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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Eco-Confessional

Air Date: Week of

(Courtesy of Beacon Press)

Fred Pearce looked around at the things he consumes and collects and embarked on a journey to discover where his stuff comes from. He reports what he found in his new book, “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff." Pearce talks with Bruce Gellerman about the serious social and environmental consequences of the production of items many of us take for granted.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Forgive Fred Pearce, for he has sinned. Pearce, a science journalist who covers environmental issues, does his best to be green, but, sometimes he slips. And he ‘fesses up to his environmental transgressions in his new book, "Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff.” In the book Pearce travels the world exploring the ecological and social cost of his Western European lifestyle, and we follow in his carbon footprints. Fred Pearce, welcome to Living on Earth.

PEARCE: Thank you very much

GELLERMAN: Your trip was sort of a mea culpa, you know, to make amends for all the stuff that clutters your life.

PEARCE: I didn’t see it as making amends, really. I saw it as the ultimate commission, really, the ultimate journey. It gave me a license to go and look at a whole lot of things that I really wanted to look at, and all in the cause of finding where my stuff comes from – connecting me with the rest of the planet if you like, ecologically, but also socially. I think the social issues were as important for me – finding out the people that make my stuff as much as the environmental damage that was often done in making my stuff.

GELLERMAN: And the only thing that you had that whole trip that stayed with you - I’m looking at it right now - is your …

PEARCE: … gold wedding ring. Yup, so the first journey was to go down a South African gold mine which is where the gold for my ring would have come from.

GELLERMAN: I guess the gold from most of our rings come from there.

PEARCE: I think so. For the last forty or fifty years most of the gold in the planet has been coming out of the South African gold mines. And most probably from one of the deepest mines that I went down in. Absolutely fascinating – because you're meeting gold miners down there who’ve been drilling out gold for their whole lives and they’ve never actually seen gold, you know, not even a glint, because the gold is at such a small amount in that rock. So they’re drilling away at this rock in the bowels of the earth. And you know, it’s really hot down there and the air conditioning systems you need in these mines just to keep people alive down there are extraordinary.

Fred Pearce (Courtesy of Beacon Press)

GELLERMAN: And the amount of water is incredible.

PEARCE: Yeah. When you’re four miles down in the bowels of the earth, it’s very hot. And the only way of keeping it livable is large amounts of water. The miners down there are still – you know, they’re black miners in the way that they were during apartheid time, and they’re paid not much more than they were paid in apartheid days. So it's tough living in that part of the world, I tell you.

GELLERMAN: So how do you feel about your ring now?

PEARCE: I still wear it. There’s a big ecological and social footprint behind something like gold, just the amount of rock, and the social circumstances behind producing just a small amount of metal like that. It’s - my duty to those miners is to carry on wearing that ring, not throw it away.

GELLERMAN: One of the things that you track down is the shrimp that goes in your curry.

PEARCE: Yeah. That was one of the more alarming journeys that I made. I went to Bangladesh. I mean I am an Englishman. I eat in an Indian restaurant in England every Saturday night pretty much. The shrimps come from Bangladesh. I tracked those back, and I met the guy who – a guy who runs one of the ponds, one of the many ponds out there raising these shrimps. He earns about $400 a year for producing shrimps that are valued in London, in the restaurants in London at hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He’s getting a tiny amount of the money that I pay for that. I followed the journey very carefully because it struck me as very interesting. Between the farmer that I visited and the processing port – about ten miles - on that journey there were seven middlemen. It was a crazy system. It was a kind of mafia-based system. A lot of people were making money out of those shrimps. The farmer wasn’t really making much at all.

(Courtesy of Beacon Press)

GELLERMAN: You quote a woman who works at a non-governmental organization in Bangladesh working with the shrimp farmers and she says there’s no such thing as sustainable shrimp.

PEARCE: Yeah, and I think that’s true. A lot of people, particularly in the U.S. actually, have been campaigning to try to improve the conditions of shrimp farmers. But the problem is finding the wholesalers, finding the retailers in the rich world who are prepared to sign up for this, you know, it'd be a labeling system rather like fair trade labeling system. "Sustainable shrimp" was the logo they were going to go for. Now some parts of the retailing sector, they are getting quite keen on better labeling, fair trade labeling, environmentally friendly labeling. And some of that really does mean something - but in that trade nobody was interested. Really bad news.

GELLERMAN: One of the places you go where commodities are fairly traded is the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro where they’re dealing with coffee, and I find you’ve really kind of taken the fair trade to task. That is that they’re not giving enough money to the farmers.

PEARCE: In comparison with the shrimp trade, the fair trade people working on coffee and cocoa and bananas or whatever it is are doing good, but the problem is that word, that phrase “fair trade.” It’s not really fair trade, it’s a bit fairer, but that’s about as far as I’d go.

GELLERMAN: So the day you went to the market the fair trade people were paying about $1.46 for a pound of coffee.

PEARCE: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: It was a buck twenty-five ordinarily that day.

PEARCE: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: They were paying a premium.

PEARCE: They were paying a premium, but the prices were still lower than coffee farmers were getting two decades ago, because the problem is the international price of coffee has gone down so much that even if you pay a premium, you pay a bit more, you’re still paying prices that are way down on what they were twenty years ago. The real profits are being made elsewhere in the system, among the traders and the retailers and the brands.

GELLERMAN: Fair trade could be fairer.

PEARCE: Fair trade could be a lot fairer. People talk in the trade about “fair trade lite,” and a lot of fair trade is fair trade lite. We need to pay more, we need to really pay more.

GELLERMAN: I want you to take me down to the Cathedral of Trash. I guess in Britain you produce an average of a thousand pounds of trash per person. Here in the United States we’re up to 1800 pounds?

PEARCE: We produce a lot of trash. I’ve followed where – what happened to my trash. I followed the cart down to "the Cathedral," as the locals call it, where it all gets piled – or most of it gets piled onto a barge, which goes down to a landfill site. That’s pretty straight forward – it just gets landfilled, end of story, until they run out of landfill to put it in. Quite a lot of stuff now though goes to recycling. So an interesting question is well, where does this recycling happen? Does it really happen or, you know, are people making this up? And a lot of our trash, and I would guess a lot of yours too, goes – ends up in China.

When I went to China following this route, I met a woman that they call the Queen of Trash. She currently imports into China six million tons of waste paper and cardboard from North America and from Europe every year. And she turns it into the boxes that go around the electronic goods that then get shipped back to us. But she’s recycling. China gets a bad wrap environmentally these days, but my bet is that if any country in the world is really going to take on recycling in a big way, making sure that we use resources again and again, rather than just hacking them from the rain forest and digging them up from under ground- if any country is going to do that, it is China, and they’ve started. And the Queen of Trash is my hero in that.

GELLERMAN: You traveled 110,000 miles.

PEARCE: I admit it.

GELLERMAN: That’s a big carbon footprint.

PEARCE: Yeah. It's only seven times around the world. And if you work it out in terms of tons of carbon dioxide it works out to 22 tons. So that’s, that’s quite a lot. I don’t ask repentance. I say to anybody who’s critical of that, “well, was the book worth it?” And I don’t know. I hope it was.

GELLERMAN: Well, I must admit that I love to eat shrimp. I have a gold wedding ring. Should I feel guilty?

PEARCE: We shouldn’t generally feel guilty, but I think we should feel that we want to reduce or change our footprint. People used to know, more or less, where their food came from. They used to know the factory that manufactured a lot of the things that they bought in the store. We don’t know any more. And that was the point of my journey, was to try to reconnect. I don’t want to feel guilty, but I think we can, if we learn and take a little bit of time, do things a bit better and hopefully help some people out there in – people working in sweatshops or in bad conditions on farms or in mines or whatever it is.

GELLERMAN: Fred Pearce, thank you very much.

PEARCE: Been a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: Fred Pearce’s new book is called “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff.”



For more information about Fred Pearce and his books


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