I began a post a new few weeks back, but I doubt I will finish it. I confronted the grief I felt this autumn, teaching about 19th-century imperialism and my misery at the unpaid debts owed by the old empires–the US included–to the so-called developing world. It is unhappy business, teaching 15-year olds about King Leopold’s murderous rule in Congo or the British colonizations of Gambia and China.
I feel I need to clear the air about all this with my students. Is our wealth dependent on all the suffering we read about? And how can we refer to the places attacked and robbed–sometimes for centuries–as “developing nations?” It seems like a bad joke.
I feel I have to figure out how to teach my students, honestly, about the toll that imperialism–largely European and American imperialism–has taken on the world.
My students learned for the first time about invasion, meddling, strong-arming and other bad American behavior in the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, not to mention Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Cuba, and seemingly every other nation in Central America. The involvement of the US in these places over the past 150 years has been extremely destructive, yet our media and our government abet our amnesia by never mentioning the empire. Still, the work feels incomplete.
I want to come up with a pithy way of describing this. About the relationship between “the West and the rest,” between the global North and the places it has attacked in recent centuries. So I began a blog post about the American empire and its impact on its colonies.
I took notes on the death toll of the invasion of the Philippines; I added up the number of times the US has invaded Cuba. When I found myself skimming Jack London’s letters home from his 1907 trek across the Pacific Ocean in his boat, The Snark, looking for the scene in which he describes the unhappiness on the face of deposed Hawaiian Queen–I remembered reading about him hobnobbing with the American elite at the Honolulu Yacht Club while ex-Queen Liliuokalani sat apart, largely forgotten and ignored–I realized that the scope of my complaint is too large to be contained here.
So for now, I am turning back to the present moment and the many topics I will soon share with my students in my Globalization course! But I’ll simmer on my new, catchy name for imperial debts.
This year, when we tackle the patterns and ethics of outsourcing and offshoring, I am excited to look at China’s move to “send jobs to Africa.” I’ve been speculating about this for a long time. It simply made sense when I read the “race to the bottom” articles of the late 1990s, decrying the policies of Nike and other footwear and apparel manufacturers for chasing cheaper wages across Asia. Who remembers our first Nikes were made in Japan? Soon it was off to Korea and China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
I wondered at the time if the final frontier in this journey would be Nigeria, because of its huge population and the fact that half of the people there, about 80 million, speak English. Now may be the time.
In Ethiopia, English is the language of instruction in secondary schools and colleges. What’s more, according to DHL’s logistics magazine, Delivered, “factory wages in Ethiopia can be about $40 a month, less than 10 percent the level in China.”
While this trend accelerates, some speculate that the election of Donald Trump will turn the US toward economic isolationism, and likely away from foreign aid as well. Enter China. So here are some questions I want my students to consider and research:
- Will workers in China feel their jobs are being “taken” by Kenyans or Ethiopians?
- Will most Chinese people feel proud that wages have risen to this point?
- Will such outsourcing mean migration patterns will shift? Is it possible those looking for work might move instead to nearby countries where new jobs are created by this new wave of globalization?
- What is the relationship between China’s huge infrastructure projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here, for example) and the potential shift of manufacturing jobs from China to places like Ethiopia, Egypt, and Zambia?
Another theme of my course will be the globalization of waste and pollution: carbon dioxide and methane, of course, the gyres of trash in the ocean, and also microbeads and microfibers. Microfibers are especially of interest in Oregon, where I teach, because Patagonia is a popular and respected clothing company here. It is from synthetic clothing, like Patagonia’s “fleece” jackets, that microfibers come.
For years I have asked students to trace a pair of shoes and a favorite shirt or jacket back to the factory where it was made. This leads to all sorts of discoveries about the transparency of companies and the hollowness of unenforced “codes of conduct” for contracted factories, more window-dressing than anything else.
On this assignment, Patagonia has always stood out. The environmental and supply chain section of its website is so detailed, I have considered not allowing students to study this company. But now there is increased concern about the impact of microfibers on the environment: they apparently become lodged in the bodies of fish, literally entering our food supply. Microfibers also carry bacteria and other pollutants. How will this highly responsible company respond? (Click the image here for a terrific, if academic, podcast on microfibers.)
Once we really master the issue–which plastics are going where, such as when we wash a fleece jacket–perhaps my students can create a report tracing their clothing not only back to the factory but also forward into the food and water supplies! Then we will come up with an action step, which I want them to develop. Some ideas to get started:
- ask a speaker from Patagonia to visit our class and ask them what their plans are for combatting pollution from their clothes;
- look into other, similar clothes that don’t shed as many fibers;
- lobby the state government for regulation;
- put together some sort of information program/guide for teens.
We may decide to work on a different, related issue, like banning bottles with caps from area schools; or working on an ordinance in nearby Beaverton, Oregon, to ban single-use plastic shopping bags, as nextdoor Portland has.
The link just above leads to a short video about how bottle caps from bottled drinks are ending up in the stomachs of the birds of the Pacific Ocean. On the island of Midway, once the site of a great battle between the American and Japanese navies, seabirds like albatross are dying at alarming rates. As their bodies decompose, it becomes clear that their stomachs are full of plastic, especially bottle caps. Is this the outcome of a new kind of imperialism? The great global powers are no longer competing for colonies as they once did, but they nevertheless directly impact helpless and harmless places all over the world, now through our environmental carelessness.
Postscript: Here is a recent article on the Trump Administration’s possible change to policy in Africa.