Deadly Opulence

Peace Strategy Newspaper
May/June, 1998

Of all human frailties and transgressions, none is a greater threat to peace or Nature today than the human attraction to opulence. The earth is abundant, and might provide sufficiency for everyone. But it cannot provide opulence on a scale enjoyed by the rich, and desired by most everyone else. Other journals have expressed the concern that if all nations consumed at the rate per capita in the United States, it would take five planet Earths to support humanity.

And the social costs of high consumption? Who is willing to see how coffee-picker “Juan Valdez” and his family really live, to learn who sews our clothing, who makes our plush toys and sports shoes, at what cost our blue jeans and dresses are produced? Who should ask these questions? Journalists? Religious leaders? Students?

Who really advocates for the end of poverty? Who is Nature’s advocate? Some already are, of course, but it is not yet a conversation taken seriously. It is not a moral demand, like abolishing slavery. We live in a world, which has confused “the pursuit of happiness” with the acquisition of stuff. How do we communicate the message that if we understood “the pursuit of happiness” to be based upon principles of living sustainable lives and ending the suffering of others, humanity would undoubtedly feel much happier. How do we communicate that pursuing models of consumption demonstrated by the comfortable today is not sustainable or socially defensible?

Excessive consumption has global implications. We import oil from the Middle East, copper from Chile, lumber from Canada, beef from Argentina, fish from Peru, electronics from Asia, aluminum, uranium, molybdenum, flowers, pottery, clothing, shoes, fruits and vegetables from around the world. And the Global Trade treaties being rushed into effect all set aside local environmental authority in favor of international trade.

On the nightly news, on CNN’s hourly updates, on the Internet, everywhere, reports of stock market growth and rising corporate profits are received without challenge as good news. Every Dow-Jones “thousand point milestone” surpassed brings wild cheers in brokerage houses and champagne celebrations on Wall Street.

Forbes Magazine reports annually the numbers of billionaires in the world. Ten years ago there were 60 billionaires in the world. Last year, there were 150 billionaires in the U.S. alone. Columnist George Will has called our time “an era of wealth creation unprecedented in human history.” The economy is racing. How about the environment and the people at the bottom?

Poverty in the world persists, and poverty in the U.S. is expanding. One in four American children now lives in poverty, at risk of missed meals every day. The U.S. child poverty rate is the highest among 20 developed countries. Yet, the Head Start and WIC programs – consistently shown to be cost-effective means of ensuring health and education for poor mothers and children – are chronically under funded. Only 40% of qualifying children receive Head Start pre-school programs designed to help them start school ready to learn. But we find the money to house in prison more convicts per capita than any other developed nation. Gated communities with pointed iron fences and armed guards are springing up around the nation, physically separating neighborhoods already separated by different hopes, dreams, and possibilities.

The disparity of wealth between “haves and have-nots” is alarming. Fewer than 10% of the people own or control more than 90% of the wealth and property in this country and around the world and the disparity is growing. Is it not immoral that some hoard personal wealth exceeding a billion dollars amidst such poverty? Still the rising numbers of billionaires and millionaires is reported as an indicator of healthy growth.

Around the world, 1.3 billion people (20% of humanity) survive on less than a dollar a day. Half the world’s populations survives on less than $500 per year and do not have access to safe water. As a result of this poverty, 13 million children die every year from preventable disease and malnutrition, and close to a million women die from pregnancy in unsafe conditions.

There are international programs demonstrated to be effective in alleviating the worst poverty and lowering birth rates to boot – programs for immunizations, safe water, vitamins, minerals, basic health, literacy, family planning, and microcredit lending. To these programs, no developed country gives less per capita than the United States. Surveys show that, on average, Americans believe U.S. foreign aid is about 17% of our national budget. Actually it is less than 1% of the national budget. And of that, 70% goes to military aid and economic support for allies of the U.S.

CEO salaries of major corporations are rising to the sky. CEOs once earned 20 to 30 times that of their hourly wage earners. Some of today’s CEOs receive 200 to 300 times their hourly employees’ income, even as they downsize, export jobs, and lower incomes of remaining workers by building “temporary help” permanently into the corporate structure. Some of America’s fastest growing corporations are “Temporary Help” services.

Stories about NIKE Corporation paying women and children in Indonesia one dollar for ten hours’ work are legendary. But NIKE is only an example repeated by thousands of corporations jumping borders and regulations in search of cheaper labor, lower environmental standards, and more lax enforcement of regulations that do exist. Poor nations and poor people must sell themselves cheap to get jobs, and must accept “development” on the terms of the wealthy, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Most poor nations are in debt. Some spend half their national budget on debt service, under mandates from the IMF to cut back “social spending” to make payments. The global flow of money is from south to north, and the bankers know it.

Of poverty wages overseas, some ask breezily, “Hey, if they’ll work for two dollars a day, how do we know that’s not a good wage in their country?” My reply is a question. Would you sell your daughter to buy food to prevent the starvation of your other children? The sale of children into servitude or prostitution outside their own country is epidemic.

Any investigation into the lies of people willing to work for poverty wages uncovers injustice. Common people around the world who have lived in agrarian cultures for generations are losing their land to plantation owners and corporations with the money, the lawyers, and the will to displace the poor. Then the poor must migrate to the cities, desperate for work. Watching their children wither from malnutrition and disease, seeing reasonable attempts to organize met with violence and assassinations, it is little wonder that the poor sometimes turn to armed resistance and revolution.

Compassion for others and concern for Nature are ridiculed on the national airwaves for hours every day by the likes of bombastic radio jock Rush Limbaugh and a thousand Limbaugh-Look-Alikes in every market in the country. In Oklahoma City, KTOK’s Mike McCarville leads the charge against thoughtful consideration with nightly discussions like his two-hour block on Global Warming. McCarville said, “Environmentalists claim the world is getting hotter because of greenhouse gases – gases escaping from greenhouses. Call in and tell us what you think.” No, thanks.

Inhumane living conditions of animals in the meat industry are becoming the norm. Chickens were the first to be raised in cages in warehouses. Hog farming is following suit. No traditional farm can compete with corporate CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The result of a profit-driven meat industry is not only cruelty to animals but also the destruction of agrarian life and rural communities. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s families lost farms in record numbers, moved to the cities and are looking for work. It’s a global pattern.

The only discernible motive of corporate enterprise today is profit. Any alternate view is considered ignorant to naïve. A staff aide of an Oklahoma Congress member asked me, “So, what do you think the purpose of a corporation IS??” Caught off guard, I was still able to stammer, “Well, to make a profit, of course, and a good living for its managers and workers. But also to behave like any responsible citizen tin the world. To contribute to the quality of life in their community and to build sustainability into our environment, so that future generations can enjoy life as we do.” He smiled.

In resort commuities, the wealthy buy vacation homes for $2 million to $3 million, tear them down, and build larger ones costing $10 million to $20 million. Twenty-five years after Earth Day was founded, Americans are buying SUV’s at staggering rates – gas-guzzling monsters adorning the driveways in “better neighborhoods.”

Let’s face it; no matter what rung of the economic ladder a family has reached in today’s world, they are generally clear about wanting to climb higher. Nobody really questions this logic. The virtue assumed in wanting to “be successful” is as deeply rooted as the virtue of having many children used to be. And, like the viewers of Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” the rest of us love to admire opulence even if we don’t have it, hardly questioning its implications – socially, environmentally, morally, or spiritually. Why do we want it? Why do we worship it? We seem to have lost touch with our purpose on earth. We seem to have ceased visioning what humanity could be, or how we could live, if we imagined systems and cultures and lifestyles that were compassionate and sustainable, that served real human need and Nature.

There is something terribly wrong with the way things are, and something terribly wrong with us to permit it. The truth is – through history and today – that astronomical wealth for some is typically paid for with great suffering by others.

So, what’s the solution?

It has always been up to us – the People – to set the agenda for leaders, governments, corporations, and religions. Social change and new paradigms never come from inside the halls of power, always from outside. What do we do?

The first step is to model in our own lives the values and behaviors we would see replicated by others. Then, as Ralph Nader said, “You must preach what you practice e, not just practice what you preach.” We must find ways to express what we believe and call others to do the same.

We must turn to alternative journals and the Internet when seeking information because the daily news has become tabloid journalism. (Even “60 minutes” sank to covering “Zippergate” – in salacious detail.)

We must organize. Organizing and meeting in groups up to a dozen seems to work best, networking and sharing information and taking action with others. WE can do it in our neighborhood, our house of worship, a civic club, our political party, or a hundred other venues. Everyone “belongs” to a few communities. If not, we can join one, or start one.

We must intentionally IMGAGINE what we really want and ASK for it. Imagine if governments invested the money in solar and wind energy technologies that was invested in developing nuclear power and nuclear weapons over the past 50 years. What if we set a goal to have half our national energy consumption come from solar and wind (including biomass) within 10 years? In so doing, we could develop sustainable technologies we could sell to an energy-hungry world (possibly supplanting our nation’s position as #1 arms merchant to the world). Technically, it’s a lot simpler goal than sending a man to the moon.

What if a conversation abut basic human rights and basic human need reached such a volume that corporations began to include in their advertising regular reports about how they were out-performing others in providing to their workers around the world access to life-s necessities: safe water, immunizations, basic education, health care, low-interest loans.

What if conversation about the dignity and value of every culture on earth reached such proportions that saving obscure languages and cultures became an international priority, celebrated n the nightly news and in TV documentaries. (Uchi Indians in Oklahoma represent a people marched here during the Trail of tears from their homelands east of the Mississippi. I heard one say once that he was surprised to read in an anthropological text that Uchis are extinct.)

What if our appreciation of Nature and the diversity of life on earth became so central to our lives that family discussion s of sustainable living became commonplace and habits like composting and recycling became the norm? Family visits t to Nature Parks and wildlife preserved might replace video games and thrill rides at Six Flags as desirable recreational pursuits.

Those willing to voice a new truth or suggest a more inclusive vision of God’s compassion always experience discomfort as they challenge social norms, always arouse the ire of those complacent with the status quo, usually endure some social shunning and sometimes encounter physical threat. Advocating a preferential option for the poor in some cultures can be life threatening.

We can challenge leaders in our houses of worship to lift these issues in sermons and homilies. If you are so moved, use this essay for a group discussion. When someone tells you, “It’s too political,” remind them of Gandhi’s words, “Those who do not see the connection between the religious and the political understand neither.” Gandhi also said, ”Live simply, that others may simply live.”

Jesus cautioned, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” To someone enjoying five when one would do, he admonished, “Go now, and sin no more.” He said to remember him in our daily living by helping those less fortunate, “That which you did for the least of these, you also you did for me.”