Video: The Toxic Endpoint of the Global Marketplace

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The narrator of this video adopts the enticing tone of someone promoting travel and tourism. "Mustaffabad has a secret," she says, invitingly.

This poor, derelict neighborhood is a part of Delhi, but with its own direct connection to the global marketplace.

A happy violin plays incongruously and you see on-screen a bare foot step in a puddle on a muddy street. It makes for a deft and effective bit of cognitive dissonance as the narrator delivers the punchline:

This is where the world’s computers come to die.

And then, with the up-tempo tour guide explaining the sights of Mustaffabad, you’re taken on a tour of the death rites: women, children, and young men dismantling the world’s unwanted digital debris in order to salvage bits of copper and traces of gold.

It’s a scavenger hunt through deadly toxins and dangerous conditions that promises scarred lung tissue, developmental damage, reproductive deficits and early death.

This is the endpoint of the global marketplace, the one we rarely see. Certainly, this little video of e-waste scavengers is not "new." We’ve seen similar pictures from China and other places; and so it was kind of the producers, despite their ironic intent, to provide a narrator who speaks in the comfortable tones of a marketing pro.

We never tire of stories we see about the opposite endpoint of the global marketplace: the global brands, the titans who run them, and their latest ideas for returning growth to their shareholders — and the economy. Yet we tire quite quickly of stories such as these. Who wants to think about poor children with sledgehammers breaking the leaded glass picture tubes on all those clunky monitors of yesteryear, now that we’ve got flatscreens?

These 25,000 people of Mustaffabad who rely on this e-waste for survival pay a high price on behalf of the manufacturers who are free to flood the marketplace with toxic products, remain unaccountable for the waste stream they create and stand blameless for the lives they consume. 

It is in economic parlance, a textbook case of "externalization" — a cost a company is able to foist upon the public, upon the global commons. It’s the same idea that lies at the root of the practice of using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

So as you watch this little video, don’t think its merely more poverty porn about faraway and luckless strangers. It’s a mirror of what is happening globally to everyone caught in the same unsustainable system of extraction, exploitation and unaccountability, which will remain in place as long we remain transfixed by the prosperous end, only, of the global marketplace.