I've been reading 'Coal - A Human History' recently. It's a fascinating look at the profound impact coal has - and is still going to have - on our history. Used as a soft jewelry stone by the romans, it was only later taken up as fuel in London because of the rapidly retreating forests which were being decimated for fuel. The accounts of the horrendous air quality that this uncontrolled coal burning caused are incredible: everything was covered in soot, and the death records suggest that lung problems were the main killer of the time. Things weren't helped by the mad science that suggested that coal fumes cleansed the air of the miasmas that caused the plague.
When the Industrial Revolution exploded in Manchester in the early 1800's, coal was literally the driving force. James Watt's coal-powered steam engine allowed both the efficient draining of mines to allow greater depths to be mined, and huge factories to be mechanised too. What has shocked me about the book are the accounts of the conditions in which the first generation of the 'working class' lived. Having only recently left their fields, where they had no clocks or time-schedules to keep, they were plunged into 24-hour shift work in the most appalling conditions. Children were sent to work in the factories or mines as soon as they were able. One account tells of an 8 year old girl whose job it was to open and shut the traps in the mines to prevent the build-up of dangerous gases. She did this for 13 hours at a stretch in pitch black, alone for the vast majority of it, saying she was too scared to sing to herself for comfort. One commission on the problem described things thus:
"Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet, and more than half-naked - crawling on their hands and feet, dragging their heavy loads behind them - they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural"
Unsurprisingly, life expectancy was very low. The smoke from the innumerable chimneys meant that the sun rarely penetrated into the ranks of slum-terraces built to house the workers. Well over half of children born did not survive beyond 5, a figure half that of those left in rural labour. When the coal-boom hit the US years later, things were not that much different, and miners were treated extremely badly.
The question this has left me with is this: do cities have to go through a period of exploitation in order to develop? As we look on in horror at child labour practices in other developing countries, and recoil in shock at the horrific conditions in which children have to live and work - whether it be in mining or sweat-shops or on dumps - we perhaps forget that we were doing exactly the same only 150 years ago. Can we expect them to do any different, or is this impulse to exploit innate?
Off to Spain for a birthday party tomorrow. Looking forward to catching up with Jonny and others. As I was going round London Bridge getting some Super8 stock and wondering where my sunglasses and suncream might be, I was thinking over a kid's RE book I'd had to assess yesterday. In a section on Islam, they'd written a nice piece about modesty, and how many in Islam consider Western dress - and the beach is perhaps the finest example of this - to be totally immodest.
So it got me thinking... Should we dress modestly? Ought Christians be flouting flesh left, right and centre? Or is it just prudish and sexually repressed to cover up a little? And are there gender imbalances implicit in the arguments proposed on both sides?
There's been a lot of media attention given to Bono's initiative 'Brand Red' recently. The Independent is edited by him today (nice cover by Damien Hirst). And yesterday saw the launch of a Motorola phone which, when bought, gives £10 to development charities, and, when used, gives 5% of call charges too.
I have to say I'm sceptical. I like Bono. I think his heart is right in the right place. But I wonder if those eyes have seen through expensive shades for too long, if he's just spent too much time among the glitterati, and whether this Red idea is simply the commodification of poverty.
As you know, I'm a fan of the concept of 'gift', and this idea seems to me to be anti-gift. We buy the phone because we are buying into a brand. Not because we really care. If the only way we can get people to help those in dire need is to have to offer them something cool in return for their pennies, then I think there's something very wrong.
"The best way to make a contribution in fashion is to promote the idea that a fundamental interest in preserving the environment is itself fashionable."
I disagree. If environmentalism, or aid, is simply a fashion statement, it will go out of fashion like bell bottoms and floral shirts. And this is the problem. Brand Red is a brand. And the companies involved are involved to make money, not to give it away. The want to align themselves to something that is 'cool'. If Armani was serious, he'd fundamentally change his business practice. He'd rather window dress.
I'm not sure starving children or aids orphans want to be seen as cool. They don't want people buying more clothes and mobiles so a cut of the profits can go to them. They want you to not buy the damn thing, be happy with what you have and give them the lot.
"If a man has two shirts, he should buy another one, Brand Red, and give the profits to the poor." No. Give the poor the other damn shirt.
Ever get racked with doubts? Just want to call the whole thing off, writethe last post, become a labourer on a building site, or something simple, and never think again, just watch soaps and drink too much and love Christmas and keep upgrading my phone and blow the whole lot on a HD ready plasma?
But it's doubtless best to keep it quiet. Write in white; only the RSSers will know. And lurkers will have to wipe their mice before they see, and leave. With no comment.
The blog is well worth visiting if you're interested in emergence and complexity; on it he links to this amazing video - screenshot shown - of the paths of FedEx's planes landing at Memphis airport during a thunderstorm - watch them scatter when the storm hits! Like ants when you pour boiling water down their holes. Or shouldn't I admit doing that as a kid? ;-)