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September 29, 2010

Aunti Lek, as most people call her, scavenges through the streets and lanes of Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok looking for discarded paper, plastic, aluminum and other items that can be recycled. She loads this “garbage” into her cart and when it is full goes to a local collection station where she can sell it all by the pound. The small amount of money she earns each day is barely enough to pay for food for herself, her mentally challenged daughter and her husband. Several years ago her husband was injured in an accident at the factory where he worked as a floor sweeper and now he stays at home while Aunti Lek makes her rounds trying to support the family alone. If she misses one day of work there will be no food on the table. Life is very difficult for Aunti Lek and her small family but they get by because they live as squatters in a vacant lot so do not need to pay rent. They have no electricity but can get water from a nearby tap at a very cheap price.

There are many Aunti Leks in the world and their struggles to survive go on every day and every night. Our lives are closely connected to their lives even though we are not even aware of their existence. Unfortunately in this globalized world, what we do or do not do can have a serious impact on the ability of people like Aunti Lek to eat, go to school, get medical care or simply get a drink of water. Aunti Lek’s story illustrates this.

When Aunti Lek’s cart is full of used paper, she sells it for a few cents to a local collecting station. This money will help buy a few vegetables and rice for the family’s evening meal. The local collecting station then sells the paper to a nearby recycling factory which sorts it and bales it for export to China where it is sold to another factory that converts all of the scraps of paper into cardboard. The cardboard is sold to yet another factory that produces cardboard boxes.

These boxes are purchased by a toy factory in which to pack the toys they export to companies in America like Wal-Mart. We purchase those toys for our children on their birthdays or at Christmas. Thus our purchase of a child’s toy made in China helps provide a few small coins to people like Aunti Lek so they can eat a simple meal with their families.

When the economy in the United States faces a crisis, as it does now, Americans will buy fewer toys for their children which means that the toy company in China can make fewer exports. Consequently they need fewer cardboard boxes which means the box factory needs less cardboard. The final result, on down the line, is that there is less demand for the scrap paper Aunti Lek is able to collect and so either the price for each pound of paper goes down, or the local collector simply no longer wants to buy it. Either way, Aunti Lek is left without the small income she needs to purchase food and so her family goes hungry until she finds some other means of income.

Globalization has connected us in ways we are not always aware of. While globalization may have brought some good things to us, the fact that capitalism is at the heart of economic globalization has meant that people in some distant and hidden slum in Bangkok will suffer if we do not continue buying things. We are caught in a cycle in which we have to keep buying more and more to keep our own economy afloat as well as to keep Aunti Lek and family fed. If our purchasing of new stuff stops, or even slows down, the economic pinch is felt as far back as a poor woman in a slum in Bangkok. We are enslaved by the consumerism that now permeates our global community.

Our liberation from this destructive slavery can only come when we seek to build an economic system based on justice and equality, for we cannot continue to increase our consumption of the world’s resources without finally destroying all of our communities. As our lives are now so closely connected to the Aunti Leks of the world we need to work together with them to help identify and build a globalized society that does not depend on a need for constantly growing purchasing needs. Perhaps a good place to start would be to explore more deeply what kind of community the early church was trying to create when they were “…united as one-one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, ‘That’s mine; you can’t have it.’ They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.” (Acts 4: 32-33)

Printed in PeaceSigns e-magazine January 20, 2009 –

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010 12:05 pm

    Great reflection Max. We’ve been exploring similar themes at Mustard Seed Associates. Susan also taught a class last spring using the book, “Everyday Justice”, for the textbook – went really well and impacted many of the students and even a few parents! Keep up the good work my brother, and stop by for coffee some time!

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