[Marxism] Where stuff comes from
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
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 Lankanot 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
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
Like The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Ridgeway's book condenses
knowledge of specific information essential to our cultureand 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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