Backward Journeys

A recent BBC story gives us a tour of “hell on Earth.” “Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia,” says the reporter. “This is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes.”

The reporter is traveling with Unknown Fields, a team of architects and designers that explores dystopian landscapes of globalized trade and industry. In its current project, the team undertakes what it calls the “unmaking of an object,” focusing on high-tech electronic devices and the rare earth minerals they contain, which are industrially processed in Baotou at terrible cost to the environment. The team’s film on these rare earth minerals “documents their voyage in reverse from container ships and ports, wholesalers and factories, back to the banks of a barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia, pumped with tailings from the refining process.”


Baotou tailings lake. Liam Young/Unknown Fields

Unknown Fields’ “voyage in reverse” seems an ironic rejoinder to the Fair Trade and ethical sourcing movements, which allow first-world consumers to trace their goods back up the supply line to responsibly-managed factories and sustainable farms. Or such might be the case, were Fair Trade and “ethical” sourcing not themselves unwittingly ironic. At worst, the sourcing movements enable complacent consumerism; at best, they address only local problems. After all, one may well build ethical trade links here and there, but capital’s broader outsourcing logic invariably dictates expropriation and environmental despoliation. The problem is systemic, as a recent UN report soberly admits; even as they advocate sustainability programs and initiatives, the report’s authors underscore the fact that “efforts to promote new sustainable ways of living are vastly out-scaled” in a world of “pro-consumption policies” and “pro-consumer marketing.” Sourcing, then, is a mere symptom of outsourcing, a reformist’s crisis of conscience; there is no way to reform a system predicated on expendable landscapes and disposable lives, as seen in Baotou, “the worst place on Earth.”

How to tell the story of these contradictions? How make sense of the interplay of sourcing and outsourcing, of the endless journeys back and forth of our everyday goods, our hapless wishes and predatory needs? In a famous scene from Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, traumatized by war and “unstuck in time,” happens to catch a late-night film on the TV. In Billy’s time-addled state, storylines are mutable; he sees the film “backwards, then forwards again.”* The narration of the film in reverse is a marvel of sustained irony:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in poor repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again (93-4).

Like Unknown Fields’ “voyage in reverse,” Vonnegut’s backward journey leads us to workers in a mineral-refining factory. “Touchingly,” the author tells us, “it was mainly women who did this work.” Vonnegut’s poignant scene is only so, of course, because all actions and meanings are inverted. But what exactly is the converse of “touching,” Vonnegut’s carefully chosen word?

The BBC reporter who guides our tour of Baotou tells us that one rare earth mineral processed there, cerium, has a very important commercial application: it’s used to polish the touchscreens of tablets and smartphones.

This blog post is perhaps best viewed on such a device.


Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

*Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York: Dial Press, 2009), 93.

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Filed under Critical Ecology, Fiction

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