This is a series I’m writing all about my perspectives on sustainability and the countless ways it impacts our country as well as our globe. Covering everything from produce to global poverty, I hope to explore the ways our commitment to sustainability has always been tied to our commitment to ending poverty in what is now one of the top ten wealthiest countries on the planet (1, 2), and how our willingness to ignore issues of sustainability is inexplicably linked to the increasing feeling of our dollars not going far enough.
I remember, back in 2010, when Advertising Age – a super-popular site discussing marketing trends and consumer outreach – marked “sustainability” as one of the most “jargoniest jargon” words of the year, a word that we should “stop saying.” It was deemed:
“a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It’s not synonymous with ‘green.’ Is organic agriculture sustainable, for example, if more of the world would starve through its universal application?” [source]
I remember, even then, being so surprised that so much snark could be levied upon a word – It’s “squishy.“ It’s “a feel-good catchall” – where, ostensibly, the writer didn’t even know what the word meant.
The mention of organic agriculture – from what appears to be an attempt at skepticism – only further highlights the misunderstanding of sustainability. The United States wastes and throws away millions of pounds of fresh grown produce long before it’s ever sorted and shipped to a grocery store right now, and people are still starving in [insert poverty-stricken country.] Hell, people are still starving in America. I can assure you sustainable agriculture in the United States has no bearing on starvation in a foreign country. (And we can talk about that another day.)
But what does sustainability even mean? To explain, I have to – as usual – talk around my point before I can actually get there.
A while back, the Associated Press published an incredible piece of investigative journalism that was not only thorough, but painful to read. My empathy cup runneth over reading it… but so did my confusion.
The full thing is linked here, but I’m going to quote the most important parts:
The slaves interviewed by the AP had no idea where the fish they caught was headed. They knew only that it was so valuable, they were not allowed to eat it.
They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.
Some shouted for help over the deck of their trawler in the port to reporters, as bright fluorescent lights silhouetted their faces in the darkness.
“I want to go home. We all do,” one man called out in Burmese, a cry repeated by others. The AP is not using the names of some men for their safety. “Our parents haven’t heard from us for a long time. I’m sure they think we are dead.”
Another glanced fearfully over his shoulder toward the captain’s quarters, and then yelled: “It’s torture. When we get beaten, we can’t do anything back. … I think our lives are in the hands of the Lord of Death.”
In the worst cases, numerous men reported maimings or even deaths on their boats.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” said Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from Benjina. “There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. … The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.” [source]
In recent years, as the export business has expanded, it has become more difficult to convince young Burmese or Cambodian migrants and impoverished Thais — all of whom were found on Benjina — to accept the dangerous jobs. Agents have become more desperate and ruthless, recruiting children and the disabled, lying about wages and even drugging and kidnapping migrants, according to a former broker who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
The broker said agents then sell the slaves, usually to Thai captains of fishing boats or the companies that own them. Each slave typically costs around $1,000, according to Patima Tungpuchayakul, manager of the Thai-based nonprofit Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation. The men are later told they have to work off the “debt” with wages that don’t come for months or years, or at all. [source]
Allow me to interject with two points: 1) usually, when people don’t want to take a job, it’s because the benefit afforded to them from taking the job is outweighed by the risk and deterioration of quality of life. Those jobs, in the US, are most often unionized, so that employees are protected from employers who want to enact an abusive, manipulative, and downright slave-adjacent system like this. 2) the idea of ‘capturing’ people and expecting them to work to earn their freedom is not new. In fact, it happens in the U.S. prison system every day. People are arrested for random charges – oftentimes erroneously – and forced to pay expensive fines and fees on top of the ticket; when they don’t, they’re either hit with more fines and fees, or they’re arrested and forced to work off the amount of the bill in a ‘correctional facility’ that pays them less than $5 a day. Compare that to the fact that we’re fighting for people to make more than $5 an hour, now imagine how much time you have to spend incarcerated to pay that off.
Consider this excerpt from the Justice Department’s report on the ongoings of Ferguson, Missouri and how the municipality extracts funds from its citizens.
We are hearing stories like this all the time, and not just in Ferguson. Across the municipal court system. pic.twitter.com/Ve77Bhgb4U
— Jen Mann (@j_s_mann) March 4, 2015
…all of this is to say, you can swap out the people, but the system still remains and the system is still the problem.
This is not new. In fact, The Guardian did a similar story to this a while back, where you can find this incredibly helpful graphic about the industry’s function in the UK:
Take it a step further.
We’re all inclined to come away from reading these articles with the understanding that our seafood industry is deeply perverted, but I’d argue that it’s more than merely our seafood industry.
We can talk about that next time, though.