5 Huge Problems You Thought Went Away (Definitely Did Not)
Every point in history has featured its own special set of high-profile problems that it seemed like society spent an entire decade or more battling until, one day, we got that shit under control. Like how we used to worry all the time about nuclear reactors melting down and giving us all radiation poisoning, so we stopped pursuing nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels and went back to drinking oil straight from the bottle. Except sometimes, those problems don't actually go away; we just stop talking about them as much for some reason. We talk about a few examples on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Chet Wild and musician Danger Van Gorder. It's also what I'm talking about in this column here today. Let's get it!
Remember conflict diamonds? We sometimes call them blood diamonds because that sounds metal as all get out. Surely you remember that Leonardo DiCaprio made a movie about them, if nothing else. Or maybe I'm wrong and you know next to nothing about anything. If that's the case, the elevator pitch is that conflict/blood diamonds are stones that are sourced from mines that fund armed conflict and various other types of atrocities in Africa.
The problem first received widespread attention when an organization called Global Witness published a report in 1998 about the role diamonds played in a deadly conflict in Angola, which had been raging for an entire decade by that point. In other words, if you got married between 1988 and 1998, your ring probably killed and/or created a child soldier.
Way to go, jerks.
That last part was a joke, but also kind of true, and no one wants that kind of thing on their conscience. Public outcry for the diamond industry to change its ways could not be ignored. So, in 2000, South African diamond-producing states met up in Kimberley, South Africa, to discuss ways to stop the flow of blood diamonds into the legitimate gem market. What they came up with is called the Kimberley Process.
If you look on the "Ethics" page of any diamond retailer these days, you'll see the Kimberley Process mentioned within the first paragraph, guaranteed. You're also likely to read fantastical tales about how the process is responsible for ensuring that, in today's retail diamond market, a whopping 99 percent of the stones are conflict-free.
Nothing breaks up the monotony of a wall of text like a picture of more text.
When it comes to addressing an industry-wide issue, those are pretty impressive results. Unfortunately, those results are a total sham.
You see, there's a fairly ridiculous flaw (ha) in the Kimberley Process. Basically, any diamond that isn't used to fund the rebel side of an armed conflict is considered clean. In other words, if you're the head of a brutal African dictatorship and you want to fund your atrocities through the diamond trade, that's perfectly fine. The aforementioned Global Witness pulled out of the Kimberley Process after the decision was made to certify diamonds from the Marange region of Zimbabwe, recently the scene of mass killings by the national army, as conflict-free.
Even if every diamond that was even tangentially involved in an armed conflict of any sort was taken off the market, the Kimberley Process doesn't take things like slavery or human-trafficking into account. If you dig deep enough to find where the various diamond retailers stand on that issue, a search made slightly easier by the fact that one company owns damn near every jewelry store you can name off the top of your head ...
The choice is yours!
... you'll find that they're far less certain about their ability to ensure that no slavery or human-trafficking makes it onto the ingredients list of your engagement ring.
Asbestos, in a lot of ways, is like the cigarettes of building materials. For years we thought it was perfectly fine and safe, only to find out later that just breathing it in could be enough to give you a raging case of the cancer. Of course, our efforts to rid the world of asbestos were slightly more effective than our various campaigns to make smoking a thing of the past.
Except not really. There's more to the parallel between tobacco and asbestos than the fact that both can cause cancer. You might recall hearing that, once public favor turned against smoking in the United States, the big tobacco companies started focusing their marketing powers on developing countries and places where the bad news about cigarettes hadn't reached yet.
Unfortunately, the asbestos industry did the exact same thing. Since the '80s, pro-asbestos lobby groups have spent nearly $100 million making sure their product is still in use in as many places as possible, even if its use is completely banned in 50 different countries.
For example, try telling Canada about all that mesothelioma stuff. They kept asbestos mines open and operating until very recently. Like last year recently. Where were those mines located? In the town of Asbestos, Quebec.
Yes. This is a real place.
Canada is just one of a handful of countries that kept using asbestos well after most of the world had caught on to its hazards. Some of the others include Brazil, India, and Russia. You'll note those are all places with massive populations, which should be all the explanation you need as to why asbestos still kills more than 100,000 people globally each year.
Hell, asbestos still kills more than 12,000 people in the United States each year, and we banned it a long damn time ago. It's just that we're still dealing with the health problems that all those years of using it eventually caused.
That said, at least we did ban it at some point. Despite overwhelming evidence (and a mounting death toll) that proves how dangerous asbestos use truly is, some of the most populous nations on Earth still use it to this day. Crazy, right?
The Hole In The Ozone Layer
Hey, whatever happened to the hole in the ozone layer? For at least half of the '80s and most of the following decade, it was the central talking point in any discussion about how maybe we should stop treating the planet like a combination toilet/garbage dump. What was super convenient about it, at least as far as global disasters go, was that we figured out the reason it was happening almost right away. The culprit was chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs if you're a lazy bitch. They were commonly found in aerosol cans of the kind used to disperse the hairspray that fueled rock music for the last half of the '80s.
Poison destroyed the ozone layer.
That problem worked itself out when Kurt Cobain made depression and not giving a shit about how you look (as long as you're still rock-star pretty) all the rage in the early '90s. All those hairspray cans became completely useless at that point, and in no time at all, the hole in the ozone layer stopped dominating the headlines.
Fast-forward to right now and, even better, stories have been trickling in about how the hole in the ozone layer was finally closing. If you think the part about the ozone hole being a thing we'd seemingly forgotten about isn't true, please note that this National Geographic article about how the hole is closing leads off by asking readers, right in the headline, if they even remember it in the first place.
You won't believe what it looks like now!
That alone makes the hole in the ozone layer worthy of inclusion here, and all the most recent headlines glowing about how it's finally closing won't do much to keep it on anyone's radar. However, the scientist who discovered the hole way back in the '80s, Jon Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey, says we shouldn't be celebrating just yet.
For starters, the hole is just closing; it's not closed. That won't happen until at least 2050, and that's only if we keep on the righteous path from a climate standpoint between then and now. We probably won't. As Shanklin points out, the fundamental lesson from the CFC scare, which is that we shouldn't pump chemicals into the atmosphere on account of how it's bad for the environment, is one that's still mostly lost on us. The damage we inflicted that caused the hole in the ozone layer happened mostly in the span of about 10 years. Just because it's closing now doesn't mean we won't do something stupid in the very near future that blows it wide open again.
The Cold War
The popular thinking is that, for all intents and purposes, the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I suppose that was true for a little while. At that point in history the Russians very much seemed like an enemy we'd defeated. That's why people routinely credit Ronald Reagan with winning the Cold War. He engaged Russia in an arms race that, after 10 hellish years of unsuccessfully fighting in Afghanistan, they couldn't afford to keep up with while still keeping their people fed and clothed.
Well, that and a bunch of other things, but as far as history is concerned, Reagan ended the Cold War. For the next few years, we were treated to feel-good Russian leaders who mostly filled the role of drunken sideshow on the world stage. Were we engaged in a "Cold War" with Russia during those days? Maybe not, but arguing that we haven't been at all since then isn't so easy. You have one person to thank for that.
Pictured: A Bond villain IRL.
I'm talking, of course, about Vladimir Putin. Have our relations with Russia felt warm since he took over? Sure, we all loved when he stole New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's Super Bowl ring, but that was an isolated incident. For the most part, he's done nothing but antagonize the United States, going so far as maybe intervening in our presidential election in a way that could help get Trump elected. That's about as close to a declaration of war as you can get without engaging in actual combat. Maybe you can argue that the Cold War stopped at some point, but you can just as convincingly argue that Vladimir Putin brought on Cold War II.
Or what about China? Most Americans can't name a single Chinese government official ...
Please tell me you didn't just say "General Tso."
... but we do know they aren't the nicest government. We also know they'll probably own us someday, seeing as how they already do on paper. Whether we talk about it in a face-to-face way or not, relations with China are tense, to say the least.
That combined with Putin running roughshod over our feelings at every turn possible makes our current status with the Communist nations of the world feel Cold War-esque, if nothing else.
Fine, maybe you forgot about the hole in the ozone layer, but surely you remember indentured servants, right? They were all the rage in colonial times before slavery took over as the go-to means of providing evil white men access to an affordable labor force. Basically, landowners would pay a person's way to come to the colonies, and in return that person would work for that landowner for a set amount of years to pay off that debt. It wasn't slavery, but it also wasn't anything resembling a great life.
Like I said, though, it's a system we did away with in favor of outright slavery at some point, which was significantly worse, so indentured servitude is a thing we haven't had to think about in the United States for hundreds of years.
Right, except there's this government program. It's called the J-1 Visa program, and it's meant to provide overseas students with the chance to come work in America for a spell while soaking up some of our sweet-ass culture at the same time.
Judging from that water, he clearly hasn't left for the United States yet.
Unfortunately, what it's turned into is a means for unscrupulous employers to exploit foreign workers for cheap labor. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report in 2014 that detailed the myriad ways workers in the J-1 program are taken advantage of, and every bit of it sounds exactly like what history has come to know as indentured servitude.
For one, the exploitation isn't just on the employers' side. To take part in the program requires that someone in your home country sponsor you. These sponsors charge desperate workers hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to participate, with the promise that their investment will buy them a few months at a high-paying American job. They're shown brochures that make it look like a great opportunity. They'll work on their English, they'll live in a nice place, they'll make real money. It must look like it's worth it.
Instead, they end up at menial fast-food jobs and things of the like. The debt they accrue getting here in the first place keeps them from questioning their conditions too much. Take the case of Khrystyna Mylkus, a then-17-year-old Ukrainian student, for example. She paid $3,000 in fees to come to the United States on a J-1 Visa, thinking she was taking advantage of a cultural exchange opportunity. Instead, she ended up working 48 hours a week cleaning rooms at a resort in Lake Superior.
Wait ... what?
Yes, I had to Google it to confirm. The resort she was at was literally surrounded by Lake Superior. She didn't get a "cultural exchange opportunity"; she got exiled to a labor island. That's not what these kids are signing up for, but that's exactly what they're getting more often than not. We might not call it an indentured servant program, but an uncomfortable number of the employers participating in it definitely treat it that way.
I bet you didn't think your government was still up to those kind of shenanigans!