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‘My Dollar Does What?’ Anthropology department brings ‘consumerism and ethics in our world today’ to UNH

By Spenser Ogden
Contributing Writer
Thursday afternoon in the Huddleston Ballroom, students were challenged to contemplate the moral ramifications of their purchases in the current climate of American consumerism.
The event “My Dollar Does What?  Consumerism and Ethics in the World Today” was sponsored by the University of New Hampshire anthropology department, and consisted of three speakers who imparted the gathered audience of students and teachers with their own professional experiences in ethics and consumerism.
The three featured speakers were Sarah Besky, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Michigan, José E. Martínez-Reyes, an associate professor from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Lyn Tjon Soei Len, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Amsterdam.
“The overall aim of the series was to add historical and cross-cultural depth to our community’s discussions of issues surrounding wealth, prosperity and how we frame notions of living a good or ethical life,” said Stephen Trzaskoma, a professor of classics and humanities at UNH.
One emphasized point of concern was the relationship between plantations and their workers, who frequently perform taxing physical labor for little pay without any overture to ensure fair compensation.
“Fair trade systems have no ability to regulate wages,” said Besky.  “No matter what plantations set prices at, wages remain the same.”
“Workers are not the ones calling for fair trade,” continued  Besky.  “In fact, many workers do not even know what fair trade is.”
According to Besky, this presents challenges of its own because of how many Americans are strongly attached to their products, even things as simple as tea and sugar.
“Even though we don’t need these things, we need these things,” Besky said.
If it’s unrealistic to expect Americans to play the roles of moral arbiters in a market that encourages consumerism, then one other possible outlet could be legal intervention, according to the hosts of the event.
“[One way] of preventing the negative implications of our actions is to prohibit them by law,” Soei Len said.  “For example, in some places, it is illegal to buy guns or child porn because of the adverse effects on others.”
According to Soei Len, differentiating between the direct and the indirect – as it relates to the consequences our actions have on others – can be a challenge to Americans.
While Americans can more clearly recognize the way gun trade poses a threat to their personal safety, the negative consequences of purchasing tea or sugar are difficult to reconcile without a nuanced understanding of the labor practices used to manufacture it.
“Consumption is usually viewed as a way to create economic growth, and in a liberal society we view consumption as private,” Soei Len said.  “[But what we often don’t know] is that our actions of buying things sustain operations we might oppose.”
The symposium ended with a question and answer segment which, according to Trzaskoma, was imperative to moving the dialogue forward, even if it meant acknowledging seemingly immovable conundrums.
“The back-and-forth revealed even more of the complexity that surrounds these issues,” said Trzaskoma.  “But that is exactly what we were hoping for – a serious conversation about matters for which there are no easy answers.”

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