Are people in poor countries suffering because we drive SUVs? Are they starving because we eat too much? Is it our consumption that is the foundation of the exploitative system we live in?
These are important questions for people who want to alleviate suffering, end poverty, and change the exploitative system. I think that the every day consumption of the people in the rich countries is an outcome of the system, not the cause.
Let us draw a line, if we can, from an SUV driver to a farmer in a poor country. The driver drives the sport utility vehicle. The vehicle runs on gas. The gas is sold by a multinational oil company. The multinational oil company pays heavily into the pockets of politicians all over the world. Those politicians in exchange use their political and military power to displace farmers from oil rich lands in poor countries in order to facilitate the exploitation of oil in those lands.
Now imagine that all of the drivers decided, spontaneously, to stop driving SUVs. What would happen? Would the whole system collapse? Or would the oil and auto industries find a way with their beholden politicians to use every legal and illegal incentive to see to it that the process that culminates in their pocketing handsome profits continues?
Why do people drive SUVs? Better still, why do people drive at all? It could be that we have a love affair with cars, it’s true. But it might also be true that the distance from a residence to a grocery, library, school, hospital– all the basic services people need every day– is too far to walk or bicycle and too expensive to reach by cab.
In the absence of a cheap, well-functioning public transportation system, even people who hate cars have little choice. The decision to not have a sensible city plan and to not have a public transportation system aren’t issues of individual consumption, but of public policy. Public policy– over which we have far too little say and over which elites have far too much say– sets the incentive structure that makes driving much more attractive than the other options.
Let’s draw another line. This time, from the hamburger bun in a fast food joint to a factory farm in the US. The factory farm uses environmentally destructive chemicals. It exploits migrant workers. It is subsidized by the US government and the agribusiness that owns it produces vast quantities of monocultural food products, far more than can be consumed in north America.
Much of it is exported to poor countries where it out-competes indigenous production, leaving farmers in those countries unable to sell their food crops and earn a livelihood. The farmers move into cash crops or seek work in cities. The poor countries’ agricultural systems break down, resulting in food-insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition.
Is the working person, who is about to put that hamburger bun in her mouth, to blame for this whole situation? And if so, what is that person to do? Not eat? Not drive?
What if this person works well over 45 hours a week, spends hours a week traveling to work, has a minimum wage job and child care responsibilities, and tries to remit money to the poor country of her origin? If she has to renounce all unethical consumption, in this world, she has to renounce the world.
It seems to me that people in the poor countries aren’t starving because the people in the rich countries are consuming, but that the people in both regions are being used by a system that cares nothing about them.
The people of the rich countries often get more in return for being used, but even they get too little of the things that really matter. Health care, education, nutrition, creative and empowering work, leisure, clean air and water, safety, cultural opportunities– all these are things that people should be have access to more of, not less. That we don’t is again a matter of policy, not individual consumption.
And yes, in a good society, some things would cost more. Bananas, coffee, sugar– we don’t pay for the pain and sweat and suffering that go into their production, nor for the loss of that land for agricultural production, nor for the subsidized costs of transport (although to be fair, we do pay for exorbitant corporate profits and salaries that we wouldn’t have to pay for).
But local, organic, high-quality produce would be far cheaper than it is now. Likewise for cars and SUVs– paying the full environmental and social costs could well make them prohibitively expensive for individuals, but there would be sensible city plans, cycle paths, and abundant public transport to ensure that mobility was not reduced.
There are times when individual consumption does matter a great deal, and consumer behaviour too. Organized consumer power in the form of boycotts, the building and supporting of real alternatives, certainly does matter. Imagine the working person described above now living in a city where there is a strong field-to-table organic coop (like Foodshare in Toronto) that delivers a ‘good food box’ of organics for a low price to families.
Imagine this person lives in a city where there is a strong ‘critical mass’ movement of cyclists who fight for bike lanes and a more cycle-friendly city. Imagine this city has strong, cheap public transit, and a successful housing campaign that has fought for affordable housing in the city, close to services.
These outcomes of social movements create a context, an incentive structure, in which a consumer really does have a choice. Beyond even this, the goal is an economy where being an ‘ethical consumer’ is not something you’d have to dig, research, and travel to do, but where you’d have to go to great lengths to be an ‘unethical consumer’.
The point is that if history judges we who live in the rich countries harshly, it won’t be for our individual consumption choices but for not fighting the structures of domination and power relations that set the context for those choices as hard as we could have.
It’s not our happiness that is the foundation of misery in the poor countries. It’s our own lack of power, confidence, and solidarity to restrain our governments and corporations and ultimately to change the rules.
Justin Podur is a ZNet Commentator and developer. He maintains ZNet’s South Asia, Race, and Africa Watch pages as well as the Colombia and Chiapas Crisis pages. He can be reached at Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org