Buy, Use, Toss? -- Congo's Bloody Coltan

Yesterday, I saw a rather interesting thing happen at my local Starbucks. As I sat waiting for my Black Tea Misto to arrive a local gentleman placed on order for a slice of chocolate cake. I wasn't so much intrigued by the cake, but by what this consumer did after placing his order: he handed the barista a glass container and asked them to put his cake into it. The barista without batting an eye took the container, rinsed it out with hot water, dried it, and boxed up the cake. It was then that I realized the simplicity and power that a consumer possesses. The simple nature of our power as consumers is our ability to make the right choice and thereby advocate for a better future. I'll admit, I was a bit humbled when my name was called and the barista slid my tea misto, packaged in its disposable cup, across the counter.

This week in our Geography class study of consumption we've been focusing primarily on the materials economy. If you are not familiar with it I'd highly suggest taking 20 minutes of your day to watch The Story of Stuff. If you aren't familiar with Story of Stuff and the vast number of "stuff" story videos that have come since the success of the original release of the series in 2007, I'd highly recommend it. My kids have been analyzing the original Story of Stuff, which overviews the materials economy. They will also be conducting fact-checking and corroborating sources in the near future. Here's an image of the materials economy model Annie presents:

If you are familiar with how the materials economy works it's rather simple. It follows the life of a consumed material product beginning with the extraction of its necessary components, to its production, distribution, consumption and ultimately it's disposal. The video does an excellent job of highlighting some specific trends and tendencies of the people involved in the system. Here a few thoughts from the video that really resonated with my kids that I want to share with you:

  1. 99% of the items created by our current materials economy end up in the dump (i.e. in disposal) within 6 months of their purchase. Think, how long will I hold onto my Starbucks cup? How long would you?
  2. The role of people is understated in this model. Folks like you and me, our governments and the ever-growing presence and wealth of multinational corporations are a part of this system. These groups of people are by no means equally represented in terms of power or influence.
  3. The vast majority of the people involved in this system, i.e. the people that make it work, are every day consumers like you and me. In other words we may not have the wealth of Corporations, but our choices as the consuming majority possesses great potential; if we act.

Students these days are a chaotic ball of development. They work to figure out their place and how to be successful in the world. It is no different than when I was young. What I've come to see in my classroom since beginning my career is that the combined stress of of growing up, and pursuing academic achievement can give our students "tunnel vision." In teaching global issues as a part of my world geography class my challenge has been to help my students see beyond the confines of their tunnel vision and to find personal relevance in the material. Those ideal moments where a kid feels a sense of connection to the world and its issues doesn't happen every day, so when they do I make note of it. This week's moment of student relevance with regard to the materials economy came about when we started discussing the Democratic Republic of Congo and a material called coltan.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, but before this week I had never heard of coltan. I suppose it is a reflection of my own privilege that I've never heard of a material that is an essential part in the functionality of cell phones and microchips. I've always had access to technology, its presence is a given, and therefore where it comes from has been an "out of sight, out of mind" sort of experience. It turns out coltan is a mineral that is heavily mined in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Specifically it comes from a region near Kivu. Near the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

You also notice that this isn't just an issue for one country, there are great deal of countries extracting similar minerals across the Central African region.

So I can imagine what you are thinking at this point, "Oh the students must have found relevance in this issue because coltan is in their phones!" Yes, and mostly no. What really got to my students was the statistic quoted in The Story of Stuff that as of 2007, when the video was made, "The Democratic Republic of Congo has faced a student dropout rate of 30%." It was the concept that 30% of kids in the DRC had dropped out of school to take on jobs in the coltan mines. Kids half a world away had paid with their futures and the future development of their country so that my students could access Facebook and do their homework. That's what got them.

But don't just take my word for it, here's a video about the coltan mining industry in the DRC:

In class we call the cost of something not included in the sticker price of an item for sale, e.g. a cellphone, an externality. If that externality does harm to society it is a negative externality if it creates a benefit it is a positive externality. We discussed what negative impacts were created by the coltan mining industry in the DRC (lack of education, unsafe/unfair working conditions, health, etc.). We talked about what a "positive" version of this industry might look like (fair trade, fair wages, an end to child labor, proper safety equipment, etc.). In the larger context of the materials economy everything comes back to the price of the good. In other words how do externalities impact the price that consumers pay. The students were shocked by the reality that negative externalities yield cheaper production and as a result a cheaper cellphone or computer for them. This raised what I like to call the "consumer's dilemma", consumption represents a choice--what do you want to support with your money?

My students are a lot like me in that they have privilege. They haven't known hunger or poverty. Technology is a given in their lives, and coltan is a relative unknown. My hope for this unit on consumption is that they face their privilege, recognize and understand their role in the materials economy, and consider the potential of their actions as consumers.

No comments:

Post a Comment