by Lauren Warner —
When we discuss a sustainable environment, we commonly focus on the ecological aspects. Central to peak oil and global warming theories is the concept that the toll on the environment is irreversible. But what about the human cost of consumption?
If we have a duty to our environment, surely we also have a duty to our fellow human beings. In his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, sociologist Kevin Bales explains the vast existence of contemporary slavery and what it means to us: debt bondage, chattel and contract slavery affect American consumers through the global economy.
His research all over the third world points to an estimated 27 million slaves—some whose labor affects the production of our televisions and automobiles, for example. “Your investment portfolio and your mutual fund pension own stock in companies using slave labor in the developing world,” Bales asserts.
Debt bondage in India, sex trafficking in Thailand, slavery in Mauritania—we know that these things happen. What is important is how these atrocities can be eradicated.
United Nations mandate, government sanction, human rights demonstration, institutional research, and media attention—these are our weapons. When we refuse the opportunity to exercise our strength through politics or consumerism, we become enablers of human rights violators. The moral responsibility is glaring.
Our emancipation for African-American slaves was a process which arguably took the better part of a century. Imagine how long it will take until every enslaved man, woman and child can grasp their autonomy. Imagine the irreparable damage; these are indebted, illiterate human beings whose rights are not recognized by the governments of their own nations.
It is simply inconceivable.
What can we do then, as a foreign power, as citizens of the world? On a government level it is sanctioning; economic pressure. Whether or not we police the world—or comply with the watchdogs facing us—consumer-rich governments retain powers just as oil-rich governments retain powers. It is neither new, nor immoral; it just is.
Ideally, governments would prosecute sex tourists—clients of human trafficking rings—just as harshly as they punish the victims who are trafficked. Foreign governments may discourage or even ban tourism to countries whose governments refuse to acknowledge human rights violations.
On an organizational level it is awareness. It is documenting the preventable, government-perpetrated injustices suffered by the refugees with no political boundaries, the debt-bonded, and impoverished with inhumane work conditions, the children sold or tricked into prostitution.
In countries where prostitution is legal, crimes reported against sex workers are practically nonexistent. So some groups work to advocate legalizing the sex industry in these poor areas, thereby arming its workers with a support system—and the option to get out.
On an individual level it is ethical consumption: we can afford to promote animal rights and human rights because we have access to products made by companies who share our philosophies. Let’s support the businesses which support our ideals.
“If slavery stops being profitable, there is little motivation to enslave,” Barnes says. One of the great things about consumerism today is the sheer vastness of choices. Just as we may opt to buy our beef from free-range farmers and our coffee from fair trade brands, human rights are supported if we extend the same purchasing power to electronics, automobiles, textiles, and everything else. A wholly-sustainable human experience would not be defined exclusively by ecology; our ideals must be all-encompassing. Let us continually strive to remain educated, promote awareness—and defend the principles of a sustainable future.
Lauren Warner is a 2005 graduate of Pennsylvania State University, where she studied government issues including unfree labor. She is currently a freelance writer and editor based in Easton.
(Originally published in the Alliance’s 2008 Directory of Organizations That Promote Sustainable Communities.)