[This is part two of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]
Proposition: I cannot save the environment; I am the environment.
I wrote the above back in 2010, directly influenced by this TED talk by John Francis:
I had studied environment at this formal level, but there as also this informal level. As I learned about this informal level, I also learned about people — about what we do and how we are. And ‘environment’ changed from just being about trees, birds, and endangered species, to being about how treat each other. Because if we are the environment, all we need to do is look around us and see we are treating ourselves and how we treat each other. (John Francis, Walk the earth … my 17-year vow of silence)
This thought experiment still haunts me. Ready? Visualize any ecological crisis or degradation — from oil spills to climate change, from pollution to fisheries — and ask: how is this situation related to the way humans treat one another?
From this vantage point, it suddenly seems that human-to-human relationships are not distinct phenomena in the world, as if unrelated to the ecology in which they transpire. The environments we live in — and the vitality of the ecology we depend on — is ultimately the sum equation of how we treat each other.
We are the environment.
Does saying, “The economy doesn’t work for me until the economy works for everyone” make one a socialist? Can one be a capitalist if one refuses to say, “The economy works for me even if it exploits some desperate people along the way”?
I wish for a political discourse about the role of economics in the betterment of society and wellbeing, juxtaposed to this fixation on economic growth as the primary purpose and function of society.
Take a few minutes and watch/listen to this clip of Francis Fukuyama discussing the relationship between economics and identity politics. What follows is a brief synthesis and reflection.
Fukuyama’s premise is that political left in the United States has shifted from the traditional liberal concern for economic equality and is now scattered a million directions à la identity politics.
…gay marriage, feminism, whether we elect a woman to the White House, ethnic politics, multiculturalism — all of these things are much more preoccupying, but they are also divisive because the left doesn’t really agree on a common agenda. And economic inequality is just one cause in addition to all of these other identity politics issues, and I think that’s been a distraction.
For Fukuyama, the vacuum of a shared vision for the left explains in part why Occupy — and movements like it — have not been able to acquire adequate social traction. (There are echoes here of Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics that I shared recently.) The central observation here is about the role of the economy in political movements. At the current trajectory, the left’s capacity to mobilize effectively is stuck in a stalemate with itself until an economic shock or crisis pulls all the disparate identity actors around a common, shared goal.
Now it may be that over time inequality will get so bad people will refocus on this, but I think for the time being the energies of the left have been dissipated on a lot of other kinds of issues.
Taking it one step farther, Fukuyama seems to entertain the possibility that identity politics is even a predictable outcome of economic success in a democracy. When the masses are starving for the scraps of the elites, we all know why the revolution needs to happen. When it comes to practicing middle-class politics from our sofas and smartphones, the temptation is ripe for turning political action into an expression of individual identity. Hence the theory: only increasing hyper inequality is an adequate force for reuniting and galvanizing liberal political action.
If you can take prosperity and democracy for granted then the terms of the debate shift to a different set of issues having to do with identity. And in a certain sense identity is the Achilles heel of modern democracies…
This line of thinking yields several interesting questions to me: to what extent should we think of equality (generally) and economic equality (specifically) as synonymous or distinct concepts? To what degree was economic inequality the animating force behind our constitutions and charters? Does our capacity as a society to care about equality diminish the wealthier our society becomes?