My recent post about the hypocrisy of oil consumption generated some thought-provoking discussion.What I keep coming back to is the importance of accepting our individual responsibility as moral agents. It is the only way we have any ability to influence outcomes. What distresses me most is the American culture of victimhood, whereby individuals find ways to blame problems–whether personal, communal, regional, national, or global–on a usually vague “other.”
For example, if we disagree with the actions of the government, it is common for us to say, well, “the leadership of x government is screwed up, but the people are good.” (This may hold for a dictatorship, but not in the world’s representative democracies.) Or, if we see a corporation behaving badly, polluting the environment, engaging in predatory pricing or labor practices, or whatever, we tend to look at the the CEO or the Board of Directors, while ignoring shareholders and consumers. Since IRAs and pension funds are heavily vested in a breadbasket of corporations, a high percentage of Americans are not only consumers of unsustainable products, but also shareholders by proxy of any number of bad “corporate citizens.”
By this neat shell game, we get to conveniently ignore the shadow of our own consumption and investments, our own self-interested acts of taking advantage of others we commit by proxy every day. We get our 401K statement, and don’t even think about it as long as the balance is going up. We make a purchase, and we think our actions are “clean” because, whatever it took to make the product is invisible to us. We figure that it is someone else’s concern, and we rationalize our own need for the product. This is especially dangerous when it comes to essential services: in a word, energy. But whether it’s energy, imported foods, or imported clothing, you can be sure that if it’s a bargain, it was made unsustainably, with greater externalities than should be allowed, and possibly even with slave labor–or worse–child slave labor.
We don’t like to think about this, but the only way to make sense of economic events is as the convergence of fractional influences. And the greatest influence is generated by the purchasing decisions of individual citizens– whether for products or for stocks.
A commenter on my last post, Mark, mocked the idea that the American public might be responsible for the Iraq debacle:
George Bush is the war criminal who has invaded a country with no good reason and has unleashed a civil war and the American public is responsible! Right. Who gives a damn what lying reasons the politicians give for their foreign interventions? Don’t think they won’t have some new ones when the old ones don’t work.
BTW, I don’t own a car.
First of all, I can give Mark kudos for not owning a car. He probably lives in a city with good public transportation–a personal decision. Or he has a bicycle. Or he participates in carsharing. Or, maybe he has structured his life so that he can walk to work, and lives near the places he shops. Whatever the case, Mark just made my point for me. His decision not to own a car has a direct impact, however small, on the level of US oil consumption.
But Mark is not off the hook yet. He is a participant in the economic system, which has at its core unsustainable principles. He buys food that is shipped long distances consuming fossil fuels. He most likely has a job, in a company that may or may not espouse sustainability.
Whatever the case may be, the personal is political. Our personal decisions aggregate together and have an impact on the world’s quality of life. We are the corporations. We are the government. We can argue all day long about how the media is manipulated, about how electronic voting machines sway the outcome of the presidential elections, or whatever.
All this does is concede that we are powerless.
The bottom line is, politics is giving the people what they want. Pollsters figure out what the public mood is, and then the politicians tell us what we want to hear: That prices and taxes are not going up, and government benefits aren’t going down. This is why fossil-fuels remain subsidized, and this is why, my friends, we are in Iraq.
Whatever “rah-rah” reasons were given about going after Saddam, who really believes that war was not about oil? Ultimately, it’s a pocketbook issue, it’s a quality-of-life issue For Americans to act ethically in the world, we would have to change our approach and temporarily give up some privileges and prerogatives, including cheap gas. In the long term, a sustainable energy policy and an ethical foreign policy would benefit everyone, most especially ourselves. Politics, however, is a short-term business.
This is why I don’t buy Mark’s cynical canard about the “lying reasons politicians give for their foreign interventions.” Whether we like it or not, we reap a short-term benefit from foreign interventionism. Our defense contractors get an influx of cash which leads to high-paying jobs, and–be it cheap oil or cheap labor–we get the economic spoils of whatever foreign land we may conquer.
I’m not suggesting that Americans should stop consuming. After all, consumption is the driver of the economy, and economic progress is what will ultimately lift the rest of the world out of poverty. What I am saying is that we should see ourselves as strong moral agents, and every purchase as a vote. Buy fair-trade when you can! Beyond that, we need to figure out how to read between the lines, and connect our daily decisions to the injustices we seek to remedy. We should not, above all, see ourselves as powerless or as victims of ‘evil’ politicians, or ‘evil’ corporations.
That kind of cynicism and paralysis is exactly what supports the status quo.