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Fred Allebach
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Fred Allebach

First World Problems, Simple Solution

From the perspective of world citizenry, near any American, even poor, represents the 1%. Americans in general consume resources at planetarily unsustainable levels. When Americans criticize each other about levels of consumption this amounts to the pot calling the kettle black. All American consumers are essentially doing the same things at different levels. The difference is not in kind but in degree. It’s hypocritical for some to find fault with Wal-Mart shoppers while they on the other hand reap interest off equally immoral investments.

John Woolman was a Quaker who refused to purchase any product made by slaves. There are few like Woolman today to provide examples of conflict-free, morally consistent behavior. Where is Woolman’s corollary now? Americans seem to exist in a fantasy stupor, ignorant and uncaring of the downstream effects of their massive corralling and consumption of world resources. We are basically unwilling to change or sacrifice any comforts. Full of excuses for why not because so and so is doing such and such; we cry “unfair!” and so checkmate ourselves from being part of any solutions.

Try and explain sustainability and the bulk don’t get it, too hard to fathom that our good life is on a crash pattern precisely because our embedded individualism and “rights” prevent effective cooperation.

Have a car, a computer, a pool or shop for the best price? If you are American you are culpable in many issues of economic, environmental and social injustice. All kinds of people call for change, yet they live a lifestyle antithetical to the very change called for. We’re caught in a tangled web where our very comforts and joys are connected to consumer behavior that is driving the whole planet under. And then we refuse effective action change because so and so acts to the contrary.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Everyone is motivated in everything by their own selfish desires to find something in it for them. Pure altruism may not exist. The human race is at a certain developmental level where we simply don’t act against our own immediate interests. What passes as altruism is all too often a subtle twist on selfishness. We’ll take the compliment. This is why policies aimed at sustainable futures key in on “incentives”, to play people out through their own simple desires.

The John Woolmans, Mohandas Gandhis and Nelson Mandelas are the rarity.

This primary selfishness is what prevents people from finding collective good, to protect the commons, to get on the same team beyond immediate family or tribe. Free riders and cheaters ruin the impulse to cooperation. While others take off the commons, you think, “If I don’t get mine, someone else will”.

NIMBYism represents a burn the bridge mentality, the pot calling the kettle black again. Once people move into an area they want it to stay as is, resist change that would mess up the view, the traffic, the land use etc. Yet everyone’s home was once in open land, in a field and their own house ended up blocking past views, their own house now using more collective water.

Developers are vilified yet they are the same as other people; they buy property because they can. Residential property acquisition follows the same basic principles as commercial development. Only the scale is different.

At an international level, the US has achieved a great level of comfort yet we want to tell others not to burn coal, not to do this or that. We want to moralize about the commons after we have sequestered them all for our own self-satisfied, all consuming GDP.

The above contradictions point to that while we do have to cover our own butts materially for basic survival, we ultimately are all in this together too. How do we surmount this built-in paradox? This is the human tragedy, prevented from achieving the desired state of large scale cooperation by an immutable fatal flaw of selfishness unable to be controlled; prevented by our own nature from getting to we from me. Being in this all together calls for some higher values than we mainly express now.

One putative way to overall good and public benefit: cooperation comes as an emergent property of aggregate selfishness. Another possible way: we choose to plan ahead and use our vaunted intelligence.

In the US we have a meme of endless consumption/ frontier mentality based on selfish inertia heading us to clear unsustainable unworkability. Red flag to the commons mates! Instead of getting our own house in order we want to try and force other world players to stop doing what we have already done and are still dependent on doing? We seem to want our cake and eat it too. Time is running out for this, lads and lasses.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said it best: we ourselves are the problem, evil, greed, sloth, spite, cheat, it all runs straight through all human hearts; negative qualities are not simply a property of other people. So when we are all bickering among ourselves about our First World problems of too much success and who is first going to back off the gas pedal, know that the real problem faces you right smack in the face of your own mirror.

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