Published 16 September 2019
Why? Because we, as citizens of affluent nations, are consuming their future.
Not only that but we’re also conscripting them – children that is – to help us do it. They pick cotton that goes into making our clothes. They make bricks that find their way into the building and construction supply chain. They harvest palm oil that ends up in our breakfast cereal. According to UNICEF, one in four children in the world’s poorest countries is engaged in child labour. In India between 2011 and 2012, almost one million children worked for exports alone – and we consume the products of their toil.
We know that in order to support our lifestyle we, like other wealthy nations outsource the dirty bits of production to low income countries. We hide our greenhouse gas emissions by sending them offshore. Then when we calculate our country’s emissions to report on our progress towards whatever target we’ve managed to negotiate, we conveniently forget about all the stuff we consume that’s actually been produced for us elsewhere. In fact, a recent study found that one third of the environmental and social burden of consumption in affluent societies is shifted on to poor nations.
“One third of the environmental and social burden of consumption in affluent societies is shifted on to poor nations.”
The great pity of it is that low-income countries don’t have access to the clean technologies and safe working conditions that we apply to production of goods here. So they cop a double whammy. Not only do they – that’s adults and children alike – work in poor conditions to produce goods to satisfy our appetites, but in doing so their work is contributing to the very changes in climate that will destroy their, and everyone else’s future.
No wonder the children are mad.
Of course there’s the argument that if we didn’t buy their goods they wouldn’t have jobs, but that doesn’t cut it. If we paid properly for these goods the workers would have a job and a decent wage. Think of it – if we paid the real price for what we consume these families could send their kids to school too, then children wouldn’t be working to satisfy our consumption.
“We know how to map greenhouse gas emissions and inequality as they snake around the world embodied in the goods we buy. [I]f we paid the real price for what we consume, […] then children wouldn’t be working to satisfy our consumption.”
Climate change and inequality are interlinked. The research quoted above indicates that we know how to map greenhouse gas emissions and inequality as they snake around the world embodied in the goods we buy. A handful of research groups including those at the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales in Australia, as well as universities in the UK, USA, Japan and Norway have been working for many years to expose what’s hidden in the chain of organisations, businesses, factories, mines and farms that supply us with the goods we consume.
You may have seen our work in the form of, for example, carbon footprints or water footprints and more recently in social footprints such as bad labour conditions, child labour and poverty. Our research is assisted by high-performance computing capable of analysing billions of data points; and the hard slog of researchers around the world meticulously building data sets that tell stories of working conditions as well as of resource use and abuse.
We are doing our part to alert the world to looming catastrophe. We publish these stories in some of the most prestigious journals in the world as well as in the media. Business leaders are also doing their part. In December 2018 the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders signed a letter to world leaders telling them to be ambitious in addressing climate change.
Yet we seem to have accomplished little. Nothing seems to change. And nothing will change unless governments at all levels also do their bit. Only they have the wherewithal to change the infrastructure, policies and programs that envelop our lives.
Maybe the voices of the world’s children will make them take notice.
Joy Murray is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA).
Vivienne Reiner is studying the Master of Sustainability program at the University of Sydney part-time. Last year she wrote about ISA’s work based on a world-first review paper analysing the social and environmental footprints of trade in our globalised economy.