NASA Photo: ‘The Blue Marble’ photo taken on 7 December 1972 by Apollo 17 (the last human mission to the Moon), some 29,000 km from Earth on the way out to the Moon.
Even as a child, I used to wonder at our self-obsessed culture.
Every advertisement is aimed at instant self-gratification: buy our product to become smarter, sexier, cooler, more popular, and only worry about yourself. Forget about metaphorically storing treasures in heaven, just make sure you horde everything you need for creature comfort today while your neighbours starve.
Every popular song in the ‘hit parade’ is aimed at ME ME ME. I can’t get no satisfaction. I love you, yeah yeah yeah. Love me tender. Man, I feel like a woman. You know you love me. I will survive. My heart will go on. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
The cultural worship of narcissism.
As a child, I also used to puzzle over Boris, a widowed World War Two Polish refugee who lived in my neighbourhood. He lived a lonely and troubled life, and the neighbourhood was replete with stories about how he had allegedly dug escape tunnels in his back yard in case of a night raid by Nazis, and how he had concreted up his electricity meter box so nobody could tell if anyone was living inside his shuttered-up home. As a boy, I recall seeing him sitting in the gutter outside his house, using a spoon to share a can of dog food with his only friend – his pet dog – and I wondered why the adults in my neighbourhood used to ignore him. Didn’t Jesus or Santa Claus also love him?
I don’t condemn our culture for obsessing over self-preservation – selfishness sells at least as much advertising copy as its constituent components: sex or vanity. There is of course nothing wrong with healthy self-preservation, nor with ensuring that you survive along with your immediate family. My concern is that our culture promotes the falsehood that family stops outside our front door.
I even accept that self-preservation can be a fine, upstanding platform of morality – provided it does not trump other morals such as loving thy neighbour. And our culture creates false divisions between neighbours: Not in my back yard. Protect our borders. Punish the dole bludgers. Hide the homeless in another location. Lock away the sick old people where we cannot see them. Stop the queue jumpers even when the queue for those fleeing war or poverty extends over 150 years. Charity begins at home – and ends there. Privileged white lives matter too.
Wherefore art thou, Boris?
Our idolatrous promotion of capitalism is based upon two falsehoods: the first is that self trumps society, that the individual is paramount and should remain the focus of our capitalist system. After all, the myth proposes, people need to be rewarded for initiative, because otherwise free handouts via godless socialism simply make people lazy. Hence our culture prefers to hold billions of humans in economic servitude and allows millions to die each year from starvation, disease, or other poverty-related problems, rather than organise fair and equitable sharing of our resources. Universal Basic Income, anybody?
Culturally, our society honours those whom it sees as being worthy of praise – usually conflating affluence with hard work – and disrespects the poor and disadvantaged, as though blaming them for their failure to be rich. Our worship of economic rationalism and ‘trickle down economics’ – philosophies that are largely immoral and discredited – permeate our lifestyles, causing us to behave in ways that, to an objective observer, are not the optimal ways for humans to treat themselves or others: from undertaking exploitative employment through to the way we approach charity – giving the poor a few breadcrumbs off our table.
The second falsehood in capitalism is the idea that we can all consume abundantly and shamelessly, and that our planet can and will absorb our mindless pursuit of hedonism and selfishness. Who cares if the oceans will soon be depleted as long as we can gorge our gullets today with lobster? So what if forests and the Great Barrier Reef will be gone within a generation, as long as we can eat, drink and be merry today? Who cares if in few years’ time there will be a billion climate change refugees, as long as our borders are secure and we can keep out the black people?
A friend of mine recently discussed similar points on Facebook, and with her permission I quote from her wisdom with some minor adaptations.
When people angrily denounce the 1% as being the evil bastards who keep everything for themselves and neglect everybody else, I remind them that WE are part of the 1% wealthiest people on Earth, just by being born here. We are those evil people who think a meat meal at a restaurant is more important than the lives of the 9 million or so people who will starve to death this year… or the tens of millions who will never manage to lift themselves out of borderline starvation.
In Australia we live really well — even the poorest of us… and I am one of those poorest. I don’t own a car or home. I eat one meal a day, only having protein (a little tin of sardines which I feel guilty about) one day a week. I don’t buy myself much of anything. But I have access to the vast riches of the internet, I never starve, I have a (leaky) roof over my head, am warm and happy. We are not starving to death. We have the dole and pension and many charities that hand out food and other goods. My brother works (for free) in a charity shop that has ridiculously low-priced goods, which they often give away to needy people.
We are sooo lucky here. Most people don’t realise. I come from a well-to-do background, so I have always known a wide spread of people, from filthy rich to destitute. I’ve always been amazed at so many of my wealthy friends believing they are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is always the people who are richer than them who are the problem. The thing is, we all are. We Australians are among the biggest energy consumers on Earth. We produce more greenhouse gases per capita than any other western nation. We produce more rubbish. We do less recycling than almost any other 1st world nation. We really need to ditch this selfish government that encourages selfishness in us and do our part to help fix the world.
At the same time, I don’t think less of those who don’t. It is entirely understandable that most people don’t realise how much better off we are than the vast majority of the world’s people. It is unfortunate, but not really anybody’s fault. It is changing slowly.
So you think this is an exaggeration? The USA and Australia are among the top ten richest countries in the world, as measured by GDP per capita. Maybe reassess whether you are rich: if you received more than $1500 US (or $2000 AUS) last year, you are among the world’s richest 20% of income earners; if you earned $50K US (or $65K AUS) then you are among the richest 1%.
It might be argued that our economic focus upon progress has disconnected us from the real world. My friend explores the idea that we need to reform even our concepts of what it means to practice charitable living and giving:
These days I spend a lot of my time, money and effort helping disadvantaged people in some parts of Africa. And I was never very rich in time or money to begin with, living below the poverty line and having way too many projects on the go simultaneously. But we here in Australia are unimaginably wealthy — even those of us, like me, who live below the poverty line.
I help people in Africa who are in danger of dying. The greatest difficulty is that death is knocking at the door for so many there, it is difficult to triage the problem and spend the money in the most effective ways. Helping people set up a shop, buy land, build a house, get mosquito nets (against malaria), get solar powered lights so they don’t have to pay for fuel or cut down precious vegetation…
I should add that I don’t see myself as virtuous in any of this. I’ve been a pretty selfish shit for much of my life. Helping others is not atonement for that or anything. It just makes good logical sense. We all benefit from an improved world.
Everybody benefits from making the world a better place to live. Where will the next genius come from who might change the way we see the universe? That person might be a young girl in a slum. Who will be the person to gain new insights into the best ways to build and use artificial intelligence? It might be a young boy who gets saved from poverty in a Brazillian favela. Who might be the inspirational person to bring about world peace? It might be a young gay man trying to survive in a deeply homophobic society. Who might show us the way to live lightly, yet luxuriously on this planet? That might be a child yet to be born to a young woman struggling to survive in a land devastated by war and broken agriculture.
If you doubt this, consider the following:
A man who escaped extermination, as a member of what was considered at that time a race of vermin, totally altered the way we understand the universe. He was Albert Einstein.
A young black woman in the insanely racist south of USA grew up in a time where girls did not do math, but her abilities ended up making her one of NASA’s most valued people. Her calculations were respected more than those from the new computing machines. She was Katherine Johnson.
A young boy, the son of illiterate black parents in racist, apartheid South Africa, grew up tending cattle, but believing in fairness. He ended up peacefully dismantling Apartheid and leading that country forward. He was Nelson Mandela.
A young Italian boy, born illegitimately, out of wedlock, realised as he grew up that he was gay at a time when that was a very serious “crime”. He became perhaps the greatest artist/scientist/technologist/inventor in all history. He was Leonardo da Vinci.
We don’t know where the next geniuses will come from who will deliver new ways to understand the universe, life, and psychology. We don’t know if those poorest people will give us the tools to live lightly and luxuriously upon the earth. Maybe those key insights will come from wealthy 1st-worlders like us, or maybe they will come from the much greater numbers of poor people. In the past, some of the most oppressed people have given us some of our brightest stars.
This time we live in now is a Renaissance. It is the beginning of a new era for humanity. There are more geniuses alive today than ever before in all human history. We have vast amounts of free information available to us at our fingertips. People living in poverty have supercomputers in their pockets that let them access this information and communicate with other people all around the planet. Society is shifting to greater tolerance and empathy faster than ever before. Great social changes, which used to take a hundred years, now occur in decades, or even less.
It is true that we have great problems to solve: the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, religious extremism, increasing waves of disease… but we are smarter than ever, more peaceful and cooperative than ever, and more knowledgeable than ever.
If every person in Australia helped some people in the poorest parts of the world, we might eliminate deep poverty and starvation. We might end wars over resources and stupid gods. What might the human race then become? Knowledge, art, and culture are really the only unlimited resources. Imagine how that could enrich us all.
I find her words compelling and her spirit admirable. She suggests that if we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves. But she also warns us that this change must be sustainable:
One of the big problems with trying too hard to help fix the problems is burnout. It is difficult to maintain perspective. I worry sometimes that I might end up giving up on the impossibility, instead of concentrating on small things that can make a big difference to people.
My friend’s warning about sustainability moderates both our desire to help others and our perception of what is needed to implement real change. I am reminded of a childhood memory: I was out doorknocking for a charity called, ‘The Freedom From Hunger Campaign’, when through a flywire door I observed a man eating lunch. In a splinter of my mind’s eye – undoubtedly coloured by my somewhat disapprovingly emotional memory of the event plus subsequent life influences – I seem to recall him as a large, almost obese fellow, gorging himself upon a lunch while displaying the temperament, dimensions and character of Jabba the Hutt. In between loud chews, he asked me what I wanted, and I invited him to make a donation to feed the hungry. Without breaking chews, he loudly and rudely replied, “No!” and turned his attention back to stuffing his face. In my more excitable moments some fifty years later, I recall this man and wonder if he serves as a metaphor for myself, my country or my world.
I do believe that the world has big problems and things must change. Whether through social evolution or revolution, real change is coming and it will hurt. Climate change, economic inequality, political instability, dwindling resources, science denialism… we face many challenges, but I would argue that the human species has the resources of intellect and courage to overcome these with rationality and selflessness. If we choose. But just as war often imposes rationing, we are living in an era when the Third World War (a war to save what we patronisingly call the Third World) is already underway, and we need to adopt a collective mindset wherein we act to help our human family by being prepared to use our affluence to help those who have less.
Whether we act pre-emptively and mitigate imminent change – or continue trying to ignore it as long as possible until it overtakes and overwhelms us – this is our choice both as individuals and as a society. How we each respond to that call determines our ethics as human beings and our civilised values as a human society. As Sarah Connor, once said, “A storm is coming” – and this will necessitate lifestyle change for us all.
I am not advocating the overthrow of capitalism; but I do propose its humanising: an economic system based upon compassion not consumption, predicated on helping instead of hoarding. We need a world built upon apposition not opposition; upon coalition not competition.
Any rational and ethical concept of human identity must include a healthy perspective of being collective and collegiate. This includes a morality which is based upon human need and human reason. The concept is not hard – even children can grasp the concept that sharing is preferable to selfishness, as expounded in the ‘Pronoun’ song from the old children’s TV series, HR Pufnstuf:
“Mine is a selfish word,
Yours is a thoughtful word,
But ours is the nicest word of all.”
The human factor – indeed the organic life factor – must surely comprise an important part of anyone’s perspective if they wish to be fully alive and fully human. This leads to certain inescapable conclusions. Life is not a shopping spree nor a game to see who dies with the most toys. History will never thank you for watching every episode of your favourite TV series, for going on that overseas holiday, or for painting the back verandah a special colour last summer. But if you instead gave equivalent time, money and effort to help others, then you may leave a human legacy wherein some future family can literally thank you for their home, their environment, or perhaps for their very existence – a much better form of immortality than that found within many religions and philosophies.
Do you want to see the world change? Then get out there and change it.
Here is an opportunity to support some of the work Miriam supports,
helping homeless people and saving lives:
Lunko House in Kenya and Uganda.
And here is one of mine, supporting people directly in Kakuma Refugee Camp – building shelters and toilets, providing life saving night lighting, feeding people, saving lives with medicine:
Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees.
Another opportunity for direct assistance in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Helping those who have nothing. They currently need food and firewood.
Directly funding a self-sustaining project, the Rainbow Refugee Food Program in Nairobi. Feeds refugees, supplies gainful employment and income and rent.
A direct fundraiser for Nairobi-based rainbow refugees
run by my trustworthy friend in the USA. Feeds and clothes, provides shelter and medicine. Saves lives and gives hope.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn