Author Nathaniel Diskint
On May 19th, 2015 the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all time high. Simultaneously0.1% of the population controls 22% of the nation’s wealth. Our purported prosperity in wealth does not trickle down, and it has not yielded happiness; almost 70% of the United States population takes one prescription drug and antidepressants are the second most common medication.
On May 19th, 2015 the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high. Simultaneously, 0.1% of the population controls 22% of the nation’s wealth. Our purported prosperity in wealth does not trickle down, and it has not yielded happiness; almost 70% of the United States population takes one prescription drug and antidepressants are the second most common medication.
The U.S. Department of Defense asserts that climate change may have severe national security consequences. “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere… Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline, and trigger waves of mass migration.” The ravages of climate change and its acute injustices – strife, sickness and war – could be mitigated or alleviated over time, aided by appropriate governmental, economic and grassroots efforts. But time is of the essence. Within the next century, it has been predicted that there will be no snowfall in California. Of course, there may not be a California.
First and foremost, there is the profound potentially irreparable impact of climate change, but no less important, are the societal sequela: the psychological disorders required to harmonize unprecedented levels of ennui and hypocrisy that plagues the “first world.” After all, how many of us, painfully aware of the economic and social problems created around the globe by cell phone production, would willing forfeit such a convenient device? Certain radical fringes, such as primitivists (back-to-the-cave advocates), call for the total dismembering of capitalist civilization. It is true, as the “cave” proponents suggest, that despite diminishing supplies of potable water, America continues to use 1.5 trillion gallons of water per year to clear human waste. But how many Americans would give up the convenience afforded by modern flush toilets and instead install composting toilets? While the answer may not be to do away with flush toilets, we most certainly need to address the water scarcity issue, along with the increasing scarcity of all other resources. At present, the United States consumes the resource equivalent of four times what is sustainably available on the Earth.
Each year, U.S. universities and colleges award approximately two million bachelors degrees, one million master’s degrees and over one hundred and fifty thousand doctorates. Proportionally, there are more educated people now than ever before. Despite these advances in education, the rapidly accelerating degradation of the environment continues without apparent solution. But these advances in education, although to be encouraged, have themselves added to the complexity of our world and made the pressing environmental challenges of our time all the more complex. The historian Alex Butterworth writes that in 19th century Europe, “Scientific genius and terrorism were disquieting bedfellows.” Notwithstanding the unfair connotations of the word “terrorist,” our collective failure to react to information now readily available originates in a self-fulfilling and complex prophecy: complacency yields complicity. There are so many capable people with abundant resources compared with previous generations that bore more revolutionary fruit, but still, today there is scarce political resolve (one need only point to the lack of unionization and formal civics education). At first glance, the source appears Orwellian. Today’s middle and lower classes are saddled with debt and all classes are socially isolated through both employment and civil design. Society at large is also inundated with creature comforts and near-infinite sources of entertainment and distraction. Systemically, these dystopian anesthetics work in concert with a variety of decision-making paradoxes.
Watching the sunset from a mountaintop, it is easy to imagine the sun orbiting the earth. Similarly, technological advancement was once heralded as making the world small. It did not. Technology only made the world feel small while making it bigger. Claims of interconnectivity and empathy are mere platitudes utilized as post-hoc rationalizations. Capitalism has driven technology to nose bloodying heights and from up here, the world looks enormous. The first aspect that stands out is the sheer volume of moving parts – seven billion people broken into 195 nation-states and a few dozen transient or non-nations, multi-national interest groups all the way down to the New York City hotdog vendor at the corner of 6th Avenue and Waverly Place. Amazingly, the hotdog is entirely domestic. The hotdogs come from Michigan, the finished cart is sold by a company in Florida but the iron ore comes from Minnesota and the steel is made in western Pennsylvania. The vendor’s umbrella can be woven and dyed in Taiwan, assembled in Canada, with optional logos being added by the Embee Sunshade Company in Brooklyn. It is like the machinations of a watch with thousands of redundancies, fail-safes, and work-arounds.
In this complex patchwork, specialization enables effective economies of scale. Production methods, distribution channels and places for consumption have become dissociated and the distance between each continues to grow. Although various networks – political, financial, social (hegemonic, if you will) – exist, these stretch enormous distances and suffer proportional losses. Entities are largely isolated and are inculcated with capitalist norms, rendering the world a forbidding place. The dismal state of affairs is not to say humanity is beyond repair. Rather, identifying the individual issues draws attention to their systemic nature, which in turn creates an opportunity to design effective solutions.
Many activists encourage conscientious individuals to make conscientious decisions. These same activists observe that no snowflake believes itself responsible for the avalanche, and they claim change lies in snowflakes taking ownership of the avalanche. But it is the avalanche, not the snowflake that is destructive. In this vein, existing frameworks limit personal lifestyle decisions. For example one might choose to shop at the local organic grocers instead of the conventional grocery, and one might even bicycle to save gas, but the paved roadway and the materials the bike is made of are beyond the scope of individual choice. Even if one chose to not wear leather shoes for the environmental effects, the commercial rubber and other synthetic materials are made at such scale to likely prove an equal environmental hazard as a leather tannery. Individuals are streamlined toward efficiency. Logical reasoning enables humans to make effective cost-benefit decisions. In the commercial landscape though, individual and collective interests are seldom aligned. This is “the tragedy of the commons;” the individual retains profits but shares costs with the collective.
The “commons” is typically exemplified by a scenario of farmers and a certain acreage of grass. If each farmer has five cows over fifty acres, and assuming each cow needs two acres, then five farmers can utilize these commons. If all of the five farmers know each other, their kids school together and a few of the farmers are siblings or cousins, then this is apt to work out. But what if the farmers have never met and operate remotely via a robotic cattle-raising system? Each farmer knows that the unsustainable drawdown of resources threatens his livelihood. The commons is also not a guaranteed resource and will wax and wane more or less unpredictably, but each farmer’s individual overhead will remain constant. Market dynamics like this introduce an iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma where each farmer is motivated to secure his personal assets at the expense of the others. If some farmers offer products in the market at a lower cost, these farmers will become more competitive. It follows that the others will go out of business. In order to lower costs, the farmers either have to over-graze their cattle to increase productivity or increase herd size. Both options require taking more than one’s fair share of the commons. Without third-party regulation, it is up to the farmers to self-police. If the market is educated - comprises locals who know each farmer, are familiar with the commons, etc. – the market can also regulate the farmers and condemn violations.
The problem is further compounded when it is not just five farmers and fifty acres but, in the United States alone, over three hundred million people spread across four million square miles. The more bystanders to an event, the less likely any one of those bystanders is to intervene; education and awareness might actually reduce individual motivation.
The issues we face today are enormously complex. Climate change is not only the product of automobiles, nor factory farming, nor plastics, and our psychological ailments are also not attributable to any specific cause. Issues demanding redress are a dime a dozen, yet, the probability of intervention is also inversely correlated to the number of issues at hand. In the tragedy of the commons, a theoretical third party can heavily regulate the commons and allot the resources sustainably (e.g. government regulation). In this way, tragedy can be averted. We do not have such a third party. Our population of three hundred million is broken down into many hierarchies, each with its own leadership, and each hierarchy represents a different set of interests. A series of obedience experiments in the 1970s proved people’s willingness to obey authority figures even when those orders conflicted with their personal conscience – an authority could prevent individuals from pursuing self-interest at the expense of the commons. There is no universal authority in the modern world. Our leadership is amorphous and those leaders we do recognize disagree as to what actions are appropriate and even what ends are desired. Absent direction from on high or support from peers, it is not surprising the common person does not take affirmative action to help.
Revolution does not trickle down and it does not come from individuals. People succumb, for better or worse, to what is normative. Motivating meaningful collective action is nearly impossible in our paranoid and competitive landscape, but there are solutions. One can only see what is within one’s line of sight and the very action of seeing and evaluating what one sees affects observed. The exploitive institutions that followed the industrial revolution are part of a network of domination, not a universal paradigm. A citizen of the British Empire could only know the world through the colonialist lens. The Empire’s tendrils reached across the globe. Information, goods and people flowed along these routes but the selection process introduced a critical sample bias – that which returned to England was not a fair sample of the world at large. A world-view formed from such a myopic perspective would neglect what fell beyond the colonial network. That the commons presents a tragedy, not a blessing, is itself a consequence of decrepit communities and corrupted value systems. Change-making is possible as demonstrated by the number of alternatives that presently coexist – while wall street investors don ties in the morning, there are homesteaders upstate cultivating vegetables. Remedial changes such as land reform, community development and economic measures such as repealing petroleum and agricultural subsidies can be envisioned. However, a fair treatment of such measures is beyond the scope of this
Unsustainable choices are expensive and ultimately turn out to be much less convenient than sustainable alternatives, but only when the costs and the profits stay local. Otherwise the costs go out of sight out and out of mind and only the profit is known. Costs flow down from the privileged few at the top of the social hierarchy – the biggest consumers - to those at the bottom. Eliminating such hierarchical distribution begins with eliminating the convenience paradox.
Enabling change means to recognize the various paradoxes and social conditions that have prevented change so far and eliminating barriers to would-be activists. People do not need a reason to care. What they need is a framework that does not hide the costs of our decisions.
Citations available upon request.