Fair trade for thee, but not for me
By Paul Driessen
“Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting someone else,” Ben & Jerry’s and Fair Trade co-founder Jerry Greenfield likes to tell us. Let’s hope he doesn’t drive an electric vehicle, doesn’t use a laptop or cell phone, and doesn’t rely on wind or solar power.
We’re constantly confronted with slogans and lectures about fair trade, human rights, sustainability, environmental and social justice, little people versus Big Corporations. Most of these subjective terms reflect perspectives and agendas of the political left, and are intended to advance those worldviews and stifle any discussion about them. But most of their self-avowed adherents never look beneath the surface of their own purchases. Indeed, they would have no standards at all if they didn’t have double standards.
Just imagine what a $35,000 to $150,000 electric vehicle would cost if it were built using “fair trade” metals. How expensive already pricey wind and solar electricity would be if manufacturers had to follow fair trade standards, pay the full human and environmental costs associated with components, and pay workers the source-country equivalents of “Fight For $15” wages. Even more challenging:
What if wind, solar and EV systems had to adhere to the “precautionary principle” – which says products must be banned until promoters can prove their technologies will never harm people or the environment?
The fair trade, et cetera rules are already enforced with an iron fist against non-renewable products by regulators, politicians, the news media and angry college students. It’s mostly the Progressive Left’s favored, supposedly renewable and eco-friendly energy “alternatives” and toys that get exempted.
ExxonMobil was fined $600,000 in 2009 for the deaths of 85 migratory birds that landed in uncovered oilfield waste pits. Compare that $7,000 per bird assessment to the zero to minuscule fines imposed once or twice on Big Wind companies for 85,000 dead eagles and hawks, and 8.5 million sliced and diced other birds and bats, over recent years. (These are artistic license numbers, but very close to the mark.)
The Keep It In The Ground campaigns against oil, gas and coal, the fossil fuel divestment movement on campuses, the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) rabble, the incessant EarthJustice, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund lawsuits and campaigns against mining ignore all this, and more.
Just beneath the surface of cell phone, EV, computer, wind, solar and other technologies are some shocking and inconvenient truths. These products are not made from pixie dust or raw materials beamed in from the Starship Enterprise. All require lithium, rare earth metals, iron, copper, silica, petroleum and many other materials that must be dug out of the Earth, using human labor or fossil fuels.
Petroleum alone is the foundation for some 6,000 products besides fuels: paints, plastics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and much more. Lithium is essential in computer and EV batteries, neodymium in NdFeB wind turbine generator magnets, cadmium in PV solar panels, petroleum-based resins in turbine blades.
The vast majority of these minerals and metals could probably be found in economically recoverable or even world-class deposits in the United States. However, known deposits have been taxed, regulated and litigated into oblivion, while excellent prospects are mostly in western and Alaskan lands made inaccessible by Congress, courts, activists and Antiquities Act decrees. We’re not even allowed to look.
That has forced mining companies to go overseas. With few exceptions, American, Canadian, European and Australian companies pay good wages, abide by health and environmental rules, and invest heavily in local schools, libraries, hospitals, and water, sewage and electrical systems. But they are still pilloried, harassed and sued on a regular basis by radical groups in Peru, Guatemala and elsewhere.
The late Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, nailed it perfectly when he blasted the WWF for its callous campaign against a proposed mine in Madagascar.
“These enemies of the poor say they are ‘stakeholders,’ who want to ‘preserve’ indigenous people and villages,” Mr. Innis observed. “They never consider what the real stakeholders want – the people who actually live in these impoverished communities and must live with the consequences of harmful campaigns that are being waged all over the world,” blocking their opportunities, hopes and dreams.
These well-financed, self-righteous anti-mining assaults too often leave villagers jobless and the world dependent on shoddy state-run operations like the rare earth mines and processing facilities in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, and locally operated, often illegal “artisanal” mines in Africa and Asia. The environmental degradation and human health effects associated with these operations are horrendous.
Areas north of Baotou hold 70% of global proven reserves of rare earth minerals (REMs). The region was once productive farmland. But as Australia news, Business Insider, ABC News, Britain’s Guardian, BBC and Daily Mail, and others have documented, it is now a vast wasteland, where nothing grows.
Ores are extracted by pumping acid into the ground, then processed using more acids and chemicals. One ton of REMs releases up to 420,000 cubic feet of gases, 2,600 cubic feet of wastewater and 1 ton of other wastes – all of them acidic, toxic and radioactive. The resulting black sludge – laden with acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and other materials – is pipelined to what has become a foul, stinking, lifeless, six-mile-diameter “lake.” Its toxic contents are seeping into groundwater and creeping toward the Yellow (Huang He) River, an important source of drinking and irrigation water for much of northern China.
Miners and other workers labor up to 16 hours a day for a few yuan or dollars, under health, safety and environmental conditions that would likely have been intolerable in the US, UK and Europe a century ago. Dirty processing plants have few or no maintenance crews, little or no regular cleaning or repairs. Workers and local residents suffer from lung, heart and intestinal diseases, osteoporosis and cancer, at rates much higher than pre-mining days and well above those in other parts of the Middle Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Africa’s Congo region produces 60% of the world’s cobalt-lithium ore. Over 70,000 tons a year pass through the Congo DongFang International Mining Company to manufacturers in China. Entire families – including children as young as five – toil from dawn to dusk, for a dollar or two a day, so that cell phone, computer, EV and other buyers can enjoy cheap high-tech gadgets.
Generally without permits, health and safety standards or environmental rules, the parents and kids use picks, shovels, pails and bags to excavate deep holes and vast pits, in search of valuable ores. Cave-ins and mud slides are an ever-present risk. Depending on the weather, they work in dust or muck, getting dangerous levels of cobalt, lead, uranium and other heavy metals in their tissues, blood and organs.
Gloves, face masks, protective clothing and showers to wash the toxic dirt off bodies at the end of the day are also nonexistent. Broken bones, suffocation, blood and respiratory diseases, birth defects, cancer and paralysis are commonplace, the Guardian, Washington Post, NPR and human rights groups report.
Maybe those evils are better than prostitution for mothers and daughters, drug dealing and criminal gangs for fathers and sons, or starvation and death for entire families. But it certainly smells like exploitation.
Where are the Ben & Jerry’s and Fair Trade demands for justice? The Berkeley and Brown student protests, sit-ins and boycotts against Nokia, Samsung, Apple, Lenovo, Tesla, Vestas and Trina Solar? The demands that college endowment and teacher pension funds divest from these companies? The outraged US and EU student marchers in Baotou and Beijing, to support workers, Joshua Wong and Liu Xiaobo?
Where are the calls to replace state-run and artisanal mining operations with socially and environmentally responsible Western mining companies? Where is the WWF compensation to poor villagers for the wages, electricity, clean water and improved living standards they could have had?
Environmentalist policies don’t merely represent double standards. No matter how Greenpeace or the Sierra Club might disguise or sugarcoat them, radical green policies and campaigns are unjust, unethical, inhuman, imperialistic and racist.
It’s time to apply fair trade, living wage and environmental justice principles to the anti-mining, anti-people campaigners. Their real goal is keeping the Third World impoverished, and that is intolerable.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org), and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power - Black death and other books on the environment. Aug 2017