Global Consumption and Moral Responsibility

On Feb. 18, the NYU Abu Dhabi community will begin internal conversations about labor in the UAE and at NYUAD. I highly recommend everybody to attend ...

Feb 15, 2014

On Feb. 18, the NYU Abu Dhabi community will begin internal conversations about labor in the UAE and at NYUAD. I highly recommend everybody to attend the genesis of what is sure to be a crucial conversation for years to come. According to a post on the NYUAD Student Life Facebook page, the discourse will include oft omitted “historical and institutional” contexts, and will focus on NYU’s relationship with the labor market in the UAE.
While the emphasis on historical and institutional contexts will be a welcome reprieve from the public debates on NYUAD’s various Facebook groups, it is equally important not to limit our considerations to the UAE and NYUAD and to confront the specter of hypocrisy that looms like a storm cloud over our ivory-tower conversations. Mine is not a controversial or surprising point. It is merely one of the most important issues that we must continually work toward resolving.
Complex networks created by the forces of globalization mean that we can never be certain of the ramifications of our consumption. By all accounts, life on Earth has gotten easier, more comfortable and less violent than at any time in the past. This is in no small part due to the forces of trade and global enterprise. It is also an inescapable fact that remittances from migrant laborers make up huge portions of many countries’ gross domestic products. Yet, however beneficial the long-term impacts of global trade may appear, we must consider whether these benefits can be reconciled with the extensive abuses wrought by modern expectations of comfort and ease.
It’s easy to look at examples like the abuse of Foxconn workers, who are often migrant laborers from rural to urban China, or the intrinsically related issue of rare metal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and whisk away the twinge of hypocrisy we feel for supporting such practices by our consumption. But the hypocrisy is worsened when we realize the technology that I bought and am using to write this piece — and that you are using to read this — may have contributed to gang rape.
What we eventually tell ourselves is that this is the way of things and that by understanding the historical and institutional contexts that contribute to these tragedies, we can eventually overcome them. This may be true in the long run or on a case-by-case basis. But we should never let this become the extent of our reconciliation. There are people suffering today to build our playgrounds of tomorrow.
As direct beneficiaries of injustice, the only just response to the current system is not merely understanding how it works but also learning how to fully remove ourselves from it and devise a new system. We may indeed have hope of ameliorating these horrid conditions in the long run. An example of movement in this direction is the Global Village Construction Set; what sounds like a plaything is a blueprint for the machinery of modern life made accessible to anyone, anywhere. Maybe, instead of simply understanding the plight of migrant laborers and offering paternalistic assistance indefinitely, we can eradicate their plight completely.
Idealism is almost universally dismissed in academia these days, but sometimes ideals are the only beauty we can find in an otherwise interminably ugly world.
Kai-Erik Jensen is a contributing writer. Email him at
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