In the natural world, a mother bear, during a particularly harsh winter in which it is hard to capture prey, will often eat one of her cubs. It will nearly always be the runt unless the larger one is sickly. If she is still hungry and unable to locate food from other species later that same winter, she will consume the remaining one. Thereby she will guarantee her survival as the alternative would be all three bears dying — the helpless cubs unable to live on their own and herself. However, she, by using her offspring for nourishment, will help ensure that she can carry on to produce further offspring in, hopefully, more auspicious circumstances. By such a manner, her species manages to endure.
All considered, life in the natural world, although often brutal, is neither moral, nor immoral. No animal sits around in a circle of his peers debating the relative rightness or wrongness of the act of eating one’s own progeny, nor the ones of other species. At the same time, humans, in certain groups, can also forego ethical underpinnings in their actions.
For example, the Nazis, in a calculated fashion, rounded up children and adults from supposedly undesirably ethnic groups for systematic slaughter. So did European invaders with indigenous people in the Americas. So did Pol Pot in Southeast Asia and so did ancient Romans. There is nothing new in this regard. This sort of behavior has been occurring for times immemorial amongst humankind. So has cannibalism when life gets tough…
As the author Peter Goodchild shared with me, “I sometimes think about a book called The Siege of Leningrad. The healthy people walking the streets were the butchers. But the meat they had to offer wasn’t beef, and it wasn’t pork, and it wasn’t lamb. You figure out the rest.”
Then, too, humans periodically face the types of decisions as did the pioneers at Donner Pass1 — a walk in the park in some ways compared to the Leningrad events in that there was no deliberate murder involved. As such, much of the difference between the two events hinges on intention and deliberate proactive choices rather than a passive stance to simply make do as had the survivors at Donner Pass. Meanwhile, the aggression inherent in deliberate slaughter of one’s own kind reminds about how well “laws of the jungle” still are extant amongst people unless we are well taught that life, itself, has value beyond self-serving sorts.
Meanwhile, not all people, who are at risk for starvation, resort to dire unconscionable actions. Oddly, we sometimes even see quite the opposite type of behavior wherein underfed people consciously try to share whatever little they have with others. Perhaps surprisingly, such demonstrations are not rare.
As Garda Ghista, the editor of World Prout Assembly, suggests, “One day I had gone with my auto rickshaw driver to the slums, to take photos of the very poorest people, the poorest of the poor who had nothing — no home, no anything. It was to raise funds for a service project, a children’s home, and I needed the photos for the flyer. So we would stop, for example, on a bridge where, on a ten by twenty foot piece of land along the bridge, some cloths were stretched across two poles, and people were living under them. There was no running water in sight. There was no anything. but, when I stepped out of the rickshaw and took out my camera, all these homeless, water-less, nearly foodless, nearly clothes-less people started moving towards me, with utter joy on their faces.
“I simply could not take the picture. I needed photos of miserable looking people in desperate poverty. They just didn’t look miserable. None of them did. It happened time and again, as when my rickshaw drove past the rock quarries where women with axes hammer at granite rock for ten to twelve hours a day, backbreaking labor — but again, when they saw me and the camera, they moved slowly toward me smiling.
“There is an NGO called Transparency International which rates corruption levels in countries. Bangladesh was coming out number one every year. (I haven’t checked recently.) At the same time, an institute in Great Britain assessed “happiness” levels of populations, and determined that the people of Bangladesh were the happiest in the world.
“We Westerners do not understand all the love that exists in people there — whole families sleeping in one room. It is not a hardship for them. It is the only way to be. It is about staying close and intimate. To them, the way we stick each baby in a separate room is something primitive and backward.
“Here so many Americans forgot how to talk — maybe due to watching so much TV. Even the TV programs and movies have such low levels of conversation. In contrast, go to India or Middle Eastern countries and speaking in poetry is something natural to the people. It is, also, loved and respected.
“When I worked in a college in the Middle East, the students (local Bedu) would sometimes come to my desk to make a phone call. Who would they phone? Again and again, it would be their mothers.
“We, here in the US, can hardly imagine the closeness of the families and the other more extended groups found in third world countries. When my Bedu friends took me to the desert, we used to sit on the ground, and the father would immediately go and milk the camel and bring me a huge bowl of fresh camel’s milk. Simultaneously, the mother (of my student) would cut up fruit and put it in my mouth.
“Does it happen here in the US? . . . and in India, when I visited a family there and at dinner said that I am full, then that mother took the spoon and began feeding me spoon by spoon, putting the spoon in my mouth, ignoring my protestations. Will it happen here? So who is more civilized and who is more happy? I never saw such love, hospitality and happiness as I saw in the Middle East and South Asia. For this very reason, what the American Empire has done to my friends there is painful beyond measure.”
My response to this is that, when people need each other to survive, they tend to act more kindly to everyone else, including outsiders. Indeed, they are especially generous towards those who serve their interests as does a teacher for their son.
Conversely, they tend to develop a state of anomy, callousness, apathy, contempt and disregard in relation to the welfare of others when it is not in one’s own interest to support them. This second state, one of almost complete alienation and independence rather than interdependence, has been shown time and again in various situations.
One of the most notorious episodes involved the murder of Kitty Genovese in NYC.2 In addition, the Kitty Genovese incident would seem to indicate that the more people that exist concentrated together, the less likely that individual worth has much merit. Congestion studies amongst many species bear this out as does, in general, crime rates in crowded VS uncrowded regions when variables such as socioeconomic class are factored into the mix.3
The implications relative to urban settings and overpopulation, in general, are clear. As Larry Winn states, “Imagine a group of humans, indeterminate in number, confined in a place of fixed dimensions, wanting for nothing. They have plenty to eat, plenty of water, plenty of places to live, and only the dimmest sort of apprehension of a larger world. They might even think of “the outside” as a kind of malicious fiction perpetrated by malcontents. It’s a circumstance not unlike the one “sustainable development” is supposed to create for us. Also, not unlike the universes of John Calhoun’s rats.”4
He goes on to conclude in the same article, “…the rats in Calhoun’s experiments developed social pathologies similar to the behavior of humans trapped in cities. Among the males, behavioral disturbances included sexual deviation and cannibalism. Even the most normal males in the group occasionally went berserk, attacking less dominant males, juveniles and females. Failures of reproductive function in the females — the rat equivalence of neglect, abuse and endangerment — were so severe that the colonies would have died out eventually, had they been permitted to continue.”
At the same time, one could only barely suppose that such happenings as Kitty Genovese’s type or as Larry Winn’s description would have a high rate of prevalent to transpire in small remote villages wherein personal relations are more all inclusive, intimate, relevant and indispensable for maintenance of optimal social welfare. With less people in a community, there tends to exist stronger intact ties across the board — even with strangers, who are merely passing through the environs.
In addition, I predict that, with material affluence on the increase in Bangladesh and elsewhere due to globalization of industries, many people there will become more like much of the US population — self-absorbed, largely indifferent to the welfare of the poor, insular, impressed by wealth and signs of wealth (as exhibited by Hollywood starlets and major sports figures), driven to get as much for themselves and their families at the exclusion of others as could be possible, etc. This is largely because cultural values are predicated on whatever serves to maximally support life in a particular set of circumstances.
In other words, people will more readily commune with each other and share if these sorts of behaviors foster their own well-being. If taking as much for oneself with disregard for others does it, then this model, instead, will be the one habitually learned and supported by the public at large. (Just as “necessity is the mother of invention,” it is also the mother of behavioral patterns developing one way VS. another.)
As such, people tend to work together to get water, feed each other, and provide for other material needs in these societies wherein it is necessary for many people to work together as a precondition to fulfill common aims (without which doing they would all die). Opposed to this are the conditions wherein success is primarily and almost exclusively tied to personal fiscal gain rather than mutual philanthropy.
With this alternative in place, there is little loyalty to companions, employees, nor employers. Instead, the overriding concern is simply advancement of one’s own profit and this aim, alone. Hoarding behaviors will, then, be on the rise, too. At the same time, the gap between the haves and have-nots will, also, enlarge. All the while, people will be seen not as having much merit in and of themselves as they will largely be viewed as expendable commodities — as means to an end to add to one’s own financial and other assets.
This being the case, the number of millionaires in the world swelled to 8.7 million. Meanwhile, is there any mystery about whatever most of them are trying to do rather than spread their wealth in service to humanity or improvement of the natural environment? No. Instead of promoting widespread benefits, they are, for the most part, striving to become billionaires (called “kleptocrats” in a related Wikipedia citation below as they are thievishly parasitic on the body politic).
Indeed, many are wildly successful in achieving this objective. ‘The number of billionaires around the world rose by 102 to a record 793 . . . and their combined wealth grew 18 percent to $2.6 trillion, according to “Forbes” magazine’s 2006 rankings of the world’s richest people.’5 In addition, their group has been expanding steadily. All the while they, also, command vast stores of resources (obtained through their purchasing power), manipulate their governments (through lobbies and other means) and control others (via military might and other kinds) to keep everything solidly behind their acts of racking in ever more dollars and possessions, including huge tracts of land and factories, for themselves.
The flip side to this situation is that US jobs are disappearing overseas to second and third world countries in which the populations are paid measly salaries of a dollar a day for their hard work. Moreover, these laborers will get fired if they dare to complain about their income, work conditions, or other aspects of their jobs. Furthermore, they are, for the most part, easily replaced as there often exists the condition of large unemployment in their locations. Therefore, they’d better, meekly and gratefully, do as they’re told by management.
Meanwhile, the goods that they produce are sold to eager consumers in first world countries, consumers whose own economies are crumbling due to a growing deficit of work at reasonable wages. For example, one in five Americans now lives on less than seven dollars a day according to fairly recent US census figures.6 All the same, it is primarily the near poor, who give the most to charities — not the middle and upper classes. It is because they are almost poverty struck and know the degree that being so can be horrendously grim to the point of being even life threatening.
All of the above in consideration, it might be easy to conclude that capitalism, itself, is antithetical to altruism and benevolent regard for life as its economic program is based on buying low (i.e., raw products, human labor, etc.) and selling high to get ahead FOR ONESELF. As such, there is no mutual regard or tender support for others as this way to go forward is, essentially, carried out by progressively taking greater advantage of others, including other species that are used to make products. At the same time, these predatory conditions are especially evident in countries, like the US, governed by plutocratic corpocracies.
One needn’t even look at cities, like New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina or Detroit in relation to GM plant closings, to see the damage done by such malevolent business and government structures. Any public school in a ghetto, a crowded homeless shelter, hoards of street people in every major urban environment (80,000 in LA alone of whom 1/2 are mentally ill), overwrought food banks strung out across the land, the rate of home foreclosures, the depreciation of the country’s currency and myriad other indicators can amply serve in and by themselves as proof.
So what are we to do in the face of such daunting circumstances? Is the best way to proceed in such a rapacious backdrop to simply claw one’s own way to the top of the economic ladder, scratch out the competition and forget about everyone else left behind? Should we just shrug our shoulders and passively go along with the damaging industrial and governmental plans that are in place because that is all that we know? Certainly not!
In terms of the way to proceed given the conditions that we have in our societies and our personal lives in connection to the social order, I often go back to a comment that E. O. Wilson made to me when I asked him, around fifteen years ago, about the most important action that we could undertake to stymie environmental collapse. His reply was simple. It was that we must educate as many others as possible to the truths regarding the happenings. This, in his opinion at the time, would ultimately provide the best assurance of improvements across the board. In addition, his viewpoint would seem to apply to other areas of concern besides environmental ones.
At the same time, I realize that I, individually and in group efforts, must always resist corrupt authority and any wrongful control (i.e., arising from my dependence on repugnant transnational corporations like Exxon, Monsanto, Bayer and so many others) as best as possible. Yes, many of us are cogs in the wheel (a reference to Mordechai Vanunu’s I’M YOUR SPY at vanunu.org) as we are well integrated into and play a role in destructive systems on which we are reliant for our livelihoods, life maintaining goods and services, etc. So, we keep the status quo (including their affiliated big corporations and political arrangements) as is on an ongoing basis.
However, we can, as Peter Goodchild writes in his essays and many others suggest, get out of it all as much as possible, wean ourselves from some damaging behaviors and develop better methods of self-sufficiency. In other words, we can minimize our involvement with whatever it is that we abhor. We can also always make a point to deliberately stand up for whatever is right when given a reasonable opportunity to do so. There are plenty of ways available through volunteer activities, letter writing campaigns and other forms of protest.
Nonetheless, I realize that I. F. Stone’s comment (located below) is probably dead-on correct for a wide array of goals that many people would want to support towards creating a constructive future. Yet, in the end, it all boils down to a matter of conscience. As such, one has to do whatever one does simply because it does seem right and because there is no better alternative even when the outcomes AREN’T likely to be the sorts that one would ideally wish to have transpire. Then again, getting overly concerned about results in endeavors can take one’s attention away from any hard struggle towards betterment, itself. So, one deliberately has to maintain focus on the beneficial action, whatever it comprises, regardless of any other factors.
So, yes, we’re “stuck” in some ways because we need oil, drugs, food (of which the majority is GM), clothing (often made by poorly paid laborers), etc. This being the case, though, does not excuse us one iota, I would think, from doing whatever we can, even if small and seemingly inconsequential, to improve the way that we go about our lives.
Even if imperfect at it, we owe it to ourselves and each other to strive to create a better world as best as we can given our underlying circumstances. Then, who knows? Maybe at a certain point, we can, as Stone implies, reach a point in the far ahead times where some benefit has accrued on account of our seminal action. Maybe we can be one of the snowflakes that provides the weight to reach that final tipping point. (The NAA Voice)
The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing – for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.
— I. F. Stone
- For details, please refer to: Donner Party — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [↩]
- To learn more about this incident, please see: Kitty moc.2gnihtyrevEnull@esevoneG, Bystander effect — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Kitty Genovese – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Thirty-Eight Saw Murder, and A Picture History of Kew Gardens, NY – Kitty Genovese. [↩]
- An overview of this topic is supplied at: The Real Picture of Land-Use Density and Crime: A GIS Applic…. [↩]
- A description of John Calhoun’s findings, along with their implications, is located at: Universe 25. [↩]
- Data on wealth can be found at: FOXNews.com — “Number of Billionaires Up to Record 793,” “Number of billionaires grows, Gates stays on top,”
Billionaire – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Number of Billionaires, and Number of Millionaires in the World Swells to 8.7 Million. [↩]
- Related information can be found at: Thomas Paine’s Corner: “American Dream Now a Nightmare for Mi…” and Some Statistics on Poverty in America. [↩]