Unsustainable Global Capitalism

by Benjamin Borbely | 11/14/05 6:00am

A realization struck me, as it has many others, last night reading The New York Times: two op-eds -- one on environmental degradation in China, the other on the riots in France by the poor and disenfranchised -- are connected. So are the facts that many people in the world do not feel secure in and satisfied with their jobs and that the minimum wage has been falling for decades in real dollars. Those for whom the system supposedly works often are not doing well either; many corporate workers toil like sweatshop workers for ephemeral pay-offs, and life gets more fast-paced and insecure by the year.

The arctic, most experts predict, will have no permanent ice by the end of the century, and some even say this may happen by mid-century. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one-third of city-dwellers in China breathe polluted air -- though from living there for six months, I suspect it is much more. China also contains seven of the world's ten most polluted cities, and it has almost no trees left, perhaps because the population consumes 25 million a year just to produce 45 billion of pairs of disposable chopsticks. Seventy to 80 percent of its lakes and rivers are polluted.

You would have to be blind not to see how these problems stem from the fact that the values and practices of our emerging global capitalist society are unsustainable. As a society, we are not thinking of these problems, and solutions to them, holistically, and so they individually grow more serious: the inequality between rich and poor is skyrocketing; people self-segregate into "safe" communities where people look alike, spend alike, and believe alike; the environment in many developing countries lies in ruins. It is no surprise when, as a result, fear and political tensions escalate and people begin to believe that war is the answer.

College students, a group with enormous potential for effecting change, are trapped in a sort of prisoner's dilemma: apply creativity and a propensity for innovative solutions based on youth and navet and therefore risk remaining low on the socioeconomic totem pole, or go into banking, consulting, corporate law or private-practice medicine and make a lot of money, but at best do nothing to solve the most pressing problems we all face. I have a feeling that the vast majority of college students, especially those from prestigious schools, choose the latter, seeking financial security that is increasingly elusive.

And who can blame us? Most people, if placed in the enviable position we find ourselves in, would do the same. We know the fate that previous generations of idealists met with: they were either killed, arrested and then killed or ultimately co-opted, becoming doctors, lawyers and nostalgic liberal professors -- fates similar to those of their greedy brethren who did not try to change the world. While they often succeeded in making the world a better place, they also left fundamentally unaltered the capitalist system that has caused hopelessness and devastation in countless locations and lives.

Indeed, it would almost be better if there were no good people to try to put a human face on a system that is at its core -- the pursuit of individual wealth -- so inhumane. Without a civil rights movement, committed teachers, Doctors Without Borders and other heroes, more people might have long ago abandoned that ship of safety known as change within the system, and agitated for real change.

And what might that change be? I have no idea, but a good starting point might be to acknowledge that we no longer have the luxury of allowing people to become obscenely rich while billions live in poverty, of going without a global environmental protection regime, of not listening to different points of view -- in short, of allowing things to stay the way they are. We must teach each other that going through life without thinking in a planetary context is not only immoral, but also dangerous. Our way of life is exploitative, but, more importantly, it is individualistic, fostering cruelty and destruction by externalizing environmental and human costs. This economic system therefore provides inaccurate information to consumers about the true costs of goods and services. This reality must be acknowledged, and solutions must be sought widely and deeply.

So attend self-important student discussions, rsum-padding clubs, or join the Peace Corps. But most importantly, refuse to endorse any idea, plan, party or person that glosses-over our sorry state of affairs. Awesome societal change can occur surprisingly soon, but how disrupting those changes may be will depend on who, or what, brings them about.

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