Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Story of a Shirt and a Fish

One day, Paul Seabright went to buy a shirt. This shirt, he realized, was made of cotton that was produced in India, from seeds that were developed in the U.S., included artificial fibre made in Portugal, colored with dyes composed of substances from six other countries, has a collar lining that came from Brazil, was stitched on a machine from Germany, and was assembled in Malaysia.

This story behind the shirt prompted an article about how incredible it is that many an object we purchase and consume is manufactured and distributed around the world "without the intervention of any overall controlling intelligence." Seabright mulls over how natural this seems to millions who live in the "industrialized west," and goes on to narrate a wonderful little anecdote to make a point about the efficiency of the invisible hand:

After the break-up of the Soviet Union I was in discussion with a Russian official whose job it was to direct the production of bread in St Petersburg. “Please understand that we are keen to move towards a market system,” he told me. “But we need to understand the fundamental details of how such a system works. Tell me, for example: who is in charge of the supply of bread to London?” There was nothing naive about his question, because the answer (“nobody is in charge”), when one thinks carefully about it, is astonishingly hard to believe. Only in the industrialised West have we forgotten just how strange it is.

As Amit Varma points out, this is a nice story to use when faced with arguments about the continued importance of central planning and government intervention. But that phrase in the anecdote - nobody is in charge - in my opinion, comes with ethical blinders. It reminded me of another story - Darwin's Nightmare. This is a story of a fish (Nile Perch) that was introduced into Lake Victoria in Africa.

The Nile Perch, a voracious predator, extinguished almost the entire stock of the native fish species. However, the new fish multiplied so fast, that its white fillets are today exported all around the world.

Huge hulking ex-Soviet cargo planes come daily to collect the latest catch in exchange for their southbound cargo… Kalashnikovs and ammunitions for the uncounted wars in the dark center of the continent.
This booming multinational industry of fish and weapons has created an ungodly globalized alliance on the shores of the world’s biggest tropical lake: an army of local fishermen, World bank agents, homeless children, African ministers, EU-commissioners, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.

The filmmaker, Hubert Sauper, was interviewed on NPR a few weeks back. When asked who, in his opinion, should be blamed for this state of affairs, he didn't have an answer. Things were so complicated, it is difficult to identify who/what was controlling things. He used a phrase - fragmentation of responsibility - to suggest how impossibly difficult it is for activists to intervene in situations such as this. Who, indeed, would an activist first talk to? The friendly Soviet pilots? World bank agents? The prostitutes? Let us leave aside this complicated question of activism aside for now.

Let us return to the story of the shirt. Where Paul Seabright falters, I feel, is in not bothering to point out that the story behind the shirt is so much more complicated. He writes that the story of the shirt he
"bought represents a triumph of international co-operation." Perhaps. But isn't there more to cotton from India grown with seeds developed in the U.S.? Doesn't a story of the shirt Seabright bought also carry traces of the upheavals in thousands of farmers' lives that the seeds from the U.S have wrought? Doesn't the shirt's story spiral out to include stories of hundreds of farmers committing suicides over the last few years? When he says "international co-operation," should he not consider the story of how the rules for co-operation were framed, and who got to speak up at these discussions?

I'm not suggesting that every story about a shirt track the myriad other stories that can indeed be told. What I am suggesting is - does the phrase "nobody is in charge" explain much, or does it in fact mask much more than it explains? Won't Sauper's approach - of mapping as carefully as possible, the many (seemingly bizarre) connections between various actors - help us tell better, truer and more engaging stories about the shirts we wear and the fish we eat than Seabright's distant "nobody is in charge" attitude?


  • While browwsing the filmaker's website I came across this his observation:

    "I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya,
    Nigeria or Angola, crude oil."

    Which, in turn, speaks volumes the impact of globalization on everyday life across the globe.

    By Anonymous Ananya, at 3/31/2006 3:06 PM  

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