) Less cleverly, they pay off military strongmen, hire 
mercenary armies, and exploit labor.

People have long used violence and operated in bad faith to lock up vital 
goods, and Ridgeway has looked at the specifics industry by industry 
before. This book expands and updates his Who Owns the Earth? (1980), which 
was based on a natural-resources newsletter he edited, The Elements. A 
quarter-century later, not that much has changed among the core 
industrial-revolution items. Natural gas has taken on a larger role and 
coal use has doubled. He has added discussions of water ("the commodity 
that we most take for granted"), flowers, slavery, cadavers, body parts, 
oceans, sky, and genetics.

The emergence of these new types of merchandise from formerly free entities 
does not inspire Ridgeway to any grand explanation beyond companies' 
competitive desire for profit. Still, that explains a lot: Some of the most 
sprawling of the conglomerates are trying to make money from the new 
products. Bechtel Corporation and Vivendi Universal, for instance, are now 
selling fresh water to governments.

By laying out our possessions' material origins, the book should earn a 
place in homes next to other popular reference works like The Book of 
Lists. Ridgeway offers a canon of information that anyone might want to 
know and teach their kids. Plus, his book is skimmable, good to pick up for 
short sittings. (You could keep it in the bathroom.) Memorable factoids 
abound: Pepper accounts for one-quarter of the world spice trade. Sales of 
jewelry claim almost one-quarter of all dollars spent in the U.S.A. on 
retail goods. One-third of fish eaten in the industrialized world come from 
aquatic farms. And most cinnamon in the U.S. comes from cassia, a related 
plant.

Broad popularity is a long shot, though. For one thing, It's All for Sale 
educates better than it entertains. Unlike the 1980 version, and many 
bestselling popular-reference books, it lacks illustrations or graphics. 
More frustrating is its inefficient provision of essential information. In 
many chapters, readers must dig to learn how the particular material 
figures into our average U.S. lives, whether we truly need it and whether 
alternatives exist, and even who controls its supply. As inevitably happens 
in a survey book, Ridgeway omits subjects that deserve entry. He fails, for 
instance, to look at coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones and laptop 
computers. It often is illegally mined and smuggled. Also, the book could 
use an index, or at least a chart, to keep track of the corporate giants it 
features.

Like The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Ridgeway's book condenses 
knowledge of specific information essential to our culture—and which few 
discuss. A book that performs such a fundamental service deserves to be 
updated more often than every 25 years. Next time, its presentation should 
be even more elementary.

--

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