Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
“I’ve got mine and you can’t take it away from me, even if I got it by cheating, lying, and unfair (but legal) practices.” This seems to be the cry behind so much of what I read these days. One side of the US political campaign springs from this at the roots, even as the campaign tries hard to find other words. The Rio+20 conference starting just a few days ago, will, I believe, end up with the wealthy nations shrugging their collective shoulders at the plaints of the poor ones with all kinds of excuses for inaction or at most lip service to the problems. The European Community is teetering, and attempts to stabilize it seem to be guided by this cry.
These cries are frequently followed up by a claim that everything would be okay if only the market would be freer so that the bottom would begin to close in on the top. This claim also implies that whatever portions of the economy are being delivered by the government should be privatized ASAP. This is happening little by little as privatization squeezes out resource-starved public agencies, and, less visibly, the private sector replaces goods and services formerly the province of relational provisioning networks with commodified, impersonal versions.
That’s the claims. Here’s what is really happening, based on what’s in the news. Today’s (Sunday) New York Times is crammed full of news as it always is, but much of it reflects this position of the wealthy and powerful, whether individuals or large or whole parts of societies. As I started to read through it as I do almost every Sunday, I was struck by the number of articles related to the theme I began with.
In no particular order, here are some of the stories. The front page gave top billing to the consequences of privatizing parts of the New Jersey penal system resulting in lots of mischief dealing with those leaving incarceration.
After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house… At the heart of the system is a company with deep connections to politicians of both parties, most notably Gov. Chris Christie.
Many of these halfway houses are as big as prisons, with several hundred beds, and bear little resemblance to the neighborhood halfway houses of the past, where small groups of low-level offenders were sent to straighten up… New Jersey officials have called these large facilities an innovative example of privatization and have promoted the approach all the way to the Obama White House… Yet with little oversight, the state’s halfway houses have mutated into a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked, according to a 10-month investigation by The New York Times.
Next was the front and center piece in the Review section, an unusually serious piece by Maureen Dowd, lacking her ironic, often sarcastic, tone. She asks where has our moral center gone. With a focus on the child abuse at Penn State, she asks why didn’t anyone who witnessed the abuse do something to stop it. Timothy Egan deplores the shameless, outright lying in the Presidential campaign. Frank Bruni points out the excesses of the fund-raising efforts by all these days. The inseparable corrupting that this produces is simply wished away or ignored by the process. Money is now the equal of speech. The more you have, the more public exposure you can buy. This doesn’t work when people really speak with words coming out of their mouth. They can say only so much before people start to drift away.
The Business section has a front page piece, “C.E.O Pay, Rising Despite the Din.” Here, “I’ve got mine” applies to the positions of power corporate executives have assumed. It’s a consequence of the slipping away of any sense of rightness in the economy. I so often quote Robert Heibroner on the dark side of the free market, “…a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.” I have to believe that those who are exploiting the political economy know this, but ignore it, loosening the already tenuous moral ties that modernity has brought.
The main story on the Business front page was entitled, “You for Sale.”
IT knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do… It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams — and on and on.
Right now in Conway, Ark., north of Little Rock, more than 23,000 computer servers are collecting, collating and analyzing consumer data for a company that, unlike Silicon Valley’s marquee names, rarely makes headlines. It’s called the Acxiom Corporation, and it’s the quiet giant of a multibillion-dollar industry known as database marketing.
Few consumers have ever heard of Acxiom. But analysts say it has amassed the world’s largest commercial database on consumers — and that it wants to know much, much more. Its servers process more than 50 trillion data “transactions” a year. Company executives have said its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States.
So much for privacy. And with the disappearance of privacy, the gap between unfortunate and fortunate can only grow as the data being collected are used to fine tune business strategies to cull out the undesirable. Why waste ad money on the poor if you are selling luxuries. Exclude those with current or potential medical problems from the insurance you offer. Add this to the basic unfairness of our medical delivery system and even those against the ACA should stop and think.
There’s more, but you should have gotten the point by now. There is not much good news. Maybe I should not be surprised at this next observation, but I am. There is zero mention of the Rio+20 conference in the print version of the paper. None. Nada. Zilch. Is this just a symptom of Heilbroner’s warning? Nobody is watching the house we live in. I did find an op-ed, by Thomas Lovejoy, about it posted only on their website. More discouraging news.
The 80-page draft text that the delegates will be discussing addresses a number of important issues. Yet it is clear that not only has humanity failed to address the problems at the needed scale in the intervening years, but that “Rio+20” will fail to do so as well. That said, it would be shortsighted to give up on Rio+20: humanity needs the building blocks that can be added by this conference to be as robust as possible.
Part of the problem is a preoccupation with the here and now. That includes the drama of economic problems in the euro zone and weakness in other large economies. In the United States, partisan politics are so polarized and poisonous, and media so fractured, that there is little mention of Rio+20. Many key leaders will not attend: Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron (despite the change of date to avoid conflict with the Diamond Jubilee), to name three.
His analysis is probably correct. The problems right in front of you tend to overshadow those coming later, even if those later ones are the more serious, and get even more serious when they are neglected. Our country was grounded on a set of moral principles. Where have they gone? Do we really believe we can operate without them or with a new set of quasi-morals, based on the ultimate right to be left alone?
I think about sustainability everyday; it’s all about creating a future of flourishing. I try to be reasonable even when I argue that sustainability depends on becoming unreasonable. But then, I find myself increasingly running out of patience with all those whose public (and private) outpourings are nothing but some form of the opening line of this post. The movie, Network, keeps popping up. Howard Beale, the anchorperson, uttered two unforgettable lines. Everybody knows this one, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” I am evermore empathetic with him for this. But I suspect that few remember another line that fits today’s world even more than it did in 1976. On returning to his program after being fired, Beale rants again, yelling that life is bullshit. It’s worth ending with the whole quotes from which these lines were taken. Thirty-six years later, nothing has changed.
Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living. And if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit. We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humiliation, decays, so there better be someone somewhere who does know. That’s the God bullshit. And then, there’s the noble man bullshit; that man is a noble creature that can order his own world; who needs God? Well, if there’s anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me: That man is full of bullshit. I don’t have anything going for me. I haven’t got any kids. And I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.
All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
I think we all need to get mad.
(Photo: Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network)