| an instant history of an almost obsolete city

ALANG has become a metaphor in the crucial struggle of our time -- that
between the First World and the Third, the rich and the poor. Beneath
our perspectives on a shrinking world lurks an opposing reality, hidden
in the poverty of places like South Asia, of a world that is becoming
larger -- and unmanageably so. Do we share a global ecology? On a
certain level it's obvious that we do, and that therefore, at last, a
genuine scientific argument can be made for the imposition of Western
knowledge. But making this argument is difficult, full of political risk
and the opportunity for self-delusion. In practice, the world is as much
a human construct as a natural one. The people who inhabit it have such
radically different experiences in life that it can be almost surprising
that they share the same air. This is inherently hard to accept from a
distance. Too often we have a view of what is desirable for some other
part of the world which is so detached from daily existence there that
it becomes counterproductive, or even inhumane. Alang is a typical case.
Resentful Indians kept saying to me, "You had your industrial
revolution, and so we should have ours." I kept suggesting in return
that history is not so symmetrical. But of course they knew that
already, and viewed Alang with more complexity than they could express
to me, and were using a simplified argument they felt I might
understand. On the ship-scrapping beach at Chittagong, in Bangladesh, I
met an angry man who took the simplest approach. He said, "You are
sitting on top of the World Trade Center, sniffing fresh air, and
talking about it. You don't know anything."

He was angry about the West's presumptuousness and its strength. He was
angry about people like Claire Tielens, at Greenpeace. When I talked to
Tielens in Amsterdam, she was unyielding about Greenpeace's demands. She
said, "Ships should not be scrapped in Asia unless they are
decontaminated and they don't contain toxic materials. New ships should
be built in such a way that they can be scrapped safely -- so without
hazardous materials if possible. The export of toxin-containing ships
from Western countries to developing countries should be stopped. And if
possible, ships should be cleaned throughout their lifetime. If they
export clean steel, that's fine with us."

I said, "But ships will always contain toxic wastes. Is it economically
possible to ..."

"'Economically'? Well, of course that's a very flexible term."