A couple of weeks ago President Obama visited Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb dropped on a human settlement. During his visit, he said that “technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” while adding that such technology “requires a moral revolution as well.”
That got me to thinking about the moral revolution our world really needs.
We can´t claim ignorance anymore. I wasn´t alive during World War II, but as the reality of the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths caused by the atomic bombs became known, I imagine conversations around dinner tables where family´s said something like: “We really had no idea how damaging the bombs were going to be.” In some sense, we´ve been saying the same thing ever since.
The separation between producer and consumer or between consumer and the sources of their consumption and the end places of their waste was a hallmark of the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalism. It allowed for growth and prosperity (in some parts of the world), but at the same time led us away from any sort of direct contact with the effects of our consumption. We could claim ignorance.
At the same time, the crafters of the global free market economy assured us that growth was good for everyone. That wealth would trickle down; that our way of life would be happily adopted by everyone around the world. It wasn´t all that different from Harry Truman and his advisors convincing the war-weary citizens of the U.S. that dropping the bomb was necessary to finally put an end to the world war.
The difference, of course, is that whereas very few people had any inkling of an idea of what the Manhattan Project was actually developing, the dark secrets of our how world economy are becoming more and more visible every day.
Ignorance is no longer bliss, or at least it shouldn´t be. Information is out there for anyone with an internet connection and the truth is discoverable if we look for it with honesty. For many people this is the discomforting and upsetting because much of our moral discourse has been founded on the ease of distance and anonymity.
The issue of what we consider to be “financial” responsibility rests, I believe, on this comfortable reliance on ignorance. Let´s say a young man just out of college takes some of his first earnings and invests in the stock market. He is “putting his money to work for him”, we say, and we hold him up to be an exemplar of our society. The truth of the matter, however, is that this young man has absolutely NO idea where his money is being invested, nor does he have any inkling of an idea of the causes his investment truly has on communities directly affected by this investment.
It could be that he is investing in global “clean” energy, a supposedly ethical and green investment. What he doesn´t see, however, is that some mega energy corporation has forcefully displaced thousands of indigenous people in the mountain of Guatemala or the rainforests of the Amazon. He doesn´t see how the resistance movement towards these supposedly “green” mega projects is criminalized and how it´s leaders are targeted for assassination such as Berta Caceres.
The problem lies in the fact that our moral or ethical standard isn´t at all tied to the actual consequences of what our money does. Somehow, we´ve equated responsibility, and thus our ethic and moral standard, to the ability to multiply assets at whatever cost. We have thus coupled our ethics to the most basic principles of the growth economy. This definition of “responsibility” seems strangely Orwellian to me.
Merriam Webster defines responsibility as “the state of being the person who caused something to happen”. The problem, of course, is that our global economy has produced such a remoteness of distance that most have us never have any idea of what our actions actually “cause to happen.” Responsibility is thus freed from any sense of accountability and relegated to the sphere of individualism
Can an action be responsible if we have absolutely no connection to the effects or outcomes of that action? Responsibility should necessarily imply a certain proximity and closeness that allows us to understand what actually occurs. Another definition of responsibility is “the state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management.” What we consume, how we invest our money and how our livelihoods affect the lives of others should be considered within our “power, control or management.”
A friend of mine recently told me that he was considering investing a part of his meager savings into a local company that delivered health food around the Los Angeles area. He explained that he liked how the company offered job opportunities to young people in the area and provided healthy food options to people around the city. However, he ultimately decided not to invest in that company because the leader of the company, in order to cut costs, used the metro system without paying.
My friend´s personal moral compass is perhaps more strict than my own, but the fact that he was close enough to make an investment choice based on how that company´s operation coincided or not with his ethical and moral beliefs was in itself an example of truly responsible and ethical consumption.
What if we were to be close enough to see the Honduran peasants exploited by the banana company that sprays thousands of tons of dangerous chemicals and then demands them to go out and cut the bananas for $5 dollars a day? Would we feel responsible investing in a mining company that poisoned ground water with cyanide while lying to local farmers in order to buy up huge amounts of land to expand their mine?
More and more people are beginning to wake up from this ethical vacuum of blind consumption. From this nascent awareness that something is wrong with our completely anonymous and distant global economy, people are developing a desire to be ethical and moral in their consumer choices. The companies and businesses that depend on our ignorance, however, have picked up on this threat to the status quo, and have begun to bombard consumers with the promises of corporate social responsibility. We feel better when we see an ad on TV assuring us that some big corporation is investing ethically in saving the planet, or becoming a “green” company, whatever that means. Mining companies may assure us that they´re creating local jobs. What we don´t see, however, is that those jobs are usually under paid and don´t come anywhere close to offsetting the environmental and cultural disaster´s that come with implementing a mega mine in a formerly agrarian community.
We try to escape the real moral responsibility of knowing firsthand the direct effects of our consumption by passing that responsibility on to others. We trust in the yearly newsletter that the financial companies that manage our retirement plan sends us every year telling how they are investing in developing countries around the world to help spur economic growth to pull local people out of poverty.
We have no way to know if that is true or not, and more likely than not, “spurring economic growth” may very well entail investing in a mega-gold mining project that poisons water supplies and pushes the price of land out of reach of local farmers. The economic growth caused by the mine will most likely be concentrated in the hands of local elites and corrupt politicians as the actual residents of the place are forced to migrate in search of opportunities in other, less poisoned places.
Trusting that our global economic system will be ethical is kind of like trusting that our housecat will ignore our daughter´s pet canary. Everything is good and fine until we come home one day and have to explain to our daughter that her canary had to go to a better place. What´s worse is that we know we can´t really blame the cat because he was just acting according to his nature.
If we accept that the “nature” of our global economy is to continue to grow infinitely and without limits; and if we acknowledge that companies that operate under the rules of this global economy will try to increase profits before any other consideration, then this reality should push us to reconsider what is moral and ethical.
Returning to President Obama´s admonition for our society to embark upon a moral revolution, I think that we need to define what that moral revolution would actually entail. I believe that true morality implies that we make the effort to know intimately and personally the effects of our actions. It should mean that we no longer rely on ignorance and anonymity as the cornerstones of our implied ethical standards. I think that a truly moral society would be one that tries to close the distance between consumers and the sources and end-places of their consumption.
A moral revolution would imply that never again would a nation of people have no idea what the actual effects of dropping an atomic bomb on a crowded city would be. A moral revolution would similarly change our idea of what it means to be “financially responsible” and redefine what real responsibility entails. The true moral heroes of our time would be people who make the effort to know and understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly while putting to rest the idea of “ignorance as bliss” once and for all.