Closeup of a large black dog watching a fly crawl along a windowsill

Where Life is Cheap

Published 2007-01-28

Last night, Jenny and I were in the kitchen washing dishes when we both smelled something burning. So we started looking around the kitchen: along the stove, at plugs, etc., looking for a short, or for something pressed up against a hot burner/toaster/microwave, etc. I stepped into the living room to find that my sleeping bag was on fire.

We had been watching TV while we were eating, and Bismarck was wrapped up in my sleeping bag. (Our apartment, as with most buildings, is not heated, so when we’re at home we usually keep our two space heaters running, and wrap ourselves up in our expensive REI down sleeping bags.) Apparently B had jumped off the couch, dragging the sleeping bag with him. It had caught on the front of our small-but-powerful open-element space heater. There’s a steel grille in front of the element, but it usually gets too hot to touch. So the sleeping bag had melted onto the heater and the feathers had ignited. The apartment was filling with a pale bluish smoke.

I kicked the bag and heater out onto the balcony where the cold air quickly put out the fire. We rushed around the apartment to open all the windows and air the place out. It smelled like melted nylon and burning geese. So, altogether, crisis averted. If we’d have waited another minute or two before checking on the burning smell, it’s likely the rug or curtain would have caught fire, and we’d have had a much bigger problem to deal with. But that didn’t happen, so all’s well that ends well.

This episode points out, in a subtle way, how very cheap human life is in China. First, there’s no way you could buy a heater like this in the First World. It’s simply too dangerous: basically a hotplate set vertically with a steel grille in front of it. Second, our apartment, like every other building in China, has no fire alarm, fire escapes, or smoke detectors. We do have a fire hose out in the hallway, so we’re not totally defenseless I suppose.

Chinese construction workers frequently work without helmets, in their flip flops, fifteen or twenty stories up, without guylines. Our school has no fire alarm or evacuation plans. No one wears bicycle helmets, ever. Seatbelts in taxicabs are usually non-functional. Buildings are constructed without seismic reinforcement, or fire escapes, or often even stairways. This is not because Chinese people have a reckless regard for their own safety. I think it’s symptomatic of a larger social attitude in a place where the one resource in abundance is human beings. If a construction worker plunges to his doom, or severs his foot, or suffers a traumatic head injury...well, there are literally half a billion other men waiting to take his place. (This also explains, indirectly, why Chinese labor is so inefficient. Efficiency is only necessary when labor is expensive.)

Every so often I read a piece on the Internet about movements in wealthy countries against genetically-modified lettuce, or computer monitor radiation, or mercury in vaccines, or fluoridated water. If these are the gravest dangers you face, consider yourself lucky. The Chinese people are collectively grateful for sewage treatment and anaesthesia. The wealthy ones can afford cars with seat belts. All of them breathe air that would be illegal in North America or Europe, and drink water that we’d consider unpotable. Their daily lives would be considered unacceptably risky in our world; the lowest U.S. sweatshop is safer and better-run than most Chinese businesses.

And, globally speaking, the Chinese are the lucky ones. My salary at the school, which I was told is a “high local salary” is US$4500/year. According to the Global Rich List, I’m among the top 14.5% richest people in the world. At my last job in the U.S. (a pretty typical office job), I was in the top 0.88%.

There’s no big message here. I don’t want my friends in Oregon to quit eating eggs from cage-free chickens or shopping at American Apparel. Neither do I want them to sell their cars and live in boxes. I can only speak about my own, limited experience: I live at the top of the global totem pole. I come from a society of such unaccustomed luxury that the largest physical dangers I faced were related to how many carcinogens I could avoid. This was not due to any decision I ever made or any skill I ever possessed; I just won a lottery when I was born. I’m grateful for winning that lottery, and I try to keep a sense of perspective about it. My Oregon lifestyle choices (bicycle commuting, sustainably-raised organic produce, sweatshop-free clothing) weren’t saving the world, and they weren’t making me appreciably healthier. Their primary benefits were not material, but psychological. I’m not belittling those benefits, but I do try to keep them in perspective.

Sharon Astyk at the Energy Bulletin summed my attitude rather nicely in her essay, the Theory of Anyway.