Sunday, November 01, 2009

The peace movement and the cornucopian view

If you want peace, work for justice.
            --Bumper Sticker (originally from the New Year's Day message of Pope Paul VI, 1972)

The above statement seems so much a truism that when someone says it, we rarely think to inquire about what the speaker means by either peace or justice. Let me formulate it this way. By peace, I will mean the absence of violent conflict within or between nations. By justice I will mean the just distribution of goods and services including such services as education and health care and the upholding of internationally recognized human rights for all people. I take this to be a good approximation of what those who say the above words or stick them on their car bumpers mean.

One key assumption behind such a formulation is that worldwide there is enough of all the essentials of a good life to ensure every person on the planet a decent existence. By decent I mean one characterized by good health and nutrition, adequate education and chances for advancement intellectually, culturally, materially and even spiritually. There may indeed be something to this assertion. According to the CIA Fact Book the estimated gross world product in 2008 was $69.62 trillion. Divide that by the current estimated population of 6.794 billion and the result is $10,247. That's $10,247 for each man, woman and child on Earth--not a princely sum, but certainly enough to provide a family of four in, say, India or Zambia a comfortable existence. Naturally, the cost of living is higher in rich countries, but then the public services and infrastructure are usually much better as well.

Such a distribution of the world's wealth is not only a political impossibility, but it would be seen by very many as unjust. This is because no one would be rewarded for efforts that produce a disproportionate amount of wealth, and many others who produce nothing would be given a windfall. The problem of incentives would intrude on such a leveling scheme; many would choose not to work in the face of a guaranteed income at this level. And, that begs the question of who would be left to work knowing that he or she could receive no more than the world average.

Such is the general outline of arguments by those who oppose any scheme of aid within and between countries. In practice certain European countries have achieved healthier, more productive, and less crime-ridden societies by guaranteeing minimum incomes as well as health care and other essential services. Nowadays, the aim of peace and justice advocates in this regard is usually to allow those at the bottom of the economic scale to reap a greater share of the benefits from economic growth. This is in lieu of taxing the existing wealth of the rich for immediate redistribution. And, here we get to the issue announced in the title of this piece: Most economic justice work is currently premised on the view that greater economic equality requires continued economic growth.

As such, those operating under this view assume that the natural resources required to attain the needed growth will continue to be available in the quantities required at prices that will make such equality possible. In other words, the seemingly politically impossible task of redistributing wealth will be sidestepped in favor of redistributing current income from future growth. This constitutes a wholehearted embrace of a cornucopian future; it recognizes no limits to growth that are implied by climate change, world peak oil production, and the rapid depletion of other resources including metal ores, water, soil and fish. And, if any of these limits are acknowledged, the resulting problems are assigned to the "technology will save us" category.

This is an important hidden assumption behind much (though certainly not all) peace and justice work. I've been thinking about this issue since being on a panel for an International Day of Climate Action event in my city. One of the issues the people who attended brought up was the enormous amount of military spending in the world, particularly by the United States. No doubt much of it is simply wasted, not even providing what the military strategists say they want. This includes fraud by contractors in pricing and quality, weapons systems forced on the military that it does not want or need, and inefficiencies of all kinds that are inevitable in any bureaucracy as large as the U. S. military establishment. People in attendance at the event also made arguments opposing America's two ongoing wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

But missing from the discussion--missing, that is, until I brought it up--was the primary reason the United States has soldiers deployed all over the world, namely, to protect (or arguably, to dominate) points of supply and transport routes for critical resources in which the country is no longer self-sufficient. Chief among these is oil, though the list includes all the major metals and a host of other critical items including fertilizers and natural gas. I suggested that our foreign policy is largely shaped by this deep dependency on the outside world for the basic materials that underpin our modern way of life. Until that dependency goes away, it is unlikely that our foreign policy will be re-oriented.

Therefore, I suggested a reformulation of that shibboleth so often heard in peace and justice circles as follows: If you want peace, consume a lot less. It's not nearly as inspirational as Pope Paul's original words, but in my view it is a truism nevertheless.


Jerry said...

Yep, its quite the conundrum that we have arranged for the world.

Rice Farmer said...

The only way that dependency will go away is for people to give up the industrial lifestyle, and no one will do that without a fight. We don't need a crystal ball to see the future.

Henry Warwick said...

In this regard:

mattbg said...

Kurt, I think you have it right.

Whenever I have a conversation with someone who is a verbal proponent of social justice but who also has means (i.e. they talk about social justice for other people, not for themselves because they are doing OK), it is spoken of as if it's up to someone else to provide it. Often, too, we should take care of the environment but it's up to someone else to legislate it and they're not going to do much until the perceived injustice of corporate pollution is brought in line with what is expected of the individual (as if corporate pollution is separate from their own consumption).

And when they talk about equality, they are often doing things in their own lives that they hope will make them stand out from others, or to set themselves up for superior treatment or capability.

At the same time, though, I can sympathize to some degree because if you believe that North Americans use 9 times their share of resources, then that is a huge nut to crack and will not be resolved with incremental abstention. It is somewhat rational to think that such a change should be dealt with by policy that changes how young people will run their lives while letting the older people go on as before, mediated by market forces.

But I still think there's a fundamental contradiction between how people who talk about social justice talk and how many of them act. I think those people enjoy their lives under capitalism just fine, and think that it's good enough to overtly pine for social justice even if nothing gets done.

What I'd like to see is a shift in attitude that casts different light on this way of talking amicably and coming across as a nice guy while being content to be passive and let other people do your dirty work for you. It is becoming a problem in a number of areas, and they leave people who are looking for a real solution looking cold or callous when they talk about how things are and how a real solution might come about, rather than going on about ideal outcomes that will never be achieved.

Brief example: if you accuse people who genuinely want to solve some inner-city problems of being racist when they are speaking plainly and striving for a real solution, then you may come across as caring but if the end result is that nothing is done and the problem persists then in the end you are more sinister than the person you accuse, though I'm not sure society sees it that way.

The same types of things are on display with these other movements... essentially that society has a preference for the fantasy of a solution where it all magically comes together than one where we actually do something to make it happen. The void left by abandonment of religion?