BOOK REVIEW / The Western idea fast infecting the planet: Victims of development - Jeremy Seabrook: Verso, pounds 12.95

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The Independent Online
THERE are lots of horrible jobs in the world but the ones on Smoky Mountain in the Philippines must win some sort of prize for inventiveness. The mountain is a vast rubbish dump where people sift through the refuse for beer bottles, radio cases, printed circuit boards. One dust-covered 10-year-old, his face disfigured by a huge carbuncle, is the family wage-earner: he has no father and his mother has tuberculosis. Another family collects discarded underwear, washes it and sells it to tribal people. Down below in a stagnant pool near the waste water outlet, a husband is fishing for frogs to eat.

The mega-cities thrown up by humanity's 20th-century transformation from a rural into an urban species are filled with many such jobs and lives. Go to the nearby Rubberworld factory in Manila, operating under licence from Adidas, and you will find Abram embossing logos of American cartoon characters on trainers - products he will never be able to afford for his own children, whom he sees only once a year, since he is a migrant worker from the provinces, sending his wages home and sharing a room in the capital with three other migrants.

Leave Manila for Sao Paulo in Brazil, where six brothers aged between two and 10 were recently abandoned by their father under a motorway when their mother died of TB. Go south to Rio where hundreds of street children are murdered each year by squads paid for by city businessmen who believe they frighten the tourists away. Move on to Malaysia, where a young worker goes missing in an oilseed processing room, bones are found in a vat the following day - animal bones, says the company - and for five years a father searches in vain for a lost son. Eleven years later, compensation is paid - less than pounds 1,000.

The landscapes depicted by Seabrook in his journey through the world's vast and growing underclass have a number of recurring features: pollution, disease, malnutrition, exploitation. What emerges above all, however, is a sense of wasted, degraded human lives, billions of them, worn down in a struggle to cope with an almost unremittingly hostile world.

Suppose, instead of being born into that privileged minority of the world's six billion people who live in western Europe and north America, you found yourself a 'shifted cultivator' in Asia or Africa. What would you do? You might try to escape - joining the growing tide of refugees, 'oustees' and economic migrants washing round, and sometimes through, the planet's political borders.

If you stay, you will probably end up clinging desperately to a job that is killing you and not paying enough to feed and clothe your family. Either way, you are likely to be aware, through the global medium of television, what others have and you do not.

Behind these scarred lives and dreadful jobs lies the Western consumer and his or her appetite for cheap goods, and also the global market economy. The strength of Seabrook's book lies in its reporting. But his diagnosis, that the culprit is a Western idea that has escaped the thought laboratory and infected the planet, is one more and more people are sharing. That idea is 'development' - urban, industrial, market- based, designed to transform into a universal principle a newish and rather inefficient economic system which Seabrook categorises as a 'mechanism for transforming all the varieties of wealth on earth into money'.

Note that phrase 'varieties of wealth'. Once it would have been enough to raise a banner emblazoned 'wealth creation' to send critics of the market economy scurrying for cover. But increasingly, we realise that we must try to distinguish economic wealth from social and ecological wealth. Seabrook helps us to see what an important distinction this is.