According to Ecclesiastes, "In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Unfortunately for me, this is not one of the passages that makes me doubt the Bible's inerrancy. Unfortunately for you, misery loves company, and so I'm about to pass on some of that miserable, grief-inducing knowledge. Foreign Policy, where praktike has taken up residence, has a list of products whose production makes the world worse. It only includes five items, so, one might have thought, the chances are pretty good that they'll all be things that I have no interest in, like X-boxes or trophy wives or hand-knit toilet seat covers. No such luck. The misery-inducing item begins innocently enough: it's titled 'Candy Bars'. Fine: I haven't eaten candy bars since I was a kid. But as I read on, I realized that what 'candy bars' means, in this context, is chocolate. And that's something else altogether.
Beware of: Cocoa powder
The cost: Child labor. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa (and most of the United States’) comes from West Africa, where nearly 300,000 children under the age of 14 toil in dangerous conditions on cocoa plantations. In the Ivory Coast, where more than half of the region’s cocoa is produced, more than 100,000 children work in near slavery, subject to both injury from the machetes used to harvest the plant and from toxic pesticides that are banned in the United States and Europe.
The alternative: Buy Fair Trade Certified cocoa, which comes from farms that only employ adults and use legal pesticides. The price is equivalent to that of gourmet chocolate. If you have to get your fix and can’t find Fair Trade chocolate, look for products from Cadbury. The British company buys 90 percent of its cocoa from Ghana, where trafficking of child workers is prohibited.
The future: In October, the World Cocoa Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development announced the establishment of the “Healthy Communities” program to help West African cocoa farmers improve their economic, social, and environmental standards. The program is designed to help as many as 150,000 farm families during the next five years. But with 700,000 farmers in the Ivory Coast alone, it’s unlikely to affect widespread change."
Chocolate involves child labor? That's awful. Good for Cadbury, though.
It gets worse:
Beware of: Gold
The cost: Environmental damage and human rights. Gold ore is often sprayed with cyanide after extraction to separate the gold from the host minerals. The cyanide-contaminated leftovers, 20 tons of which are used to produce one gold ring, are often abandoned or dumped in nearby water sources. Moreover, gold mines from Indonesia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have notoriously poor labor standards.
The alternative: Currently, there is no certification for “clean” gold, as there is for diamonds, for example. The best option is to buy jewelry from gold that has been recycled. The bad news is that without independent, third-party verification, it is difficult to ensure that your gold is clean. The good news is that, once you find it, clean gold is no more expensive than normal gold.
The future: The human rights group Oxfam America and environmental group Earthworks are pushing a No Dirty Gold campaign for jewelers who demand responsible mining practices. A dozen high-end industry leaders such as Tiffany & Co. and Zale Corp. have already signed on, but mass retailers including Target and Wal-Mart have not. Oxfam and Earthworks also encourage consumers to sign a pledge supporting responsible mining."
Gold? What's next, diamonds? Well, of course, we know about that. (Right?) (And we make sure all of the gorgeous diamonds we buy for our loved ones are properly certified to be conflict-free, since while that doesn't ensure that they aren't conflict diamonds, it lowers the odds, right? Right?)
Check out the list: teak furniture and cell phones are on it too. (I knew about those.) And their blog has a link to a really odd story. Apparently, there's a virtual world called Second Life. (I had never heard of it before. I tried a MUD or something once and found it spectacularly boring, perhaps because I chose to be a windowless monad. But I digress.) It occurred to someone to ask: how much energy do the avatars in this world use, per capita? It turns out that they use more energy than the average Brazilian:
"So an avatar consumes 1,752 kWh per year. By comparison, the average human, on a worldwide basis, consumes 2,436 kWh per year. So there you have it: an avatar consumes a bit less energy than a real person, though they're in the same ballpark.
Now, if we limit the comparison to developed countries, where per-capita energy consumption is 7,702 kWh a year, the avatars appear considerably less energy hungry than the humans. But if we look at developing countries, where per-capita consumption is 1,015 kWh, we find that avatars burn through considerably more electricity than people do.
More narrowly still, the average citizen of Brazil consumes 1,884 kWh, which, given the fact that my avatar estimate was rough and conservative, means that your average Second Life avatar consumes about as much electricity as your average Brazilian.
Which means, in turn, that avatars aren't quite as intangible as they seem. They don't have bodies, but they do leave footprints.
UPDATE: In a comment on this post, Sun's Dave Douglas takes the calculations another step, translating electricity consumption into CO2 emissions. (Carbon dioxide, he notes, "is the most prevalent greenhouse gas from the production of electricity.") He writes: "looking at CO2 production, 1,752 kWH/year per avatar is about 1.17 tons of CO2. That's the equivalent of driving an SUV around 2,300 miles (or a Prius around 4,000).""
So: chocolate, gold, diamonds, and virtual worlds are all bad. Likewise, teak furniture. Sheesh. Thanks, praktike.
*** Note to conservatives: sometimes, conservatives make fun of things like not eating chocolate produced with child labor, as a form of bizarre liberal guilt. Personally, I think that there would be something wrong with me if I didn't care enough about kids to buy Cadbury chocolate instead of Hershey's. However, I think that any conservative with a libertarian bent should embrace this sort of campaign. It is, after all, just an attempt to correct a market failure: we have inadequate information about many of the products we consume, in particular the conditions in which they are produced and the effects of their production on the environment, and posts like this just allow people to decide, voluntarily, to take that information into account.
Ideally, everyone should act on such information; that's the only way in which our preferences on such matters can be taken into account by purely voluntary, market-oriented mechanisms. If people just don't care about kids being forced to work when they ought to be in school, or captured and sent off to battle at the age of ten because some warlord wants to control a diamond mine, then so be it. But if people do have such preferences and market mechanisms fail to register them, then it seems to me that there will eventually be real pressure for non-market-oriented solutions. If you're a libertarian, or have any libertarian sympathies, you should therefore hope that the market works in these cases; and you should regard people who make fun of campaigns like these, when they are not genuinely amusing, as working against conservative principles.