Monday, 19 July 2010

The real cost of cheap consumer goods

From the BBC:
At least 38 miners have been killed in three separate accidents in China's notoriously dangerous coal mines, according to state-run media.

Twenty eight people died after an electrical cable caught fire inside the Xiaonangou mine in Shaanxi province, the Xinhua news agency reports.

Police have arrested the mine's owner.

Eight miners died in an accident in Henan province, while two others were killed in Hunan, Xinhua says.

Thirteen miners remain trapped underground in a separate incident in Gansu province in the north west.

Rescuers retrieved five bodies from the Shaanxi mine on Sunday morning, Xinhua said.

An investigation is currently under way.

China's vast coal mining industry is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.

According to official figures, 2,631 coal miners died in 1,616 mine accidents in China in 2009, down 18% from the previous year.

The country gets more than two-thirds of its electricity from coal.

Most accidents are blamed on failures to follow safety rules, including a lack of required ventilation or fire control equipment.

But independent labour groups say the figure could be much higher, as accidents are covered up to prevent mine closures. (1)
A mining industry with few - and slackly enforced - safety standards literally fuels Chinese manufacturing, and puts cheap consumer goods in the shops for us to enjoy. Every time we buy something made in China, we're reinforcing the pattern of exploitation and industrial murder.

On top of that, of course, you've got the environmental impact of Chinese coal driven industrialization - CO2 emissions and the general pollution resulting from industrialization.

Western nations could change this, as China is reliant on us as we are on it - unless the economy can keep growing, the country will go bust. But it seems we prefer the shop shelves full of baubles and don't want to worry too much about where it came from or how it was made.

The west went through a similar development about 150 years ago - nowadays we call it the industrial Revolution and celebrate it as the Great leap Forwards for civilization, cheerfully forgetting the incalculable suffering, injury and death that made the revolution. Apologists argue that China is going through the same process, and should be allowed to imitate each stage. But, to paraphrase Santayana, we know our history, so other people don't need to repeat it.

And there is a compelling practical argument if the airy-fairy moral stuff doesn't do it for you. There are 1.3 billion souls in China. If they do follow the European coal and oil based model of industrialization, then we;re all screwed. China is already the world's biggest gross emitter of CO2 - never mind all the other pollutants - and that's with a predominantly rural population with a low carbon footprint. But as each individual' footprint gets bigger, the imapct on the planet will be immense.

I don't want the Chinese to live in the stone age. But I don't want everyone living in the stone age, which is what will happen if China is allowed to develop unchecked.

All these baubles that seem such a bargain just now really might end up costing us the Earth.
1 - "China coal mine accidents 'kill at least 38', trap more," unattributed BBC report. 18th of July, 2010. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10675363)

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