New Internationalist

Cotton

Issue 399

As part of the preparation for doing this issue I travelled to India.

As part of the preparation for doing this issue I travelled to India. It is a commonplace about NI editors that when you make a trip like this, the place you go to always seems so much richer and more complex than your previous understandings. The world feels flattened and ‘de-peopled’ by all but the best of journalistic treatments. With India I found this true in spades. India is reduced to a series of clichés – Indian exotica, the ‘New India’ created by market magic, India and the War on Terror, Bollywood glitz and squatter poverty. I found India such a complicated and fascinating place, with an historical and cultural depth to it that I despaired of ever being able to understand – even if I had several lifetimes to do so.

The same could be said for cotton. Seemed simple enough at the outset – you plant it, harvest it, process it, sell it and wear it. Sure, as the song goes: ‘The rich get rich and the poor poorer.’ It’s our job at the NI to expose how that happens. But, again, so much more complicated: different types of cotton; the intimate relationship between cotton and technology; its cultural importance (particularly in India); the intricacies of trade politics; the eco-consequences of growing and of not growing cotton. It makes the head spin.

So, if he is flummoxed by all this complexity, why doesn’t he find another line of work? Good question. I comfort myself with the thought that starting by admitting complexity is the best way of avoiding being a ‘know-it-all’ simpleton. Then at least you can move the questions that need to be asked to a level where it is harder for those who have the power to avoid answering them. It’s a kind of provocation. That’s what I have tried to do here.

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