In a world where people eat scrumptious meals in fancy restaurants while homeless people peddle for coins just on the other side of the glass, where others drive their $100,000 autos solo daily past hordes of bus goers (in sub-freezing temperatures) without considering offering a ride, and where increasing numbers communicate via “god-like” cellular devices while others, thousands of miles away, work feverishly in horrific conditions to collect enough “coltan” (a versatile metal alloy used in WiFi-transmitting electronics) to feed their families, one has to ask, “What’s moral these days?” And, relatedly, in a world so extreme in its inequality and maldistribution of resources, “Is it even possible for a person of economic privilege to live morally?”
Imagining an extra-terrestrial who happened upon our planet, I suspect he/she would unequivocally state that nearly all “first-worlders” live immorally. This judgment would come simply from his/her observation that we consume resources that are obtained, distributed, manufactured, and sold in ways that usually cause great psychological and physical harm to other humans and other forms of life. From the pesticide-laden plants (or hormone- and antibiotic-dosed meat) food that dominates food systems, our fossil fuels which often come from war-torn regions of the world where (despite the amazing amount of $$ that these resources must be worth) most people have remained severely impoverished for decades, or our everyday clothing and house “products” that are almost always made by workers overseas who live in inhumane work environments, this verdict is undeniable. If there were a functioning international court, we would be found “guilty” of immoral lifestyles.
Concluding that we are living immorally shouldn’t be news to anyone, though it rarely gets coverage in such blatant terms. It also doesn’t have much meaning if it isn’t just an inevitable result of living in the 21st century (or at all). Clearly, humans must consume substantial resources to live, all large animals do by necessity. So, do we have any real choice? The answer is “yes.” First, we overconsume, producing excessive amounts of waste. Many of the products that we buy aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. Second, we, if we really cared to do so, could find many of the resources that we do need to thrive from producers that aren’t destroying the environment in their work. This is particularly true with food but is doable, albeit difficult, in other areas as well. (Here are a few articles that lay out some of these options, ref 1, ref 2). Third, all of us are entangled, whether we like it or not, in the most immoral component of our “consumption”: the trillions of dollars lost (which we pay in taxes) on the continued militarization of the world and its ties to resolving humanitarian and economic challenges with arms and violence, rather than diplomacy and peace.
All this said, it must be noted that many of those that live in “rich” countries, especially the U.S., live under great economic stress and this limits their ability to act morally with regard to their consumption patterns. Reasonably, until they are relieved of their structural impoverishment, their immorality doesn’t deserve much attention; though increasing their “take” and not causing further damage would necessitate a different type of growth than we are use to. On the other hand, the behaviors of those that live in middle- to upper-class lives cannot be overlooked. Sadly, much of what they (and “I”) consume falls into the category of “horrible.” Our educational system and mainstream media (both increasingly influenced/controlled by corporations), in their effort to ensure that we continue to consume, completely fail to teach us what we need in order to consume morally.
So, where does this leave us? I don’t think there are any magical solutions. But, just as alcoholics must admit their addiction before making headway, we need to admit our immorality as well. Perhaps part of the solution is something equivalent to AA (or NA) where people could meet regularly and figure out ways to modify our (individually and collectively) consumption patterns toward moral pathways. Such meetings are happening under other auspices (e.g., Green Party, First Nations Environmental Network, Urban Ag/Permaculture, etc.). Start your own group or check one of these out. Let us know what you find!