Monday, October 13, 2014

Righteous Wrongs...

It might feel good, but it's still wrong
Here in America, we are to a very large extent safe, wealthy and healthy. Compared to much of the rest of the world, our experience is not of violence, death, hunger and disease, but a life so luxurious and sheltered that we routinely blow small annoyances up into major personal problems, only to have someone point out - correctly - that these are 'first world problems'. Rather than dealing with grinding, subsistence level poverty and disease, our number one health problems - obesity and related chronic conditions - stem from comfort and abundance. And situated geographically in North America, we have been completely free from invasion and military attack for well over a century.

Unfortunately, this can, and often does, lead to a twisted, insufficiently nuanced understanding of the choices and aspirations of billions of people around the world, people so desperately poor and helpless we can't even begin to imagine their lives. We end up overlaying our first world beliefs and priorities over the immediate needs and dreams of people whose lives are so utterly alien to our experience. In some cases this kind of cultural arrogance and experiential ignorance leads to doing stupid and counterproductive things, and in many cases it leads us to insist that things WE perceive as 'wrong' must be stopped, without the capacity for understanding that the people we see 'suffering' from these activities are wildly grateful for them. Let me provide a few examples.

First, there are 'animal rights'. Ludicrous on the face of it, the basic human value of not injuring or hurting another living thing for no reason but the hurting itself is broadly understood across cultures and is entirely sufficient to prevent the most egregious acts of inter-species cruelty. Sadistic behavior is by definition inhuman, and the laws and norms we have in place in our society are sufficient to prevent what are, by their very nature, aberrant behaviors.

But in our comfort and certainty, in our deep love for our pampered pets and our fantasy Disney-esque view of nature in situ, we have created another category altogether. No longer should animals be treated well because of who WE are, but now they must be treated well because to do otherwise would violate their rights. RIGHTS? How does a living thing that cannot communicate, that does not understand itself, or its place in the world - how does that creature have rights? How are they defined? Enforced? Litigated? And how universal are these rights? Is it just for the higher mammals? Is it somehow dependent on brain capacity? Does the 'cuteness factor' have any bearing on the decision?

Hunting is often mentioned as something that people 'shouldn't do'. As if those plastic wrapped chunks of meat appeared in the refrigerator in Safeway immaculately, as if nothing had to die and nobody actually killed an animal for your Applebees Ribs. People going out into the wilderness and stalking and hunting an animal are somehow perceived as cruel and destructive, no matter how often they might fail to ever fire a shot. Indeed, hunting is often conflated with endangered species and extinction. Lets be very clear - extinction is based on habitat destruction, pollution and toxins and disruption of the food chain. Ask these people who rail against rich hunters taking exotic game in Africa if they understand how the game preserves, conservation programs and anti-poaching organizations are funded. Almost certainly, they'll be unaware that it is the hunters themselves, particularly the rich ones, who provide virtually all the financial resources to protect and manage global wildlife populations. Why do they do that? Incentives. Unlike those who post pictures of hunters posing with their trophies on Facebook and call them names, hunters know they have to actually step up and invest in wildlife conservation if those species are to be their for their children and grandchildren to hunt. But, as Americans, we don't like complexities, and we struggle to think through nuance. We like a nice, black & white narrative where we know who the bad guys are because they ALWAYS wear black hats.

Similarly, we here in wealthy, comfortable America are always ready to rail in spittle-flecked outrage at another third world sweatshop. We demand they pay a better wage, and treat their employees better, or that they be forcibly closed down. And in all our self-righteous anger at a system that allows a few people to make millions on the sweat and suffering of these helpless, illiterate employees, we never seem to notice one key factor. The people in these third world nations flock to work in these sweat shops, because the money they can earn in a regular manufacturing job is life-changing, not only for them, but for their entire families. It's the difference between indoor plumbing, basic nutrition, clean water and even rudimentary health care, and the previous generations of rural hardship, disease, lack of basic sanitation and early death.

It's true - it's not a good life, or even a decent one. It is hard, cruel and unfair. But the key factors that are so easy to miss from a soft sofa in front of a flat screen TV is that, first, it's a huge improvement, even for those who are working in the sweatshop, and second and most important, it is the first step toward a better life for their children. The process is always the same - manual labor manufacturing jobs flow to where labor costs are lowest, but then those manufacturing centers attract investment, and knowledge workers, and more complex manufacturing jobs, and local support services, and higher wages. A middle class grows where before there was only subsistence level agriculture, and the low wage manufacturing jobs move on, seeking new places to start the virtuous circle all over again. Of course it's about greed, but it's the harsh truth that the people never receive higher wages until there is a consumer economy, and just like democracy, that depends on institutions and processes that must be built over time. You can't just demand they exist today.

1 comment:

  1. GMOs are a good example of this.
    While there are legitimate issues with them concerning allergic reactions, the potential for undesirable traits to escape into the wild, and the (very concerning to me) related issue of monopolistic control of seed stock, if I can get twice the amount of food from the same hectare of land using the same amount of water and fertilizer shouldn't I?