"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Monday, January 30, 2012

Electronics, Ethics, and Our Responsibility

When I was in college I was heavily involved in the anti-sweatshop labor movement. At my small Christian university I gave speeches on the unethical practices of companies like Nike and other clothing companies concerning the management of their factories, particularly in places like China, where labor practices are not as regulated as they are in the United States. And as a result of my protests, one voice among thousands at the time, Nike changed its practices and became much more transparent and colleges and universities started carrying products made more ethically. Since that time though, I had learned to acquiesce and accept that exploitation of labor is just the way our world works. I can't possibly protest everything, can't possibly boycott everything that has origins that I find unethical. This is because our entire society is built upon such unethical practices. And I simply feel paralyzed by it. Troubled, deeply troubled, but paralyzed.

Recently, in a conversation with my brother, we were discussing the trilogy of books known as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In these books, "The Capitol" is a wealthy district in a post-apocalyptic North America, which is supported by twelve other very poor districts which produce the goods, food, and resources of the Capitol, often at their own peril and enduring physical abuse. In the context of our conversation about these books my brother said, "I kept reading and thinking how terrible the Capitol is and then I realized that Suzanne Collins is a genius...because what she is saying is that WE, the United States, are the Capitol...and the rest of the world is the twelve districts." And I think he is right.

I bring all of this up because recently Apple has been receiving negative press for the factories that produce various iGoods in China. You can read about it at the New York Times and listen to a story about it on This American Life and sign a petition about it. And I am glad that we are finally discussing it. But while Apple, like Nike in my college years, may change its practices and become more transparent about the origins of all things with the prefix i, the problem is not simply Apple's problem. The problem is that almost everything that we use on a daily basis is built upon the backs of someone else. And the problem is not that someone in another country is making our products; the problem is that that person is working in conditions barely above slavery. And that is the part that must stop.

And so the connection between religion and science is a connection about what it takes to make all of our technology in this contemporary society and what obligation we, in the Capitol, have to the rest of the world. The ethical question, especially for those of us whose religions call us to care for the poor, is a question about how we can live our lives in this way...and say nothing about it. I think that our obligation is a substantial one. Our entire society may be built upon the backs of near-slave labor, but earlier societies have been built upon slave labor...and they have had to change, often substantially and with sacrifices, in order for justice and equality to exist. The antebellum period in American history is dotted with voices, often religious voices, denouncing slavery and a way of life that exploits human beings. Now, it's our turn to raise our voices and demand a better world and the recognition of safe labor practices for all workers, whether they be American or not.

1 comment:

  1. Apple is starting to have that transparency. http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/

    But that's because California law requires it: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/sen/sb_0651-0700/sb_657_bill_20100930_chaptered.html As of Jan 1, 2012, companies grossing over $100,000,000/yr have to report about their supply chains.