Confessions Of An Eco-sinner, by Fred Pearce

From PCs to T-shirts: the world pays for our stuff

When we survey the great migrations of today – the movement from rural to urban livelihoods, the dereliction of the global countryside – it is easy to conclude that this merely repeats on a global scale what occurred in Britain in the early industrial period. The drama of globalisation re-enacts on the world stage upheavals in Britain in the 19th century.

Fred Pearce's marvellous travelogue into the heart of globalism suggests that this is not the case. The experience of the imperial powers depended upon a "hinterland", a penumbra in which the great extractive project of "development" could be constructed. The breakneck industrialisation of today has no such resources; and this is why the poorest and most vulnerable are under pressure as never before, from an internal colonialism by their own – and other – governments.

Pearce's quest appears simple enough. He wants to know where his "stuff", the freight of goods and services of daily life, actually comes from. Who is involved in producing them? Under what circumstances do things taken for granted appear miraculously in our garden of earthly delights? He is as concerned with the human as with the ecological footprint.

His journey takes him to the desolate prawn farms of Bangladesh, where monoculture has left a white glaze of salt over ancient rice-paddies, and a nexus of middlemen, mafiosi and politicians terrorise the poor. He visits garment factories, where there have been outbreaks of violence as women workers protest against forced overtime, abuse and overwork. He goes to the salty deserts of Uzbekistan, where cotton has consumed the Aral Sea.

Pearce seeks the origin of his gold wedding ring in Driefontein, South Africa, the deepest mine on earth. He visits whole cities in China given over to the manufacture of computers, blue teddy bears, shoes, fake oil paintings.

Pearce, as a science writer, is not the anguished Green, wringing his hands over others' indifference to the spoiling of the planet. But he does place our daily lives in a different context from that artificial construct known to business as the real world; and he illuminates relationships which rarely appear in the promotion of all the good things in life. His prodigious journeyings – 180,000 km of air travel – justify themselves in unflagging curiosity and energy. He reports from the oilfields in Siberia and the brothels of Manila, the silent palm-oil monocultures of Malaysia and an Aids-stricken Swaziland. He is fair to the many people trying to "do something" about the webs of connectedness which link lives of uneasy comfort to exploitation and loss elsewhere. And he assesses their efficacy: carbon offsets, the sale of second-hand clothing to entrepreneurs in Tanzania, the modest but real improvement in the lives of rural women who have migrated to the garment factories of Dhaka.

But when it comes to finding "answers", Pearce is as much at a loss as any despairing Green zealot. He falls back upon the treacherous first-person plural, an inclusive "we" which brings together an "international community" only when intractable problems are to be faced. When the rewards of the world are distributed, the gulf between "us and them" remains.

Having vigorously evoked a world using up its resources at a rate that defies replacement, he makes a leap of faith, assuming human unity in the presence of the threat to survival. This is not impossible; but since the most recent blueprint for the survival of humanity proved highly fallible, as the proletariat failed to fulfil its destiny, one should not perhaps be too optimistic. In a far more dangerous situation than that of early capitalism, there is no agent of redemption, except an amorphous "we", which has to include child workers dipping their hands in acid in Delhi to retrieve trace metals from discarded PCs, the sybarites of the royal house of Saudi Arabia, poppy growers of Afghanistan, arms dealers in Washington and more enslaved people than existed at the time of the formal ending of slavery. This coalition is even more implausible than that of the scattered and depowered workers of the world.

Jeremy Seabrook's recent books include 'Consuming Cultures' (New Internationalist)