I enjoy green beans, and the availability of home-grown beans in this country is limited to a very short season; so I often buy them, usually imported from Egypt or Morocco, though I find myself unable to buy Kenyan beans. This arose from when I used to be a regular participant in the Glastonbury Festival, and I have a very clear memory of a glass blower in the Crafts Area, who was entertaining a small crowd by blowing glass (I forget what he was actually making) whilst at the same time talking about green beans from Kenya.
He began by telling us that he had friends in Kenya who were forever being woken up and being kept awake at night by the endless aircraft flying overhead, on their way out of Kenya en route for the rich countries of Europe and North America, planeload after planeload full of Kenyan green beans.
Such air transport is of course a major contributor to global warming, the real cost of which is never built in to the retail price of the beans. It also means that we in Europe and North America can enjoy green beans all the year round – though rather than being encouraged to appreciate this extraordinary luxury, we are actually encouraged to take it for granted and to lose touch with the seasonal cycle of the year and the different seasons’ foodstuffs that are naturally available. We prefer green beans to, say, curly kale or spring greens, and we are able to indulge that preference. Furthermore the beans are usually sold at a ridiculously low price, probably reflecting ridiculously low wages paid to Kenyan bean growers.
But worst of all, the inequalities of the modern global market mean that the Kenyans, whose traditional agriculture has been disrupted in order to provide millions of tons of cash crops for consumption elsewhere, have to export food which is actually needed far more urgently in their own country. The glass blower finished his little performance by saying, on behalf of his Kenyan friends, ‘If you see green beans from Kenya on sale in your local supermarket, please don’t buy them.’
So, for me, the example of green beans from Kenya represents not so much the benefits of globalisation as the inequality, exploitation, lack of awareness and the widespread disconnection from the natural world that are its shadow side. And yes, of course, there is no real difference between buying beans from Kenya and buying them from Egypt or Morocco – I am not pretending to be holier than thou.
I heard the glass blower’s story about fifteen years ago, and I have no doubt that although this shadow has recently become clear in the political sphere with the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the ‘populist’ vote to leave the E.U. in this country, it has actually been operating for far longer than a few months or years.
For do not Donald Trump and others of similar ilk represent – with the polite but dishonest façade of reasonableness rapidly disappearing – precisely the shadow side of our culture that has led to the world-wide economic exploitation and war that has been regarded as the main substance of our history? And, most important of all in the ‘toxic times’ that can no longer be honestly denied, is it not necessary for this shadow to be made visible for what it really is, however unpleasant and dangerous that may become, before there is any real chance of humanity being healed?