Category Archives: The United States

The Story of Stuff


Here’s something that got me thinking:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns, with a special focus on the United States. All the stuff in our lives, beginning from the extraction of the resources to make it, through its production, sale, use and disposal, affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues and calls for all of us to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something. It’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Naturally, the topic is far from new to GlobaLab. I have been looking at the political economy of globalisation for months now. I agree with many of this movie’s positions, and love its simple and entertaining tone. Well done to Annie Leonard and to all those involved for translating into an easily-graspable short film some of the complexities of the global economy, particularly the commodity chains that form the backbone of world trade.

Yet, I can’t help pointing out: it’s not that simple. Describing the problem as one of ever-collapsing natural resources and abused Third World workers fighting the evil and conspiratorial plans of multinational corporations with the help of selfless international NGOs might look good on film, but is it an actual reflection of the real world?

I am not a great admirer of corporations, or a blind believer in the transparency of their CSR policies, but branding them all as Earth-destructors does not do justice to the good many of them do (in terms of job-creation, economic growth, research into innovation – including into clean energy), nor will it help change the way they behave.

And similarly, the omnipresent sanctification of NGOs fails to disclose their deep accountability limits and underlying political interests. According to One World, the NGO sector scores lower than the corporate and intergovernmental sectors when it comes to transparency, so it is legitimate to question many of their claims, especially their Doomsday positions on the environment and development.

But on one point I fully agree: consumerism lies at the centre of this system, so if we want to change it we have to start thinking of creative ways to change people’s attitude towards stuff…

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy: http://www.chrisjordan.com/)

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

The end of Coca-Cola?

Arabic Coca Cola 

Dana Milbank writes a scathing report about yesterday’s press conference by the Sudanese ambassador to the US in response to President Bush’s new sanctions against his country, criticised as overdue by Human Rights Watch:

A dozen reporters, and a similar number of Sudanese Embassy officials, watched the ambassador for an hour as he shouted into the microphone and delivered a circular and rambling complaint about the injustice of U.S. sanctions. His fingers, fists and arms flew through the air, exposing the flashy gold watch on his wrist.

Dana goes on to dismiss the laughable idea that Sudan might halt its exports of gum arabic, hence depriving the world of a crucial component in the production of Coca-Cola:

What’s more, the good and peaceful leaders of Sudan were prepared to retaliate massively: they would cut off shipments of the emulsifier gum arabic, thereby depriving the world of cola. “I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country,” the ambassador said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola. A reporter asked if Sudan was threatening to “stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world.” – “I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this,” Khartoum Karl warned anew, beckoning to the Coke bottle. “But I don’t want to go that way.”

Dana would probably laugh less if he realised that gum arabic is indeed a prime export of Sudan, which was responsible for 56% of the $90 million-worth world trade in 2000. The rest came from Chad and Nigeria, two countries which cannot be said to be the most peaceful in the world, and where production can be seriously hampered by local political upheavals and conflict too.

It is unlikely that Sudan will halt production altogether, since millions of its citizens depend directly or indirectly on this product. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect Sudan to retaliate against the US by dramatically increasing the price of the product, in very much the same fashion as OPEC did in 1973 thanks to its monopoly on oil production. Moreover, the protracted conflict in Darfur – one of the prime spots for the cultivation of gum arabic – is already seriously affecting exports, and price increases are a realistic expectation.

Since no one really knows the exact formula of Coca-Cola, except for its two top executives, Coke aficionados might rest in peace for the time being, especially since Wikipedia does not list gum arabic as one of the suspected ingredients. But should gum arabic be present in even little quantities – like in most soft drinks – expect to pay quite a lot more for your fizzy drink in the near future.

The NRA as America’s Cosa Nostra

 Gun by www.stormy.org/

Stephan Richter on The Globalist unveils the sad truth behind the Virginia shootings, evident to everyone in the world except – apparently – Americans. A compelling read, which I am reproducing below. I would only add that in this era of globalisation, the US’ gun culture harms us all, in two distinct ways. First of all, because it’s reflected in the country’s attitude towards the international arena, which it sees as a battlefield rather than a space for dialogue and mutual comprehension. Secondly, because – through the omnipresence of the American media and pop culture – it influences societies cultures around the world. I am not saying that without American movies no one would fire a gun around the world, but it’s certainly hard to understand why London – and not Paris or Rome or Berlin – has seen over the last few years a dramatic increase in gun crime. Maybe because people here understand the words to many US songs? It’s not just in America’s (and it’s children’s) interest that guns should be banned. It’s in the whole world’s interest. Read on.

The NRA as America’s Cosa Nostra

By Stephan Richter | Friday, April 20, 2007

After the events at Virginia Tech, one thing is becoming rapidly clear: U.S. society is gripped by a cancer, the cancer of a deafening silence. For a society that has always held itself up globally as a standard-bearer of moral righteousness, historically and often with good reason, the proper reaction ought to be a no-brainer. Yet, barely a peep is to be heard.

Let us look at the stunning — and revolting – ironies of the Cho shooting spree. NBC’s Brian Williams — who distinguished himself by his dogged coverage of the New Orleans/Katrina disaster — evidently does not even realize how he was used by Cho.

Unfortunately for NBC, the ratings of Mr. Williams’s show have declined in recent months, quite possibly because he was “too tough on the American people.” After all, he was the one to remind them that nothing much had improved in New Orleans — despite the president’s promises that the city would shine again, soon and better than ever.

A drop in ratings

In the ratings race, Mr. Cho’s package must have seemed like a God-send. The decision to broadcast it, despite pretensions of complicated deliberations, was as easy as it was patently false.

Why, one wonders, give a sick man such a stage posthumously? Why not turn it over to law enforcement, saying that NBC did not want to have any part in broadcasting the gyrations of a disturbingly sick mind to the world?

Of course, NBC News’ President justified the broadcast essentially by saying it provided a unique insight into the mind of a mass murderer. Oh, really?

Making a tough decision

NBC’s management ruled that the students’ families evidently deserved less respect than those of soldiers. Let us remember that the U.S. news media obediently followed the Pentagon’s orders not to broadcast any images of funerals of U.S. soldiers, presumably out of respect for the grieving families.

And yet, death in military action comes with the turf of being a soldier, so families are inevitably prepared for such news. But enrolling as a student in Blacksburg, Virginia, does not entail a similar preparedness.

Respecting the dead

It’s a pure case of selling base instincts of voyeurism as a case of the public’s right to know. The video tapes showed nothing that one would not expect a sick mind to stammer.

Beyond NBC’s massive failing, the real one unfortunately spreads much wider. On TV and radio and on the websites and in the newspapers in the U.S. of A, one can get coverage of every possible angle — except for the one that really matters.

Did the university management make a bad mistake by delaying notification after the first shooting? Can one read the signs of a budding mass murderer before he explodes? Can such a person be compelled to receiving psychiatric evaluation or treatment?

Focusing on the wrong angles

And on and on. Every conceivable angle — except for: Why did this ticking time bomb have such easy access to handguns?

Truth be told, nobody in the United States is afraid of the Soviet Union anymore — but virtually everybody in power is deadly afraid of the NRA — the National Rifle Association. It acts as the ruthless countrywide enforcer of gun libertinism, the perverse and irresponsible, completely self-absorbed love of guns.

From Russia to NRA

A society that is so much in the throes of an organization like the NRA, as the rest of the world is quick to point out, is getting tragically close to issuing an every day death wish upon itself.

To paraphrase Primo Levi, chronicler of the Holocaust and author of “Survival in Auschwitz“: if not now, when? If this moment is not enough for a groundswell of opposition against the non-existent gun laws in the United States, when will this society ever show the will?

The U.S. media are not the only ones studiously careful to avoid the issue.

Just reporting

Democrats are similarly avoiding the issue, believing that taking the only ethically and morally correct stance — to ban most hand guns — keeps them from winning elections.

The gun control issue should be seized by all presidential candidates — and none more so than Barack Obama. He has consistently held himself as morally above the fray of his co-competitors — and he certainly knows everything there is to know about the corrosive effects of widespread availability of guns from his social work on Chicago’s South side.

Addressing the problem

And he does have a special responsibility to speak up in this case — on behalf of all young black males who have been far less blessed with the privilege of education than he himself has been.

The world waits with baited breath whether he will show the moral rectitude to lead on this issue — or lowers himself to do what is considered the politically expedient thing and stay silent (or waffle at best).

The fact of the matter is that the silence after Blacksburg equals the failure of so-called U.S. opinion elites to speak up in time and with clarity against the Iraq War.

Choosing the correct path

Then as now, the U.S. media and the Democrats feel chastised to stand by a course that every person with one moral fiber in their bones would have to recognize immediately as totally ill-advised.

But, then as now, the majority of them prefer to stay silent — on Iraq as on handgun control.

Staying silent

This deafening silence, of course, is the real issue. This society — so determined to bring the gift of democracy to far-away lands ompletely unprepared for such a venture — does sadly not have the democratic rigor and courage to speak up on its own behalf at a time when it really matters.

The students and teachers murdered at Blacksburg are a national monument to an agenda committed to changing the course on handgun control immediately.

Or so one would think. Instead, everybody whom one asks is hushed, expresses surprise — and says if only somebody had the courage to step forward to lead on the issue — and take on the Herculean forces on the other side…

Taking the first step

Hearing such soliloquies from Americans reminds one of Italian television series describing the corroding influence of the cosa nostra. Everybody knows full well that what they do is highly illegal — or at least ought to be illegal.

And yet, most of the folks in Sicilia and the south of Italy go along with the decrepit activities of the mafia. Silence is golden — and speaking up might result in one being murdered, or so the local logic goes.

Doing something

True, as in the case of Italy, there are a few courageous people trying to fight the beast. Some judges and prosecutors in Italy showed extraordinary courage in pursuing the mafia — and, yes, they ended up murdered.

But they made a conscious choice. They realized that fighting a longstanding cancer on their home society was the only choice they could ethically make — even if it meant to pay the ultimate price

A cancer

The same applies in the United States today. The NRA is as pervasive and destructive a cancer on American society as la cosa nostra is on Italy’s.

And all people of moral rectitude ought to stand up to defeat this monster. Failing that, Americans will have to realize that what they perceive as their innate sense of moral righteousness really is a twisted case of self-righteousness that nobody else in the civilized world is able to follow.

Is the US about to attack Iran?

Rolling Stone 

A number of on-line media have started getting over-excited about an imminent US attack on Iran. The story is not new to the Web. It has in fact been circulating for a number of months on both sides of the political spectrum, from the far right to the moderate left. It was deemed credible enough to be scrutinised by the Guardian back in September, which claimed amongst other things the following:

Neo-conservatives, particularly at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, are urging Mr Bush to open a new front against Iran. So too is the vice-president, Dick Cheney. The state department and the Pentagon are opposed, as are Democratic congressmen and the overwhelming majority of Republicans. The sources said Mr Bush had not yet made a decision. The Bush administration insists the military build-up is not offensive but aimed at containing Iran and forcing it to make diplomatic concessions.

But today Indymedia.org has given us the actual date of the attack, basing its statement on reports in the Russian press:

The US military attack on Iran is now on track for 4 AM on April 6, writes the well-known Russian journalist Andrei Uglanov in the Moscow weekly “Argumenty Nedeli”. Uglanov cites Russian military experts close to the Russian General Staff for his account.

What made me initially doubt this might be the case was that the blogsphere seemed to have gone rather quiet on this matter, despite earlier moments of excitement when similar reports had appeared earlier in 2006. People like Jon Stolts on StopIranWar.com‘s blog has not been posting for almost 3 weeks, for example, perhaps too busy appearing on TV shows.

Then I came across this on The Daily Scare, reporting an article from This Can’t be Happening, and I became a little more concerned:

[…] there are new reports circulating now that an attack by US air and naval forces could come in early April, and this time, the oil traders are taking them seriously. On Tuesday, oil futures shot up $5/barrel to hit $68/barrel—quite a jump, and the highest price for oil since last September.

.

Reports say that traders were responding to rumors—unsubstantiated—that Iran had fired on an American ship in the Gulf, and no doubt also to the ongoing tensions over Iran’s capture and detention of 15 British sailors, whom it claims had illegally entered Iranian territorial waters.

.

Phil Flynn, a trader with Alaron Trading in Chicago, was quoted as saying that the oil market has been “on pins and needles” because of the tensions in the Persian Gulf between the US and Iran.

This is when I start wondering whether the markets know something we don’t know…

Update 30/03/07: Apparently, the German BUND has dropped considerably over the last few hours, so this means the markets still doesn’t believe a word of these rumours… Meanwhile, Debka cites US financial sources in Bahrain reporting on American investors in Bahrain advised to pack up business operations and leave

Halliburton Moving C.E.O. From Houston to Dubai

Form the NY Times [via Patrick]

Halliburton, the big energy services company, said on Sunday that it would open a corporate headquarters in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai and move its chairman and chief executive, David J. Lesar, there.

The company will maintain its existing corporate office here as well as its legal incorporation in the United States, meaning that it will still be subject to domestic laws and regulations.

Although the announcement of the new Dubai arrangement took many by surprise, Halliburton said that the move was part of a strategy announced in mid-2006 to concentrate its efforts in the Middle East and surrounding areas, where state-owned oil companies represent a growing source of business.

Halliburton, which was led by Vice President Dick Cheney from 1995 to 2000, is currently in the process of spinning off KBR, its military contracting unit, to focus on its business of drilling wells and maintaining fields for oil companies. The company did not say what implications the Dubai development might have for its military contracts. Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, referred questions about the company’s plans to Halliburton.

The Dubai announcement, which Halliburton made at a regional energy conference in Bahrain, comes at a time when the company is being investigated by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations of improper dealings in Iraq, Kuwait and Nigeria. Halliburton has also agreed to pay billions of dollars in settlements in asbestos litigation.

Read the full article here.

GlobaLab weekly round-up: 24/02/07-02/03/07

A whimsical image of the blogosphere from the edge of the core - via Datamining

This (late) update is a hasty one because over the last 2 weeks the real world is distracting me from the virtual… but this is what I collected from my feeds…

Africa

Middle East & North Africa

Globalisation debate

  • A couple of exchanges on Demos’ Greenhouse about a recent event they hosted with John Ralston Saul, a renowned philosopher, novelist, political penseur, who has provocatively pronounced the “end of globalism“. A quick scan, and it seems this provocative statement could simply be re-phrased as the rejection of neo-liberalism. Had he framed the debate in these terms, it would have sounded less plausible, slightly rehashed and probably less marketable than the grand statement above. But then, we all need to make a living.

ICT and creativity

International Development

  • Suzanne Smith on PSD blog puts an end to years of heated debates about the role of private finance investment in reducing poverty: ‘If you have ever doubted the importance of the finance sector in reducing poverty, a new paper will set your mind at rest. More finance sector development leads to more investment in tractors and fertilizers, leading to more food‘. If only we had more World Bank experts telling us children what’s right and what’s wrong, we’d all sleep better at night…
  • Meantime, always on PSD, new research reveals that privatization in 2005 has hit new records, with ‘transactions concentrated in China, Czech Republic, Hungary, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine and the top ten deals are largely in banking and telecommunications‘.

Russia

Environment

Corporat Social (ir-)Responsibility

Blog Babble and random weird stuff