Sunday, January 3, 2010

Book Review: Confessions of an Eco-Sinner

Let's get one thing out of the way first. Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston, 2008; $16.00 in paperback) is not well written. Pearce likes lists. And sentence fragments. Lists of fragments. Ideas and stories, names and places, flotsam and jetsam. Pearce also likes drop words, or maybe editor just missed something.

And doing little to mark a new story than a change in paragraph. Throughout the book, Pearce travels around the world, and often you don't realize you are in a new place until a few sentences in. Like when he teleports to Nairobi. From Mandoli. Or Xiamen. Hmph. Pearce intersperses his text with personal commentary, grunts and all.

In addition to his slightly schizophrenic style, I think the thing that bothered me most about Fred's writing is his proclivity to use first names. Most of Fred Pearce's stories include meeting, at least briefly and in their places of work, non-Western people who are involved in the manufacture or disposal of products for the Western markets. Usually these workers are first introduced by full name, but sometimes I get a paragraph in, realize that I've lost track of who is who, and cannot find the original introductions: I think that's why I lost track, as I never had it to begin with. For the bosses and entrepreneurs in charge of plants, those with offices and a familiarity with the language of global commerce, Fred Pearce generally sticks with full names. However, Fred's favorite characters are the assembly-line workers and poor farmers, and they are invariably referred to, after the initial introduction, by first name. Only Europeans are called by their last names. (Of course, for Chinese characters, you should reverse all references to "first" and "last": when I say "last name" I mean the more formal family name, and by "first" I mean "familiar" or "given".) These names, and sometimes the international organizations that the corresponding people work for, are the only references and citations Pearce gives for the copious facts strewn throughout the book. The final failing of Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is its lack of footnotes, in-text citations, and a bibliography.

In spite of all this, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is not a bad read. Frenetic writing leads to easy skimming, and the content is interesting enough. Pearce visits Uzbekistan, for example, to discuss how the forced-labor production of cotton, still ongoing, has depleted the countryside of water, moving the edge of the Aral Sea by 60 miles. Of course, this information is "known", but not commonly discussed here in the states. Next time I'm accosted by one of those "environmental activists" littering the Berkeley streets and hoping that I'll give them money to assuage my liberal guilt, I intend to start discussing the manufacture of blue jeans.

Pearce's diatribe can be condensed into a few main theses. The first is one I think any local-foodie should appreciate: when you look at a product, you should try to see the people behind it. I appreciate that Pearce did the legwork necessary, and throughout the book he brings up parts of products you probably aren't used to thinking about. The global economy is truly astounding, when the cotton for a pair of socks can be farmed in one country, shipped to another for spinning, to another for dying, to yet another for knitting, and to yet another for packaging. Pearce's details won't match the footprints of most products on the American market — Pearce is English, living car-free in London but flying a lot — but the message applies throughout the rich developed world.

A second thesis is that as rich consumers, our sociological footprints are as important as our (intimately connected) ecological footprints. Are we contributing to child labor? Do our purchases fund wars? Or perhaps our participation in the global economy helps people improve their lot. Many of Pearce's heroes are poor women, working awful factory jobs under conditions that would not be tolerated in the US, for dollars a day. But if the market dries up, they will have no option but to return home to the countryside, where their farming families are even poorer and much more misogynist.

Thus, the third and perhaps most-important thesis in Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is in response to the perennial question of What To Do? Pearce's answer is essentially: It's Complicated. Pearce spends 200 pages documenting the many footprints Western consumers have, and concludes with about 60 with titles like "How We Can Save The World". These final chapters are unconvincing, largely because nobody really knows what to do. But the roller-coaster of a book does a good job of documenting some of the ways that global trade is good, and some of the ways that it's bad. England buys most of its green beans from Kenya, and Pearce is very supportive of this: the Kenyan farmers have good lives and are helping the environment with their polyculture farms. Bangladeshi prawns, on the other hand, seem to be causing no end of evils, but this is not inherent to the prawns; rather, it's a problem of graft and mis-managed monoculture swamps. Chinese paper recycling in Pearce's eye is incredibly positive. On the other hand, Pearce points out that given the carbon cost of trucking paper to the recycling plant, the most environmentally friendly way for Britons to dispose of their old paper is to walk it downstairs to the building's incinerator, where the paper can be turned into heat. After all, trees are a biofuel.

I wish that Confessions of an Eco-Sinner were better edited, indexed, and referenced. It would make an amazing "e-book": a collection of web pages, with internal links and external citations. I wish that producers would make it possible to "track down the sources of our stuff" electronically. Michael Pollan, in an op-ed for the New York Times, proposed a wonderfully low-cost way to help the world, although it would require the government force producers to adopt it. Namely, every product should have a bar code and number, which we could either type into a web-browser, or, more usually, scan with our smart-phone camera (all smart phones have, or at least can have, bar-code scanning technology). Then a well-documented web site would pop up with details and photographs of the production of the product.

Pearce tells lurid stories, and clearly traveled with a camera, although no photographs make it into the final book. If not as a web-site, I could imagine Confessions of an Eco-Sinner as a series of magazine articles. Then again, every week The New Yorker includes exceptionally well-written stories from correspondents around the world. Those stories are much more humanizing that Pearce's — The New Yorker is like a global This American Life — but as far as I know no magazine has taken up the same project that Pearce has. I don't recommend that you buy a copy or read it yourself, but I do recommend more authors try their hand at books like this.

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