Had the Virus Not Come

Had the virus not come, we would all be fine,
Our congress could indulge in their free wine and dines.

Had the virus not come, we’d all get along
Even while Fox News’ regular programming stays on.

Had the virus not come, our market would be booming.
Profit preceding planet, despite the climate crisis looming.

Had the virus not come, our lifestyles: still thriving,
Shuffling through schedules, successfully surviving.

Had the virus not come, teachers wouldn’t fret.
Out-of-pocket supply suppliers; their choice, their debt.

Had the virus not come, our poor’d have no ills,
Nor health insurance, nor hope insurance, just piles of bills.

Had the virus not come, we’d all be okay,
But it has and it did, and we’ve got lots to say.

Competing Oppression: A Diversion for Divisions

According to social justice activist and political-philosopher Iris Marion Young, there are five faces of oppression that an oppressed social group can experience: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, violence, and cultural imperialism.

  1. Exploitation looks at how wealth is unequally distributed and is persistent in institutional structures;
  2. Marginalization is the exclusion of people or social groups from economic or political systems;
  3. Powerlessness refers to people who lack the “authority, status, and sense of self that professionals tend to have;”
  4. Violence refers to systematic violence and violent threats based on one’s identity;
  5. Cultural imperialism occurs when “the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other.”

Young stated, “…with these criteria one can plausibly claim that one group is more oppressed than another without reducing all oppressions to a single scale.” The resulting comparison would deem that social groups experiencing more faces will be more oppressed and more salient than groups experiencing fewer faces.

One can argue that creating a hierarchy of oppression might be an objective way to determine where the bulk of social justice and resistance initiatives should be targeted; and by engaging in this ranked process, we are exhibiting natural human behavior according to social dominance theory, which explicates that there is a “general tendency for humans to form and maintain group-based hierarchy.” While this theory is often used to explain the origin of oppression, in this context, it can be applied to the desire to rank levels of oppression.

Native Americans are an oppressed group and arguably experience all five faces of oppression. Native Americans are a marginalized group, with many people being unaware that Native Americans are still alive today. Additionally, Natives were and continue to be exploited for their land and the natural resources on their land; a present-day example is the Dakota Access Pipeline which plans to run through Indigenous lands and an Indigenous cemetery. Native Americans are powerless in terms of political and social capacity as the U.S. government continues to ignore them and impose policies that reduce their viability. For example, in the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented a policy to relocate Indians from their reservations to urban communities in an attempt to “destroy tribal communalism.” Natives also faced violence in the form of massacres and forced relocation (i.e. the Trail of Tears). Lastly, colonization in and of itself is a comprehensive example of cultural imperialism as colonists forced their European way of life on Indigenous peoples by converting them to Christianity and forcing them to attend European-style schools. Although Native Americans have experienced all of Young’s five faces of oppression, one of these faces by itself would be sufficient for Native Americans to be considered an oppressed group.

Another example of an oppressed social group are rural Americans, but this group only clearly exhibits two of the five faces of oppression. Rural poverty, concentrated in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and other places across America, have generational impacts and can easily be interpreted as marginalization due to the increasing lack of opportunities in rural economies. As of 2016, a quarter of children raised in rural America were poor, this rate reached 36% in Arizona, and rural (nonmetro) poverty continually beats urban (metro) poverty, especially in the South. Empty villages with few jobs, closed schools, rural-urban migration leaving behind only old or poor people, plagues of meth abuse—this is not the American Dream anyone envisions, yet this is the reality for many Americans living in rural areas. Exploitation is also seen through the monopolization of agribusiness and offshoring of manufacturing jobs from corporate America that exacerbates the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas.

povertyratesbyregion2017
Source: USDA

According to Young’s faces of oppression, Native Americans are more oppressed than rural Americans as the former experiences all five faces compared to the latter’s two. Although they are both oppressed, often Native Americans and rural Americans are at odds aligning themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Individuals belonging to oppressed rural America might also support a sports team that racistly charactiturizes Native Americans. You could even reference the sensationalized Cowboys vs. Indians dichotomy that, although is not relevant today, still effectively illustrates how these groups don’t typically operate on the same team. This lack of cohesion can be exacerbated by the desire to outcompete for oppression points.

This comparison of oppression is problematic in that oppressed groups can feel further marginalized and unheard in the decision-making arena as their oppression is delegitimized in comparison to the oppression faced by others. This can facilitate unproductive hostile relations, albeit towards the system or “competing” oppressed groups. Angela Davis and Elizabeth Martinez coined the term “Oppression Olympics” to refer to the possibility that social groups would compete for being the most oppressed. This lack of cohesion among oppressed groups prevents the unification of oppressed groups and stalls progress towards achieving justice. Audre Lorde states:

…it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action.”

We saw this with the rise in the alt-right blaming immigrants for their lack of economic opportunities. The oppressors above all benefit from this hostility as blame gets thrown at the bottom rungs of the social totem pole (excuse me for the appropriated metaphor) and fails to accurately blame the oppressors, e.g. corporations outsourcing manufacturing jobs or monopolizing agribusiness. The desire to be heard and the presence of a listening leader blaming other groups for their oppression was a large contributing factor in the election of President Trump.

What if instead of utilizing the top-down societal divisions of Cowboys vs. Indians, Unemployed vs. Immigrants, Gay people vs. Black Christians, we focus on the reality of Oppressed vs. Oppressors. As Martin Luther King Jr. had stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In an increasingly polarized society, we need to be wary of who our opposition actually is and who is working to propagate societal divisions, so we can come together as a nation and fight the oppression at its root rather than its diversion. United we stand, divided we continue to be oppressed.

 

Sexism sucks.

I knew sexism was a part of the American fabric. I grew up in it, I’ve adapted to it, I was totally accepting of that fact. However, upon visiting some countries in which gender isn’t valued the same, I was so willing to accept sexism in all its extremes out of concern I was unwittingly throwing shades of foreign judgement.

I maintained that criticism of a country was a criticism of another culture, which was not my place as a foreigner. I will accept the lower social status as a female, tolerate the sexual harassments, and respectively try to assert myself, and move on at the end. It’s not like I would have to tolerate this “extreme” sexism when I leave. And mind you, this position was quite hard to sustain. I’ve got my butt glazed over then immediately witnessed the assailant full on cup my friend’s cheek in front of me. I have been harassed on my way to the airport at 5am by a kid on a bike who wouldn’t leave me alone until I told him my age. I’ve been cat-called and whistled at in languages I couldn’t even identify. My hair has been grabbed by a drunk bystander, and I’ve been groped on a plane by my seat neighbor. But at the end of the day, I was returning to America. I could leave.

My run-ins with sexual harassment do not pale in comparison to the forms of gender oppression that local women can receive. Complete lack of participation in workforces which makes them completely financially dependent on males, arranged marriages by their parents (not uncommonly to much older men), no access to birth control not to mention basic sanitary products like pads or tampons, increased incidences and general acceptance of domestic violence–I am very privileged to be able to return to these rights that many of my sisters don’t have.

When I returned, I was grateful for an extra thick layer to my security jackets (although I still shiver at night). But then I went to Minnesota to visit family and was bombarded with body manipulation commercial after body mutilation commercial. Liposuction, extreme dieting fads, weight loss pills–everything that expresses: (mostly targeted at females’) bodies can’t just be accepted. I then went down to Los Angeles for a month and was introduced to the gender discrepancy and forms of sexism that the film industry upholds. I see the credits scroll by dozens of men’s name before the first female name is listed in the credits. I scroll through Netflix dodging male protagonist after male protagonist (there are even fewer women of color or members of the queer community that threaten to disrupt the sea of peen).

Yes, it has been getting better over the years. But to stumble across a movie on Netflix in which Seth Rogan playing the protagonist rapes his drunk colleague, Emma Stone, during the movie, and I’m guessing suffers no repercussions as he pursues his dream of becoming a cop (couldn’t finish the movie so now I’m assuming) illustrates that rape culture is still being promoted by the film and media industry. Yes, the movie is old, but it shouldn’t be up improperly educating young men how to treat drunk women.

Now, I’m not just crying over women. The sexism and gender oppression are deeply tied in with toxic masculinity that hurts men too. Jake Nevins, a columnist for The Guardian, writes: “on-screen examinations of men and masculinity have tended toward hagiography, subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing patriarchal notions about how to be a man.” These notions often include assumptions that men have to be the breadwinner of the household, values that physical strength is the best measure of human quality, and interactions with phrases like “men don’t cry”. This is harmful to men who don’t fit the presented male mold and who are shunned from properly expressing their emotions due to societal judgement.

I returned from extreme gender oppression to America to find sexism pouring into the top of our funnel of culture while we graciously swallow its message.

Despite my grapplings over my acceptance of sexism and gender oppression [what a fucking sentence], two things stuck in my mind: 1) I am (and likely others are) willing to accept forms of gender oppression because its foreign; and 2) as long as sexism exists someplace, it will exist every place. We might not be suffering the atrocities that a significant portion of women face around the world, but we shouldn’t be complacent with the sexism funnel or structural gender discrimination either.

Empathize

We often conceive of the world as only one way and it is the way in which we perceive it. But most of us acknowledge that we have different perceptions and values—that’s why we have different religions and different political parties and different food preferences. When we don’t accept others’ perspectives as truths, we create divisions within our society that stall progress and facilitate hatred.

As our society becomes more and more polarized, empathy and compassion for the other has become increasingly sparse. People on every and all sides look to the other with confusion and detest and safe space for discussion is shrinking, leaving everyone breathless. If we can’t understand the “other”, what hope do we have for a United States of America?

Empathize with the pain that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color cry as they work to claim their right to existence, their right to protection by the law and from the law. Hear their voices of exhaustion from burying another brother, another sister, another friend. See the statistics that support the subconscious racial employment bias, or the disproportionate mal-healthcare practices experienced by Black people, specifically Black women, who are treated by White doctors. Understand that the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, school integration began in 1954,  and slavery in this country began in 1619. Out of the past 400 years of the systemic and violent subjugation of Black people to White supremacy, 87% was legal and standard.

But empathize with the gun-toting, confederate flag wielding countryman whose childhood was shaped by weekend hunting trips and whose history textbook preached the cause of the civil war to be motivated entirely by economic sovereignty rather than racial inferiority. If hatred weren’t fuelled by ignorance, why should we hate those less informed? Less exposed? Defaulting to label someone as “racist” is the quickest way to shut down dialogue when misunderstanding or unfamiliarity leads their logic over actual racist beliefs.

Empathize with the Trump supporter whose post-recession economy is not booming and whose roads are certainly not paved with gold. Latching onto the Immigrant scapegoat for their misfortune, because their misfortune was thrust upon them by the mass pillage of the banks in 2008, or the offshoring of manufacturing jobs in the early 2000s, or the monopolization of agribusiness that merely contributed to the already tall economic marginalization of the country’s middle. All strengthen the desire to return to an America where working folk were not economically marginalized; all strengthen the rejection of “white privilege” by an underprivileged group.

Empathize with the immigrant who is blamed for such slaughter. But whose home they are fleeing due to slaughter of its own. Who contribute taxes regardless of their legal status but are denied eligibility for welfare benefits and Medicaid. What was once a welcoming country for refugees and asylum-seekers was cut up, blended, and boiled. Fed to the grassroots white supremacists from the bowls of for-profit immigration facilities carried by the spoons of the profiteering media who preach of the stability of our race-based hierarchy.

Empathize with the anti-vaxxer whose mistrust in our government and healthcare industry is justified as prescription class-action lawsuit after class-action lawsuit plague our tv screens, and direct bribery of the FDA by pharmaceutical companies is documented and common.

Empathize with the wealthy. Their whole lives fed rich, white propaganda bullshit after rich, white propaganda bullshit. Not to be exposed to people of color unless as via employments of service. Taught that achieving more was man’s ultimate destiny and skirting regulations and consumer protection was in the training handbook for achieving economic efficiency and high profit margins. Fending for their families, who would not achieve the level of lavish consumption without sizeable millions at their desire and disposal, they so secluded themselves from the greater society, they have fallen blind to the impacts of their profiteering pursuits on their fellow human. How further away is the other face to be not included in God’s love thy neighbor clause?

The divide between sides is as frustrating as it is pitiful. To see people hating humans just because they’re told that the other is the true human-hater is the real enemy of our country.

We know we view the world differently, but we do not accept that the truth is not singular. There are 7 billion truths and when we accept others’ truths with as much validation as our own, there is more room for dialogue on why Black Lives Matter, why we need governmental protection from greedy banks and pharmaceutical companies, and why Immigrants shouldn’t be kept in cages. Acknowledging the plurality of truths and experience is just the first step towards healthy dialogue engagement; and in the end, the world becomes a lot less polarized.

The colonisation of Indigenous women in the US

Note: I am not Native nor can I speak of the first-hand experiences of Native Americans. The information I am sharing mainly comes from my education through a Native American Studies course and Native-authored sources.

The colonization of Indigenous women has persisted even in the ‘post-colonial’ era. Specifically, colonialism promoted a shift from an egalitarian society to a patriarchal societal structure which resulted in a legacy of violence against Indigenous women, and specific colonial sterilization policies which not only affected women’s role in Indigenous society, but severely limited the size and sovereignty of Native societies today.

Prior to colonization, the concept of balance, twinning, and equal gender roles was emphasized in the egalitarian community structure of Eastern Woodlands Cosmology. However, as Native Americans assimilated to Western culture, the matrilineal and matrifocal community structure that existed in Native American nations switched to a patriarchal structure (Sellers, Stephanie).

The distinction between the colonists’ and Natives’ view of gender roles is illustrated through the Euro-American narrative of the Lenni Lenape society. The original ethnologists who reported on this tribe, clergies in the Jesuit Church, recorded the Lenni Lenape’s lifestyle with a particular emphasis on the value of women in society. Claims, such as “men and women played complementary roles in their daily lives and in their cultural matrix…the key dynamic was not domination and subordination between the sexes” (47), “A women could not be forced to marry; the choice was hers” (48), and “husbands did not make decisions for wives” (Caffrey, Margaret).

Western culture not only rejected gender equality and the matrifocal and matrilineal structures, the paradigm surrounding women within Native society shifted to view women as inferior to men. In fact, the Cherokee Nation rewrote their constitution to exclude women and women’s positions in order to align with the colonists (Sellers, Stephanie).

The introduction of unequal gender roles has had inter-generational consequences as the legacy of colonial patriarchy continues today and is manifested through domestic and sexual violence experienced by Native American women. Over one in three Native American women will be raped over the course of their life; and most women do not report the incident, because they know there will be inaction or indifference towards handling the report. The denial of justice for survivors of sexual assault and violence has actually caused Native American women to be more targeted than women of any other ethnic group (Lobo et al. 184).

Additionally, young Indigenous girls were particularly targeted and coerced to attend Indian boarding and mission schools in the early 1900s as a means of committing cultural genocide: “[Mission school’s] goal was to alienate girls from the cultural values and practices of their mothers and turn them instead to Christianity and the Anglo-American work ethic and material culture” (Lobo et al. 290). The sexual abuse present in the boarding schools also enabled young girls to be accustomed to victimization. Thus, the legacy of victimization facilitates the transition from victims of sexual abuse in school to victims of domestic violence in the home for many women (Indian School: Stories of Survival). Compared to their community standing pre-colonization, Native American women have been incredibly devalued.

Additionally, sterilization efforts in the 1970s by the U.S. government has had intergenerational effects to the extent that they completely eliminated the potential for future Indian generations. A 1975 General Accounting Office (GAO) report revealed that between 1973 and 1976, 3,406 sterilizations on Native American women were performed in Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities. The Native American population is already small, so this number has the same impact to if 452,000 non-Indian women had been sterilized. It is important to note that this number only accounts for four of the twelve IHS facilities and only covers the three years between 1973 and 1976; thus, it is likely that more Native American women have also undergone sterilization procedures. It is also unclear to what extent this statistic reflects informed and consensual sterilization procedures. There was no written record of consent for many of these procedures, and language barriers between Native women and IHS physicians could have also made it difficult for Native women to give informed verbal consent. Women interviewed later stated that public and private welfare agencies had threatened to put their children in the foster care system if the women did not comply with the sterilization procedure, and some women gave consent while they were in child labor and under the influence of pain medication (Lobo et al. 175-184). As the main roles for women in the tribal community are to be mothers, sterilization has also led to emotional trauma where their communal and biological roles are denied (Sellers, Stephanie).

Overall, the psychological and emotional damage caused by these colonialist policies and events has persisted through many generations and has led to a lack of emotional development, sexual and domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe economic distress. Not only has the impacts of colonization persisted today on Indigenous communities, it has caused disproportionate emotional and physical trauma for Indigenous women still today.

 

Originally published in Red Flag’s International issue 18 Magazine on February 28, 2018.

Until We All Can’t Breathe

Submissive shadows
Stand at the door,
Watching with judgment:
Is freedom worth war?

Screams were once whispers,
Knees fixed to the floor,
Breathless conversations,
Cotton business so it goes.

Weep for the wounded
From the white of your bed.
Only pray for disruption
While the sidewalks turn red.

Defenses from Defenseless,
Dreams still denied.
Swing low and swing hard,
So the cagebird can’t cry.

Uncuff the complex,
Castrate the chain,
Feel the fear of existence,
Taste the plea of their pain.

Pick up the fallen,
Allow space to grieve,
Choke out the system
Until we all can’t breathe.

The Year of Mother Earth

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the 100th anniversary of white women’s right to vote in the United States. With the anniversary of two historical movements colliding, a reflection on our progress is warranted. However, while we have accomplished so much in our fight against environmental pollution and the patriarchy, we still have miles to go to achieve a society that prioritizes planetary and human health and security.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring warning about the dangers of DDT in US crop fields. She received vast criticism for only having a Master’s degree and for being an unmarried woman in her thirties—things for which a man would likely not have faced criticism. A year after publishing the book, Carson died of breast cancer as a victim of the chemical assault she forewarned. Dupont, Monsanto, the Vesicol Chemical Corporation, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association among others tried desperately to quiet her, fearing that her loudspeaker on their actions would cause sale declines, or even worse: regulations. A cancellation for DDT was issued in 1972 after Carson’s words influenced Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, announcing success for the nascent mainstream environmentalism movement.

Today, we have glyphosate. Produced by Monsanto and the active ingredient in RoundUp, glyphosate is classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization and is disproportionately applied in agrarian communities in Latin America where the majority of our soy, palm, corn, and wheat—the primary ingredients in our processed foods—are produced. Another chunk of glyphosate exposure is in rural America, where the economy suffers from the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the consolidation of big agribusiness. Women disproportionately accumulate the sprayed pesticides as our fat tissues in our breast’s mammary glands store the toxicity and bioaccumulate over time.  The toxic chemicals can also be transferred from mother to baby in utero, which has been linked to infant malformations and autism spectrum disorder among other disabilities. The aftermath has a disproportionate impact on the mother who is usually expected to forgo her income strategy to raise the disabled child.

In the 1970s, housewives took to the street demanding more from our government and our businesses who used short-term gain to justify the discharge of chemicals and pollutants in our water and air. In Love Canal, New York, mothers saw their children fall ill from playing on the playgrounds under which the Hooker Chemical Company laid their chemical waste. These women stood up to the patriarchal power structure and demanded that the mother’s perspective be heard. Still at Love Canal, racism persisted, and although the toxicity of the predominantly Black neighborhood was also eminent, only the wealthier, white homes were in the relocation zone, and Black women were often excluded from leadership in the activist efforts, if not excluded from the activism efforts altogether. Still, following the efforts of white feminist environmentalism, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was passed and required polluters to clean up their toxic waste (what a concept!). 

Today, we have poison in the water pipes of a predominantly Black community in Flint, Michigan, which still does not have access to clean water. We have the North Dakota Sioux who fought for clean water security after developers were paid off by wealthy, white communities to not build near them. Developers still had other, costlier options, but the health risk to the community was not covered in the construction costs. Remember, it was their water first. The Dakota Access Pipeline leaked five times in 2017 alone.

Leading up to the 1970s, hippies and progressives embraced Native American values of living in harmony with nature as they observed the profit-driven assault on our planet. They watched fire burn on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio—the result of several decades of industrial waste accumulation. You know something’s not right when water catches fire. They grew concerned over the radioactive fallout from hydrogen bomb testing on the Bikini Atoll marine ecosystem and its impact on the people living in the Northern Marshall Islands who were forced to resettle and still are unable to return to their homes due to lingering radioactivity over 60 years later. They stood by while 3 million gallons of oil killed over 10,000 sea birds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions in the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.  After witnessing the profit-driven environmental assault, 20 million Americans—10% of the population at the time!!—took to the street to peacefully protest for a healthier planet in what became the first Earth Day in 1970.  The mobilization of citizens brought about the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act a year later.

Today, we have extreme weather events disproportionately impacting poor communities from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey that are results of increasing temperatures fuelling greater storm surges. We have sunny-day flooding in Miami from sea-level rise. We have 87% of Alaskan Native communities facing disrupted transportation networks from the erosion of riverbanks and cliffs due to sea-level rise, and several communities forced to relocate entirely. We have an increased habitat range of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and we have a refugee crisis because climate change impacts the least-resilient and least-carbon-emitting tropics the hardest. We have the opportunity to apologize to Mother Earth by spreading messages of acceptance, collectiveness, and planet stewardship like we have done in the past. But we are letting the change stay with the climate while we deny the affordable, renewable energy that would also grant us energy independence and while we give tax dollars to subsidize fossil fuel companies. 

Although it is the 50th anniversary of remarkable environmental achievements, we have stagnated in our commitment to protect the earth that sustains us. The power of activism and women’s leadership in environmental protection is indispensable. As this past Presidency has recalled or weakened over 80 environmental regulations, including measures to restrict air and water pollution and protect endangered species, the year of Mother Earth is more critical than ever. Like the tides, the seasons, and women, cycles are omnipresent in nature. The colliding anniversaries of successes for both the women’s and environmental movements during a socio-political system that prioritizes wealth accumulation is a timely reminder that we need to reassess our values. In the presence of pervasive greed and selfishness, we can shine through, or we can suffer.

The Growth Imperative Part III: Solutions

The imperative for tomorrow’s economy to be more prosperous than today’s puts capitalism in a bind that necessitates resource extraction and pollution while also reducing costs or labor, which furthers wealth inequality and the polarization of humanity into producing and consuming classes (See Parts I and II).

There are two general solutions to prevent the capitalist bubble from bursting and collapsing the social structures that we have built to support its expansion: 1) feed it further by transcending Earth’s limits; 2) transform our economy from a bubble to a circle and empower the worker.

Growing the bubble

How can we sustain the capitalist expansion without polarizing wealth inequality and ecologically-limiting extraction/disposal bursting the bubble? We go to space. Elon Musk knows capitalism needs to expand to survive, Trump’s people know this–that our Earth will not be able to accommodate economic growth for much longer. We won’t have to drink water or breathe air flavored with chemical and plastic toxicants, capital investments on a new planet will surely return profits as colonization has always been profitable in the past, and discovered extraterrestrial resources and minerals will likely make way for even more investment opportunities.

However, while this solution might work to accommodate the expanding bubble, the equity issue of space colonization remains at large. Who will get to escape the perils of climate change on Earth and at what cost to whom? The 2013 film, Elysium, already portrayed this future in the year 2154 where the poor were left to rot on the crime-ridden and dust-suffocating planet, while the rich lived in an orbiting space platform free from pollutants and the poor.

With our planet’s air, water, and soil leaking with pollutants, it is no surprise why any well-off, wage-inflated member of the 1% would want to escape the dirty dredges of Earth, and although this is just a presumptuous prediction, it is likely that this privilege will not be granted to the majority of humans. Environmental racism is already a phenomenon in which poor and minority communities are in closer proximity to hazardous waste facilities, nuclear power plants, and other health threats than their wealthy and white counterparts. Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black community, still has water tainted with lead. STILL. After all, if one has the financial clout and political agency to fight for their community, why wouldn’t they?

We can transcend our planetary boundaries through space colonization, but the social implications will remain at large.

From bubble to circle

Alternatively, we can deflate the capitalist bubble slowly and transition the late-capitalist, growth-imperative economies into circular economies that support our society and the environment. One of the most popular new economic paradigms is that of the steady-state, zero-growth economy that many ecological economists support. Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, defines a steady-state economy as an economy that maintains population and production levels at low enough rates to maintain ecological sustainability and manage minimal flows of matter and energy within the production/consumption cycle. In other words, we don’t need to push consumption for the sake of consumption. We don’t need to deplete minerals, use up finite fossil fuels, or further strain our environment to put superfluous products on heavy shelves; our society will not be better off with hoverboards or airpods or a new laptop every four years. However, the switch to a steady-state might not be enough. Steady-state economics does not actually reduce environmental exploitation or other consequences of growth, it just maintains that the rate of growth is equal to that of the rate of growth of the workforce and ensures that the capitalist bubble can stay within the ceiling of ecological limits. Additionally, critics question whether this economy can facilitate a stable and socially just society in a capitalist regime that still prioritizes capital accumulation.

The circular economy, a concept that also lingers within the capitalist framework, advocates for the closing of material loops and to reuse resources and materials in the production system in contrast to the linear capitalist model of “take, make, dispose”. Imagine a world in which all of the plastics used to bottle our soda or keep medical devices sanitary came from recycled plastic materials. Imagine a world where food waste gets composted and applied to our crops as fertilizer to replace the toxic chemicals that kill our pollinators, degrade our soil quality, and run off into our waters to fuel oxygen-depleting algae. Lion King is right, the circle of life encompasses the circularity of ecosystem processes and should incorporate the circularity of our economy. Even China committed to a national circular economy strategy in response to rapid population growth and industrialization in an effort to reduce resource consumption and environmental degradation.

However, the transition to a circular economy does not mitigate the social impacts that the drive for reduced costs and increased profits has on the producing class of the world. For this, we need collectivization and cooperativism. What if instead of one person profiting off the labor of workers, the workers profited themselves? REI and other cooperatives have this business model where, in addition to employees getting compensated living wages, annual profits are distributed to the cooperative through dividends to members/loyal customers, employee profit-sharing initiatives, and investments in public service non-profits. Is this not a better model than a handful of executives dolling out millions in surplus profits amongst themselves through bonuses and stock options before any potential dividends even reach shareholders, while employees are left with squat diddly?

We can keep pushing growth forward though is our quality of life still improving? Our health is being severely degraded by the factory-produced food, our life expectancy is declining, our inequality is unprecedented, and our sense of community and belonging is eroded and festering outbreaks of mental health illnesses that theoretically shouldn’t exist in the wake of abundance. Or, we can quit while we’re ahead and transition to a system that is more sustainable, inclusive, and supportive of the whole of humankind and our dear Mother Earth. Our economy cannot exist without a society, and our society cannot exist without an environment to feed and sustain us.

1200px-Nested_sustainability-v2.svg

We don’t need a digression, we just need to ensure we are accountable for our inputs and outputs and that we consider the needs and desires of all of humanity–not just the ones purchasing our products. Are environmental protection and social inclusion really threatening economic growth? Or have the mirrors of influence distorted our view.

 

                      Figure 1.

The Growth Imperative Part II: Social Problems

Capitalism necessitates that tomorrow’s economy is better than today’s; however, the viability of the continued economic expansion is threatened by both environmental and societal degradation. Previously, I discussed how the growth imperative promotes overconsumption that results in unsustainable resource extraction and cumulatively disastrous wastes (See Part I here).

The other front that increasingly threatens tomorrow’s prosperity, and that this post will aim to cover, is the growing inequality between social classes.

Ask any economist and the two most important variables in the world are supply and demand. We can produce all the environmentally- and socially-harmful products in the world but without a proper consumer base, the economy will not prosper.

Globalization, from its inception in the religious/market/scientific-driven front and its underlying colonial pursuits, has made markets open for consumers all over the world to share in the multitude of products. The global middle class is growing, but in late-capitalist societies, growth is grasping at straws to push the envelope of frivolous consumption and polarized wealth accumulation and drive the separation of Have’s and Have nots even further. The inequality is shrinking the consumer base and fewer and fewer people can afford such Apple pods or Gucci goloshes.

In the US, the top 1% owns 40% of the wealth. The three richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50%. I’m all for winners and losers, but running a race when the opponent is driving a golf cart and you’re jumping over structural hurdles, seems a bit rigged. The Gini coefficient is an internationally-agreed upon metric of income inequality, and in the US in 1979 was at 34.6; in 2016, it was 41.5. As you guessed it, the higher the value, the higher the wealth inequality. Ironically, empirical studies show that excessive inequality hampers economic performance. A rising tide does not lift all boats, nor does having a cruise ship among fishing vessels rise the tide (unless you consider the cruise ship’s contribution to sea-level rise).

While inequality is hampering growth in the US today, this trend will only continue to grow until the world is divided into two groups: the producers and the consumers. Producers are already victims from the monopolization of the means of production and the large corporations/employers who sell humans as labor units for the lowest price on the docking board (a subsistence job with exploitative working conditions is better than no job, right?). Our disposable iPhones could not be upgraded every other year without the mined cobalt at the crux of ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is then exported to China where nets placed outside of factories catch the underpaid and overworked factory workers who decide that living to work is not worth working to live. Then our iPhones can be attached to the consumers’ hip while we work in our white-collar jobs to shift money from investor to client, or profit from a celebrity faux pas, or entice other consumers to overconsume using unregulated and often unknowingly given data points. Exploited to produce, exploited to consume.

While we work to satiate the ever-increasing appetite of capitalism, we also work to make production even cheaper, so the profit margins of the corporate executives continue to expand as does their plenteous lifestyle. We can innovate further. We don’t need to accept the folly of humans and their unreasonable demands for good wages and working conditions, we can automate every form of production. The number of farmers in the US is already falling with a 3% decline in the number of farms between 2012 and 2017 owing to the monopolization of agribusiness who outcompete small family farmers–American dairy farmers have declined 3% just from 2017 to 2018. The number of manufacturing jobs in the US is also falling with 7.5 million manufacturing jobs lost since 1980 due to both automation, and more significantly, offshoring to Asian countries where labor is cheap and regulations are lax. Will the roomba and drone-delivery meals replace domestic workers as well? Will we be satisfied when the robots produce all of our consumables disposables and produce clean energy and sustainably-grown produce as well?

While innovation and efficiency gains aren’t necessarily negative, we need to ask who is left behind from these production shifts? Who is left to suffer? Not the person who works in the middle moving product to market; not the person in the cubicle working to increase sales via social media targeting; not the person in the courtroom defending their employer for cutting corners to cut costs of production. Blue-collar workers are disappearing, and the remaining jobs are exclusively based on imaginary transactions to make constructed money that has no use-value. Who is left to afford the consumer goods? The economically-participating shadows left by blue-collar workers or the ones working to erase their existence in pursuit of profit margins?

Reducing costs of production is an effective way businesses have appeased their shareholders and grown the economy but at the cost of an increasingly marginalized working class who are increasingly excluded from the consuming market. When will we sit back as humanity and say, ok, we’ve done enough? We don’t need to extract more from the earth, we don’t need humans (or robots) working in poor conditions with low pay so we can benefit from the revolutionary iPhone 78. We can live off of what we produced, pay workers a living wage, and all have a comfortable lifestyle.