The aluminum pan you cooked your egg in this morning began as a bauxite deposit in a mountain in Jamaica. The cinnamon on your toast was once the bark of a tree in Sri Lanka—not a cinnamon tree, either. The cut flowers on your table? From Colombia.
Start questioning where everyday things come from, James Ridgeway tells us in It’s All for Sale, and often you will get a surprisingly simple answer. Behind the scenes of it all, he says, a small group of private companies governs trade of the world’s materials. Five companies control the flow of petroleum. Four corporations reign over the grain trade. Three each dominate timber, uranium, and tea. Two lead the way on fresh water and coffee, while one each runs diamonds and cigarettes.
Ridgeway, the veteran Washington correspondent for the Voice, traces the journey made by many of the natural materials we depend on. The book is organized by resource. For each item, he sums up how its market developed, where in the world it comes from, and who controls the business now.
Across the chapters, Ridgeway’s preoccupied with compiling all the tactics that mega-corporations use to keep their invisible role supplying us. They take over an entire supply chain. They underreport reserves of exhaustible resources and overstate demand, inducing the public to fixate on shortages. (The natural-gas industry once failed to report to regulators 8.8 trillion cubic feet of fuel.) Less cleverly, they pay off military strongmen, hire mercenary armies, and exploit labor.
People have long used violence and operated in bad faith to lock up vital goods, and Ridgeway has looked at the specifics industry by industry before. This book expands and updates his Who Owns the Earth? (1980), which was based on a natural-resources newsletter he edited, The Elements. A quarter-century later, not that much has changed among the core industrial-revolution items. Natural gas has taken on a larger role and coal use has doubled. He has added discussions of water (“the commodity that we most take for granted”), flowers, slavery, cadavers, body parts, oceans, sky, and genetics.
The emergence of these new types of merchandise from formerly free entities does not inspire Ridgeway to any grand explanation beyond companies’ competitive desire for profit. Still, that explains a lot: Some of the most sprawling of the conglomerates are trying to make money from the new products. Bechtel Corporation and Vivendi Universal, for instance, are now selling fresh water to governments.
By laying out our possessions’ material origins, the book should earn a place in homes next to other popular reference works like The Book of Lists. Ridgeway offers a canon of information that anyone might want to know and teach their kids. Plus, his book is skimmable, good to pick up for short sittings. (You could keep it in the bathroom.) Memorable factoids abound: Pepper accounts for one-quarter of the world spice trade. Sales of jewelry claim almost one-quarter of all dollars spent in the U.S.A. on retail goods. One-third of fish eaten in the industrialized world come from aquatic farms. And most cinnamon in the U.S. comes from cassia, a related plant.
Broad popularity is a long shot, though. For one thing, It’s All for Sale educates better than it entertains. Unlike the 1980 version, and many bestselling popular-reference books, it lacks illustrations or graphics. More frustrating is its inefficient provision of essential information. In many chapters, readers must dig to learn how the particular material figures into our average U.S. lives, whether we truly need it and whether alternatives exist, and even who controls its supply. As inevitably happens in a survey book, Ridgeway omits subjects that deserve entry. He fails, for instance, to look at coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones and laptop computers. It often is illegally mined and smuggled. Also, the book could use an index, or at least a chart, to keep track of the corporate giants it features.
Like The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Ridgeway’s book condenses knowledge of specific information essential to our culture—and which few discuss. A book that performs such a fundamental service deserves to be updated more often than every 25 years. Next time, its presentation should be even more elementary.