Many of the most successful recent works of nonfiction read like … fiction. These books use the same literary strategies and techniques found in novels and short stories: vivid scene setting, rich character development, artful dialogue, poetic prose and a carefully crafted narrative or, in some cases, multiple intertwining narratives. They tell stories and take readers on an extraordinary, immersive and affective journey.
Many also adopt the methods and approaches associated with the New Journalism: a personal voice. An explicit point of view. They’re written in the first person and deftly weave the writer’s personal experiences and subjective opinions into the narrative.
These books rest on extensive research and intensive reporting, less for a scholarly purpose than for advocacy. While they seek to inform, they also strive to make an impact that is policy minded, but also emotional.
Case in point: Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. It’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness redux. It’s also Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost set not in the late 19th century but in our time, with the Belgian monarch replaced by Apple, Samsung, Tesla and other purveyors of cutting-edge technologies. Here, we witness the human and environmental costs of the green transition as experienced by the descendants of the very same people previously exploited by the slave trade, the ivory trade, the palm oil trade, the rubber trade and the gold and blood diamond trades.
No reader, I think, can walk away from Kara’s book without repeating Conrad’s lament—“The horror. The horror.”—and asking how in the 21st century such barbarisms can recur.
Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Kennedy School, combines reportage and history to produce an account “written with lightning.”
Here, we see firsthand how the global supply chain functions for those at the very bottom, where the cobalt essential for rechargeable batteries is mined. Leading corporations rely on a succession of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and other intermediaries until one reaches the “artisanal” miners, thousands of whom are actual minors who help support their families on as little as a dollar or two a day, using picks and shovels, without any protective gear, breathing toxic cobalt dust, exposed to lead and radioactive uranium, threatened by violence and drinking water contaminated with hydrofluoric and sulfuric acid. All this “almost entirely invisible to the outside world.”
Readers must steel themselves for descriptions like this one:
“Imagine a mountain of gravel and stone just avalanching down on people, crushing legs and arms, spines. I met people whose legs had been amputated, who had metal bars in where their legs used to be. And then the worst of all is what happens in tunnel digging. There are probably 10,000 to 15,000 tunnels that are dug by hand by artisanal miners. None of them have supports, ventilation shafts, rock bolts, anything like that. And these tunnels collapse all the time, burying alive everyone who is down there, including children.”
Despite its illegality, the subcontracting system persists, not just because it boosts production, but because the desperately poor need an income, however paltry. The practical effect of this system is to erase accountability by making it extraordinarily difficult to monitor adherence to applicable laws and regulations.
Nor is the problem confined to the Democratic Republic of Congo (whose total “national budget in 2021 was a scant $7.2 billion, similar to the state of Idaho, which has one-fiftieth the population”—despite the tens of billions of dollars that its minerals generate).
The mining of minerals needed to support the transition to clean energy—copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, tantalum, tungsten, uranium and more—extends from Brazil and Chile to Mozambique and Russia and beyond and involves upward of 45 million artisanal miners, who produce roughly 25 percent of the world’s tin and gold, 20 percent of diamonds, 80 percent of sapphires, and 30 percent of cobalt.
Kara’s book raises questions about culpability that deserve far more attention than they currently receive. First of all, who, we must ask, is at fault? The multinational corporations that use cobalt and that claim to subscribe to fair labor standards in developing countries? The Chinese firms that mine, purchase, process and refine cobalt? Corrupt local and national officials? Nongovernmental organizations tasked with ensuring enforcement of international human rights norms and zero-tolerance child labor policies? The U.S. government, for its role in the overthrow, torture and execution of former prime minister Patrice Lumumba? Or the consumers who demand state-of-the-art technologies at an affordable price?
Second, is it fair to impose the norms of wealthy countries on the poor? Is 18 a magic number for adulthood? Given the lack of alternative sources of employment, how can we best help those who find themselves trapped in a system of debt bondage?
As the writer who goes by the pseudonym Unemployed Northeastern pointed out to me by email, something similar “happens onshore from time to time.” Two fairly recent examples: after Hurricane Katrina, Signal International brought workers from India to repair damaged oil drilling equipment with the promise of green cards. The Alabama company charged the workers $10,000 apiece (in violation of this country’s guest worker program) and “also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer.”
Several years later, it was revealed that tomato pickers in Immokalee in south Florida, who harvest a third of this country’s tomato crop, worked 12 hours a day without shade or water or a standard wage, with some “held in the back of U-Haul trucks and chained to the sides of the walls.”
In a classic 1977 essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist, offers a critical reading of what is almost certainly the most widely read account of the effects of European colonialism upon sub-Saharan Africa. Conrad, Achebe wrote, “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” The novella portrayed the African people as dark in a moral, philosophical and psychological sense—as mysterious, primitive and impenetrable—and therefore stripped these individuals of their humanity and agency.
The most horrific forms of exploitation persist precisely because the more “advanced” parts of the world regard some people as less than fully human.
Two decades ago, the Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare dealt with a theme somewhat similar to Kara’s. That alarming 2004 documentary also unmasked the devastating social and environmental consequences of globalization for some of the globe’s poorest people: the Tanzanians who live along the banks of Lake Victoria.
As the film shows, the introduction of the Nile perch into the lake in the 1960s as a scientific experiment touched off an ecological catastrophe. The perch, regarded as a delicacy in Europe, eradicated 200 other kinds of marine life that had previously flourished in the water and had provided food and a livelihood for the people who lived nearby. The workers, who perform the dangerous work of catching and gutting the fish, are too poor to buy the fish themselves and must subsist on discarded and toxic fish carcasses. Meanwhile, the cargo planes that carry the fish fillets to Europe return filled with arms, fueling the region’s violence.
In no sense a screed or polemic, this grimly poetic film offers a graphic portrait of the Conradian nightmare that globalization wrought for those people who receive none of its benefits.
Did that film make a difference? No. Just maybe, however, it helped contribute to greater awareness of the costs of progress.
Some will no doubt call Kara’s book and the Sauper documentary poverty porn that exploits the suffering of impoverished people or claim that such works reinforce damaging and destructive stereotypes about sub-Saharan Africa. I strongly disagree. Only by confronting stomach-wrenching realities head-on can we possibly be moved to act collectively to put an end to such horrors.
In 1914, E. D. Morel, the French-born British journalist who helped bring Belgian abuses in the Congo to public attention, described the task facing reformers: “to convince the world that this Congo horror was not only and unquestionably a fact; but that it was not accidental or temporary or capable of internal cure … To demonstrate that it was at once a survival and a revival of the … of the slave-trade …” True then. Still true now.
There’s a tendency to view the greening of industry as an absolute moral good, not just for the environment, but for workers, too. Let’s not delude ourselves by whitewashing the costs.
As my “Higher Ed Gamma” partner Michael Rutter noted, “Every time a Tesla goes by … an MIT faculty member said emphatically during a tech forum, we should ask, why the hell didn’t we buy more buses, build more subways. It is utterly crazy. You are strapping ‘clean’ technology onto a completely inefficient and broken model: One sole person driving around in a $80,000 car to go a few miles. What the hell are we doing? This is not a technology problem …”
If our institutions are to live up to their pretensions of producing graduates with global understanding, then one small step would be to have them read books like Kara’s or Hochschild’s or Achebe’s and introduce them to films like Darwin’s Nightmare.
As the beneficiaries of technological progress, we bear a collective responsibility to address the costs that our way of life inflicts on the world’s most vulnerable people. We mustn’t blind our eyes to those at the supply chain’s depths. No ifs, ands or buts.