I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.
I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions for reform, posting blog pieces, and sharing videos bursting with righteous indignation. It’s exciting, it’s attention-getting, it makes the news. Historically, take-it-to-the-streets activism has been key in achieving the most important reforms (and breaking away to form our own nation in the first place!). The Occupy Movement, for one, was inspiring, and exciting, and it appeared that we were finally witnessing a harbinger of real change.
Sadly, it seemed to fizzle out before any substantial reform was achieved. Why? Because it wasn’t followed by practical action, which, of course, is much less exciting. Demonstrations of protest don’t do much lasting good unless they’re backed up by real, widespread change in attitudes, behavior, and civic engagment. Right now, the activist community is mainly pouring its energy into marches, inspiring songs, signs, slogans, and speech, and a few into blocking highways, smashing windows, and taunting riot police. But for actual reform to happen, we need to turn our collective accusatory gaze back on ourselves and realize we are the problem too…
How can we be the problem while we’re working and calling for reform? Because we keep supporting bad business through what we choose to buy, and we’re not reforming government by showing up at the polls.
It’s like protesting an assassination after we pitched in to pay the hit man and did nothing to stop him as he stole the getaway car.
For example, we’ve long known that many of our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are made in factories where people work terribly long hours for little pay, in conditions we’d never put up with ourselves. And we know that many or even most of our discarded electronics end up in some country, state, or town unprotected by regulations, or whose ‘recycling’ systems are really not effective in keeping up with the deluge, at keeping toxic heavy metals and chemicals out of the water supply, the ground, and the air. So we’ve signed online petitions and shared testimonies of abused workers on YouTube and Facebook. Yet we buy every new gadget as fast as they come along, throwing away our ‘old’ ones (cracked screen? doesn’t have the new games on it? too thick now since the new ones are 1/4″ thinner?) and buying a new one whether we ‘need’ it or not. When we purchase these things, we fund all operations of the companies that make them, and we send them the signal that we’ll buy them no matter how much their products pollute and how they treat their workers.
We also know, from the wealth of scientific information gathered and presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and our own National Climate Assessment, that we’re polluting our air to levels that present great threats to the health and future food security of ourselves and our progeny. We’ve also seen how air and other pollution causes respiratory ailments and even death in humans and animals, from pre-1970’s, pre-Clean Air Act Los Angeles, California, to Beijing, China of today. So again, we sign online petitions and share videos and speeches, and call on regulators to crack down on corporate polluters, on factories (industrial and farming), auto manufacturers, and the trucking industry. Yet it’s the commuter cars we drive and the emanations from animals we eat every day that pollute the most. We drive everywhere we want to go whether or not we need our car to get there, and gobble up more meat than is healthy for us and for the planet, all the while insisting that gas and meat stay cheap.
And so on, and so on, and so on. We want one thing, but do another. We say we want the world to be one way, but our actions help guarantee it won’t come to pass. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here it is: we can’t justifiably blame corporations and the government for institutionalized racism, radical income inequality, pollution, climate change, poor wages and working conditions, poverty, and other social ills while at the same time we’re funding their operations, and are too politically apathetic to send more than a symbolic message by voting in the change we want.
There are two main ways we are undermining our own calls for reform:
We are a market-driven society, for better or for worse, and the market will always deliver what we want to buy, eventually. If we keep buying it, it will keep being made, whatever the good it does, or the harm. If we want things that cause harm, they will be made, ever more so as we keep buying them. And if we shop around for the lowest price, down prices will go, whether by benign means (improved technology) or not (driving down wages). Capitalism brings us wonderful things: safer and better machines for all kinds of purposes, warm comfortable clothing and plentiful food, information-sharing devices to educate and entertain, and best of all, technology that can better our lives while reducing waste. But it brings awful things as well: the supply and demand for plastic bottles and convenient packaging is trashing rivers and seas and killing fish; electronics, designed to quickly become obsolete and full of heavy metals, turns into masses of polluting trash our limited recycling systems can’t keep up with; plentiful, cheap meat pollutes the air and water and encourages animal cruelty; cheap fuel drives climates change and wars; cheap goods of all kinds drive down wages, degrades working conditions, and lead to overconsumption and massive waste. We know this, yet keep the demand going by gobbling it all up as quickly as they supply it.
Here’s an aside to my fellow progressives, liberals, and everyone who loves our world and don’t want to trash it: don’t pretend that recycling bins and boutique ‘green’ products will do the trick. Currently, recycling programs are akin to a cheap plastic Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. Most recycling processes create nearly as much, sometimes even more, pollution than new products and packaging created in the first place. (Read this fantastic article by Andrew Handley: informative, succinct, and eloquent.)
Secondly, we are allowing the few, most moneyed interests to take over our government with scarcely a murmur. The ballot box, historically the most powerful tool for voicing our collective will, is being abandoned. We are voting in fewer and fewer numbers every year, with depressing results. I understand the Russell Brand type of argument, to ‘drop out’ of politics as an act of protest against systemic government corruption. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. It may be the case, as he points out and as we discover anew every voting season, that many or all of the candidates aren’t terribly inspiring. We may find that many of the initiatives won’t seem to do all the good we’d wish. But consider these facts: historically, the reforms sought by the great activist movements mostly became law because they continued their march right to the polls, and either voted in those laws themselves through referendums, and the rest were achieved indirectly, by voting better leaders into office. And think of what happens when we don’t vote. As someone who considers myself politically progressive, I’ve been dismayed as here in California, such laws as Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage, because more people opposed to this unjust law (later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional) didn’t bother to get to the polls; ideologues, lavishly funded by a few interest groups, voted in droves while believers in liberal and progressive values (including many who held protest signs, I’ll bet) stayed home. For the same reason, capital punishment is still legal in California and marijuana use (other than medical) is not. I was also dismayed by the most recent general election, in which candidates that are aggressively status-quo and anti-reform were elected to office in droves. Why? Again: those who poll in favor of reform did not show up at the polls.
It’s true that too many candidates are overly motivated to please the interest groups that fund them, and don’t pay enough attention to the rights and the will of the average citizen. But that’s not just because of the money (initially provided by us, by the way, via the market): these candidates have been made well aware that we’ve grown a little too comfortable to make the effort to vote them out. So they make speeches to please us, and then we pass them around online and think we’ve done our duty. On election day, we stay home, and the next day, it’s business as usual.
In sum: so long as we put our own ease, comfort, and desire for luxuries ahead of our principles, we are stuck with the world that results. If our political system continues to grow ever more corrupt and our laws fail to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and the environment, yet we don’t vote the bad politicians out and the good laws in, we are to blame too. If corporations and other businesses make harmful products, endanger and underpay their workers, funnel all profits to a few at the top, and pollute, deforest, drive species to extinction, and hasten global warming, yet we keep buying their products, it’s our fault too. If police precincts become ever more militarized and continue to employ overly violent and coercive tactics on the streets and in the interrogation rooms, and we don’t vote them or those that appoint them, out of office, then we’re giving our tacit consent. If our political leaders, prosecutors, and judges continue to make, enforce, and uphold laws that are contrary to our constitutional rights, our best interests, and scientific evidence, and we keep putting them in office (or do nothing while special interest groups put them in office), then we aid and abet them with our neglect.
So what do we do about it? Do we all become ascetics, deny ourselves all pleasures that might conceivably cause harm, subsist in ‘hobbit homes’? Do we obsess over politics, wring our hands in despair daily or cast them in air as we give up in hopelessness? This doesn’t seem tenable: we want an easy, pleasant life filled with hope, comfort and plenty for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, for everyone.
Yet if we want our progeny and the rich, vibrant, diverse world of living things to survive and flourish, we need to change our habits. Our main stumbling block is this fact about human psychology: it’s extremely difficult for us to act idealistically when the long-term ramifications of our actions are not emotionally, immediately apparent at the time. But be it easy or be it hard, we need adopt new and better practices, or the world we love will suffer from our neglect. I’m as stuck in bad habits as much as anyone else, so I’m not playing a blame game here. When it comes to consumer waste: I’m lucky in that I worked in a salvage and recycling operation for some years, and that experience turned me off from enjoying shopping for cheap gadgets, and made me more frugal and more likely to preserve the tools I have for as long as I can repair them and make them work. (There’s nothing like working in a resale warehouse, or salvaging quality reusable goods from a mound of broken cheap crap and trash at the dump, to change one’s perspective on material goods. Now, in the rare occasions I go to Target or a department store, I perceive mostly a mound of thinly disguised future garbage.) But I continue to buy too many things with unnecessary packaging, I still drive my car more often than I really need to, and I buy and eat too much factory-farmed meat. When it comes to politics and law enforcement: I usually don’t do nearly enough homework on the issues or on candidates before I vote, and I miss valuable opportunities to make a difference by engaging in local politics, where individuals can have the most influence.
Let’s make a pact to honor our activists, and to join their ranks as true ones, by living out our desired reforms. Let’s stop buying water and drinks in plastic bottles and packaged goods so long as there’s an alternative; if enough people do this, companies will pay heed and provide their goods through better delivery methods. Let’s stop buying so much stuff, period, and divert our money to businesses and institutions that deliver quality goods that last and public goods that all can enjoy. (Less malls and big box and discount retailers, more small businesses, quality goods made to last, public works, humanitarian projects, and museums.) Let’s stop glorifying wealth and the trappings of wealth more than its due. Let’s vote in every election, for candidates and referendums that best represent our values: if we demonstrate that we will only vote for those that deliver on their promises for reform and will vote them out if they fail, the political arena of competition will shift as it favors less corruption.
Let’s put the act back in activism.
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!
Sources and inspiration:
Ariely, Dan. ‘The Long-Term Effect of Short-Term Emotions‘. Mar 23, 2010. DanAriely.com
Brand, Russell. ‘On Revolution: “We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition”‘ Oct 24, 2013. TheNewStatesman.com
FlorCruz, Jaime. ‘Listen Up Beijing. This is What You Can Learn From Los Angeles About Fighting Smog‘. Dec 9th, 2014. CNN.com
Handley, Andrew. ‘10 Ways Recycling Hurts the Environment‘. Jan 27th, 2013. Listverse.com.
Parsons, Sarah.’Electronics Recycling 101: The Problem With E-Waste‘. Inhabitat.com
Silverman, Jacob. ‘Do Cows Pollute As Much as Cars?‘ HowStuffWorks.com