I was sitting in the back seat of a Land Cruiser on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania watching our guide lean lackadaisically against the hood as he smoked and chatted with other guides, when a sharp rapping woke me from my early morning daydreams.
A Maasai warrior in full dress was at the window, and as I stepped out of the vehicle it was clear that he meant business. Literally. He held a distinctive-looking club that was supposedly carved from ebony, banged it against the tire to prove something that I didn’t quite understand and then pointed at my watch. I happened to despise this particular watch and had been looking for any excuse to ditch it in some unpredictable place, so it seemed that this friendly merchant had somehow read the situation astutely. I figured the story that would inevitably unfold from this exchange would be worth the $12 I had paid for the ill-constructed piece of plastic wrapped around my wrist. I sized up his club and he sized up my watch and we both walked away thinking that we had gotten the better of each other. Capitalism at its best.
Sometimes I wonder whatever happened of that watch. It really was a terrible watch, but maybe he thought he had himself a terrible club. Incidentally, I gave the club to a friend of mine in Minnesota. He seemed to like it, and although I am certain that he hasn’t actually done any clubbing with it, he understands the value of a good story and of casual weaponry. The watch I expect was passed on, trading hands until one day the battery went dead and it was given to a child for a toy or flung angrily into a fire (I am telling you, this was a watch to be hated). Or the man in the red wrap put it with all his other watches and took it to a market to sell. There is just no telling.
When I was in graduate school one of my professors introduced me to Exchange Theory, the idea that social order is the unplanned outcome of acts of exchange between members of society. From my understanding, it is the notion that larger trends are results of the fact that we all want something from each other and are willing to trade. What is exchanged is not limited to physical objects, and in the case of the aforementioned exchange, I traded my watch for both a club and a tale. I suspect the Maasai gentleman just got a watch, as I am usually quite boring and there are no shortage of sunburned guys sitting in Land Cruisers in that part of Tanzania.
I recently read that a sizable amount of the air pollution that crashes into the West Coast of the United States and enjoys time in our lungs originates from Chinese factories. These pollutants include favorites like mercury, ozone, sulphur, nitrogen oxides and black carbon. It strikes me that there is an interesting and unstated exchange going on that I don’t really like to think about. I recently bought a bicycle that was made in China. If we think about this transaction based on a very rudimentary understanding of Exchange Theory, then I gave the merchant money, he gave me a bicycle, they gave a portion of that money to a bicycle company, which gave a portion of it to the people who actually make their bikes and components, who then gave it to the people who mined the raw materials and fashioned the plastics. And then, in the background, an unstated final exchange took place when a load of fresh Chinese air pollution was sent our way to seal the deal. You can thank me for that.
Of course, the Chinese are paying a greater price, as they traded their clean water and clean air (and subsequently, their health and their ability to go fishing) for some greenbacks. If you follow the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed (@BeijingAir), one of the few places to get accurate air quality readings in Beijing, you have seen their air quality vacillate between unhealthy and really, crazy, wicked unhealthy. I doubt the people of China got together and discussed what they were, in fact, trading before embarking on their quest to become the factory of the world. Rather, I suspect a belligerent government and some nefarious companies thrust their situation upon them.
I am troubled by the realization that these exchanges involve items that aren’t explicitly stated. If the tag in the bike store said: “One bicycle, a quantity of air pollution, a dozen less fish in China and a handful of $2-an-hour jobs,” I think I would be a little more careful with my money. Of course, one could argue that the complexities brought on by globalization make it nearly impossible to slough out all of the exchanges and the perceptions of negative and positive impacts of those exchanges are truly in the eye of the exchangers.
This whole convoluted and meandering thought path leads me to a pedestrian conclusion: I should buy local whenever I can. Buying local limits the unspoken parts of exchanges that are more likely to happen when many unknown people are involved, and in the case of goods produced locally, we at least know they are in line with the clean air and water laws of the United States.
I recently learned that many plant species yielding ebony are considered threatened, mainly due to unsustainable harvesting practices in Africa. It is now common for merchants to take another heavy wood and blacken it with shoe polish and pass it off as ebony, which is, without a doubt, what happened in the case for my aforementioned club. Of course, I am more comfortable with this than if the wood for the club was snatched from a plant with few surviving relatives, and I suppose I probably made the Maasai gentleman’s day by letting him get the better of some naive tourist. I guess I should be happy that I walked away from this exchange with the Maasai equivalent of an ulu and not a moose nugget — although that might have made for a better story.
Pete LaFrance grew up in Palmer and has moved back to the area after a number of years living abroad.