Quills & Queues: 'Confessions of an Eco-Sinner'

I have to admit to picking up "Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff" more out of a sense of duty than with a feeling of anticipation.

Author Fred Pearce was obviously feeling guilty when he researched and wrote the book, and since, like him, I use stuff, he was probably going to take me along on his 110,000 mile guilt-trip, too.

And he did. Pearce travels close to his home in England and across the globe as he finds out where raw materials come from, who is putting together his stuff and where it all goes when he is finished with it.

He writes that he undertook the journey "to find out whether I should be ashamed of my purchases and their impact on the planet, or whether I should be proud to have contributed to some local economy or given a leg up to some hard-pressed community."

Pearce quickly discovers how hard it is to do the right think as a consumer in the Western world. He travels to Mount Kilimanjaro to find the source of his fair-trade coffee.

Coffee growers there grumble about how fair-trade buyers pay $1.46 — 20 cents more than the international market price — for a pound of their coffee beans. Yet the beans, marked with a fair-trade label to appeal to conscientious consumers, are sold for $12 a pound in England.

The coffee farmers struggle to send their kids to school, their roofs leak and they can't afford to replant old coffee bushes.

In Indonesia, Pearce learns that the country plans to convert 5 million acres of rainforest into palm oil plantations in response to growing demand for biodiesel.

As in Ashland, there is a movement in England for people to eat more locally grown food. Pearce laments that green beans that were once grown in England are now flown in from Kenya.

The deceptively named English company Homegrown buys the beans from about a thousand small farmers in Kenya.

Pearce visits these Kenyan farmers and discovers that Homegrown pays them twice the going local rate. Young people are returning to the land to become farmers because of the good prices. He meets Margaret, who is putting her five children through school and bought a goat with her Homegrown earnings.

"As a result of what I saw on my trip, I decided to start eating more Kenyan beans," Pearce writes.

As for recycling, Pearce discovers it has a dark side.

He visits a network of alleys outside Delhi where adults and children are recycling computer parts. Ten-year-old Rajesh, wearing rubber gloves but no protective goggles or mask, breathes in caustic fumes as he stands on tip-toe to dunk circuit boards in barrels of acid to strip off the valuable copper.

But in Nairobi, Computers for Schools Kenya doesn't strip down computers into parts and metals. Instead, old computers are refurbished. Thousands have been delivered to more than 300 Kenyan schools. Pearce decides to donate the old computers he has stored in his loft to the program.

All in all, "Confessions of an Eco-Sinner" presents stories from around the world that are bound to bewilder any consumer who is trying to do the right thing from a social and environmental perspective. Does Pearce have any advice to help people sift through the information? Basically, keep trying. He notes that "we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good."

I would add that it's not productive to wallow in guilt, and conversely, when we want to congratulate ourselves for our meticulous recycling or for buying local, we should be careful not to feel too self-righteous.

"Confessions of an Eco-Sinner" is available in the new books section of the Ashland Public Library or through bookstores.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

Share This Story