On diamonds and guilt
A few nights ago, I stayed up late to finish up something for a meeting the next day at work. I had a documentary on the diamond trade going on in the background, showing the lives of people involved in the business: a poor African digger in Sierra Leone; a Jewish high-end dealer in NYC; an Indian diamond polisher; and an activist trying to negotiate for higher prices. It was quite interesting.
Critiquing the diamond industry is fashionable, with Blood Diamond highlighting the issue in a public way. Conflict-free diamonds are available at many jewelers, though I have some doubts about the legitimacy of such claims.
I have only bought one diamond – the engagement ring for my girl – and that was before I was savvy to such things. I’m fairly certain I’ll never buy a non-conflict-free diamond again. So I feel pretty good about not participating in African violence and poverty.
My livelihood as an IT worker is due to the ready availability of cheap computers – for me as a child to peak my interest (thanks again Mom and Dad!) and for the masses as well. But I don’t like to think about that. The fact that computers become more powerful and cheaper all the time is partly a product of increasing technology and manufacturing processes, but also a product of [immorally?] cheap overseas labor. A quote from Fake Steve regarding working conditions in China illustrates a real point:
Have you ever been to China? We have. We’ve been to China. We know what goes on there. We know how they open your mail, and listen to your phone calls, and let their factories pollute like crazy and exploit workers, all in the name of progress. And we turn a blind eye to it. We let them know when we’re coming to visit, and they give us a tour and put on a little show of how great things are, and how wonderful the dorm life is, and afterward we pretend to keep an eye on them — but it’s all theater. It is. We know it. What’s more, you know it. Everyone knows it.
We all know that there’s no … way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the … one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like … and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.
And, as the quote notes, it’s not just technology but Western life in general. The triumph of capitalism and specialization is due, to some degree, to developing nations. I’m no economist, but discount retail, clothing, and perhaps the middle class are all dependent on underpaid workers in poor conditions.
These jobs provide wages to unskilled laborers who do better than they may otherwise. But better than pitiful is a small consolation.
I don’t know what to do about it. Kiva loans, clean-water programs, and other micro-lending organizations are a great start to improving people’s lives. So are faith-based training and education programs. Some things I’m willing to pay more for if I know it has been truly beneficial for those involved in the process (like, paradoxically, Starbucks). But honestly, I’m often too lazy to check/care. And while I try to live simply, there’s still injustice that I’m sure I participate in.
Maybe I’ll just be glad I don’t buy conflict diamonds.