Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Equivalent Exchange.

Paul and I love an anime series called Fullmetal Alchemist, and we watched it a couple of years ago. It has a lot of wonderful complexities and fabulous characters. I like it better than all the day-time television shows we've sampled (Lost, Heroes, 24, The 4400). These alchemists in the story believe in the concept of equivalent exchange. They have the power to take a bunch of loose materials and make them into something-- the idea is that you could rearrange the structure of the materials (if you have them in the correct amounts) and nothing would be lost. Two young boys try to recreate life in this way, and it doesn't quite work out as they expect. As the series progresses, they learn that there is no such thing as equivalent exchange. Everything has to come from somewhere, and no matter what your intentions, you never quite get back in equivalent amounts what you have given. Eventually they learn that even the very power of alchemy that they so cherish comes at the cost of human suffering and death.

I was thinking of Fullmetal Alchemist yesterday when I watched a video in my Anthropology class. It was about the coffee trade. The consumers of coffee the world over have no idea where their coffee comes from or how the retailers that they buy from exploit those who grow the coffee. The peoples of Ethiopia depend completely on the revenues they earn from the coffee they grow. They literally have no other crops and no way to feed themselves except to buy exported foods. They are at the mercy of the global economy and literally starve to death if people don't buy their coffee. The corporate giants who purchase their coffee pay them $0.12 for the same amount of coffee they sell for $320! (You know SOMEBODY'S pocket it getting lined...) These people are so poor, too, that they live 15 people to a tiny one-bedroom house and they can't send their little children to school. The plain facts presented in the film were disturbing and undeniable. They work hard from sunup to sundown without the promise that they will have food the next day. It's exploitation in the extreme.

I'd like to comfort myself by saying that I've never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. While that is true, I know that the story of coffee is just one of so many. In cozy, comfortable modern America, we never stop to wonder where our comforts come from. Who makes my shoes or sews my clothing together? When I buy something for $15, it was probably made in another country by workers being paid just a few cents. I feel like I'm living in the Fullmetal Alchemist world, learning how all the things I enjoy come at a high cost. There really is no such thing as equivalent exchange.