Photograph by Kevin Frayer—AP
From clashes in the West Bank and election preparations in Pakistan to the legalization of gay marriage in Colorado and battles against wildfires in California, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.
April 27, 2013. Bangladeshi relatives of garment worker Mohammed Abdullah cry as they gather around his coffin after collecting his body at a makeshift morgue in a schoolyard near a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
I had a brief former life as a non-photograph-taker for half of my college years at NYU, where I was studied the shift from American industrialism and manufacture that lead to globalized production beginning in the 70’s, and really took hold in the 80’s-90’s. Having ridden a bicycle across the backroads of America three separate occasions and on three different routes, I’ve been witness to the slow, withering death of hundreds of American towns that were built upon manufacture, quickly fading as factories sprouted up throughout Asia and South America. Here, corporations flocked towards a land of desperately low wages, Export Processing Zones, and environmental calamity, and more than anything, inhumane working conditions, all under the guise of “savings” and broad returns for their shareholders.
While at NYU, I primarily studied the cause and effect of this geographic shift in production. To better understand the economic dynamics of this shift, I took classes at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Every economics class I took at Stern was beyond despicable, primarily for the school’s myopic treatment of human capital as a number, a statistic, a vehicle to lower overall production costs.
I remember my excitement when we got to the topic of externalities, which is economics little way of saying, “oops, we affected you by accident, sorry!”. For example, China’s abhorrent ozone pollution, caused by factories that find it cheaper to blow noxious fumes into the air than to manage them, pay no damages to the Chinese citizens that now suffer from respiratory failure and pay the price every day. This was exactly what I wanted to know: how companies account for these phenomenons; how they put a price on a life, or the earth, or a risk of uprising. My professor, who was, ironically, Bangladeshi, simply reduced the concept of externalities to something along the lines of, “shit happens, we move on”. Then, we continued along with our studies. I was confused, upset, and shocked. Here was a monstrosity of an issue in the study of economics, but Stern was clearly hellbent on the principles of Profit at Any Cost. I stopped going to the class.
Here’s another externality. You want to know why that shirt you bought from the Gap, or JC Penny, or Topshop, or Urban Outfitters, or Banana Republic cost so damn little? You want to know why Uniqlo can sell jeans for $20? It’s because a whole chain of people (and the environment) are suffering from it. It’s because multinational corporations- like every one I just mentioned- are squeezing every cent and every opportunity out of a legion of citizens in third world countries and governments.
The above photo, I was taught, is considered an externality. Go through the photo, fix your gaze on every weeping relative’s face. For five minutes. The needless massacre of hundreds of innocent, hardworking Bangladeshis is considered an externality. This is taught, in American colleges, in colleges across the world, and in the business practice of nearly every multinational corporation around the world.
This disaster in Bangladesh, which so far has a death toll of 570 people, (it will go up by the hundreds) as well as the fire that killed 115 Bangladeshis in November, is just the beginning. It’s not contained to Bangladesh, and it’s not just contained to the news, or the other side of the world, or the corporations that have lets these despicable acts go on for decades. These are the clothes that we wear on our backs, every day. These are our choices too. Look through your closet, look at the labels on your clothes, look at where they’re made. Macau, China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Brazil. Every time you see some rock-bottom price on a garment or appliance you buy, you need to think about how this came to be. How a t-shirt can be built from scratch and shipped across the world for $5.90. It’s not because of new efficiencies in shipping, it’s because people are getting fucked, their lives put at risk every day, for that price.
I’m not trying to be preachy, I just want to show a cause and effect. What can one do besides feel helpless: First and foremost, be aware of the process. Know where your purchases come from. Try to buy American, European (it exists and won’t kill your wallet, or from companies that offer a clear view into their manufacturing processes overseas (there are few, but they’re out there). You don’t need to spend tons of cash; I purchase most of my clothes secondhand, removed from the system, with the money going to a local store and not into the hands of the monsters doing this.
These are your dollars, and by effect, your vote towards the type of economy you want to support. Look at these photo, look at this pain and this loss, compound it thousands of times, and understand our relationship to this tragedy. I’m sad to say it will only get worse before it gets better, but only if we start now.