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How the Middle Class Destroys the World

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017: Musings, Society.

The Accountability Problem

You depend on many resources, products, and services to survive and stay healthy and happy: clean air and water, nutritious food, clothing, shelter, heating, cooling, communication, transportation, healthcare, and security. Do you know where all these things ultimately come from?

If not, how do you know whether someone or someplace is being harmed to provide for your basic needs?

The urbanized middle class – the bourgeoisie of Marxist theory – is considered the foundation of stable, peaceful society in the modern nation-state, and it’s what the lower classes aspire to. I was raised to join the middle class, and all my peers are raising their kids to be middle class – who wouldn’t?

But whereas the foundation of traditional societies is the local workers who provide basic needs, the modern middle class consists of consumers who depend on a global network of products and services that is so complex it is virtually untraceable and unknowable – and hence unaccountable.

In fact, you don’t know whether someone or someplace is being harmed to make your lifestyle possible.

How the Middle Class Destroys Society

Intimidation, Punishment, and Slavery

The security of the middle class depends on a nuclear arsenal capable of rendering the planet uninhabitable, a global military empire intimidating and sometimes practicing covert warfare against foreign civilians, a largely covert arms industry dominated by U.S.-based multinational corporations, and a domestic security apparatus resulting in mass incarceration of citizens, who are largely hidden away from public access in high-security prisons.

Military bases, defending the economic empire of American consumers, are imposed on the populations of much less powerful, economically disadvantaged societies, resulting in intimidation, economic dependency, and resentment.

Defending the middle class: Pakistani children killed by U.S. drone strike:

The U.S.-dominated global arms industry profits from violent conflict and human suffering:

U.S.-made weapons commandeered by ISIS:

Throughout history, traditional communities practiced restorative justice, which helps the victim and heals society. But middle class consumers depend on the punitive justice system of the modern nation-state, which harms society without helping the victims. The punitive justice system and its prison network reinforce ethnic and racial inequality, perpetuate domestic slavery, and foster social dysfunction.

Growth of the U.S. prison system during the past 40 years:

Work crew at Angola Prison, Louisiana:

Economic Imperialism

The middle class consumer lifestyle is sustained by mass-produced products and services made affordable by large corporations and long-distance distribution networks exploiting economic inequality. Products are manufactured, and services are directly provided, by blue-collar laborers whose labor is generally valued far less than that of middle-class consumers, and who live in poor neighborhoods with a lower quality of life. Middle class waste products are transported to, and imposed on, poor neighborhoods for processing and disposal.

Since major products like food, fuel, clothing, phones, computers, appliances, cars, and building materials are typically manufactured in poorer foreign countries from components and raw materials which in turn come from other, even poorer foreign countries, workers sometimes live and work in virtual – or even actual – slavery. And the supply chain for consumer products is virtually untraceable.

MarketExample of U.S.-Based MultinationalAnnual SalesCEOAnnual Compensation
FoodMonsanto15 BillionHugh Grant11 Million
ClothingNike32 BillionMark Parker48 Million
FuelExxon Mobil269 BillionRex Tillerson (outgoing to become Secretary of State)33 Million
ShelterPulte Group6 BillionRichard Dugas8 Million
TransportationGeneral Motors156 BillionMary Barra29 Million
CommunicationsApple53 BillionTim Cook10 Million

Raw materials for consumer products needed by the middle class come from distant rural communities all over the planet, where workers and their families endure dangerous conditions, toxic environments, war, or slavery:

Mining for the electronics industry in the Congo:

The urban middle class depends on services – housekeeping, childcare, food service, transportation, repair and maintenance, waste disposal, etc. – provided by lower-class workers living in poor, often gang-dominated, neighborhoods.

Gang members in East Los Angeles:

Social Division, Fragmentation, and Isolation

A college education, one of the defining requirements of the middle class lifestyle, is intended to lead to a professional career, freeing the consumer from manual labor.

Thus the primary function of “higher education” is to train young people to become office workers – people who work indoors at a computer, an inherently unhealthy artificial environment – and to condition them for a consumer lifestyle which is dependent on a disadvantaged lower class of manual laborers and service providers and the destructive global network of manufacturing and distribution. Higher education is an integral part of the vicious cycles in which dominant societies deteriorate from generation to generation.

Middle class youth are generally expected to leave home for higher education, then to migrate again, possibly multiple times, in pursuit of a professional career. The move to higher education deprives them of their roots and deprives their family and home community of their social services; henceforth they are “floaters,” generally uncommitted to any local, face-to-face community. They rarely get to know their neighbors, and become temporary members of cliques of similarly isolated peers, without the intergenerational commitment and accountability that ties real communities together.

Technologically-assisted communications – email, texting, voice phone, and social media – likewise encourage the dispersion of individuals from their families and communities of origin, by allowing an impoverished form of remote interaction that takes the place of face-to-face interaction. Without the support of extended family and a tight-knit community, urban consumers fall prey to stress disorders and mental health problems such as depression, self-medicating and enriching the multinational pharmaceutical corporations. Thus are communities fragmented and disempowered, and individuals isolated and rendered vulnerable, by education, mobility, and communications media.

How the Middle Class Destroys Natural Habitats and Ecosystems

Habitat Destruction

The media have taught urban consumers that climate change is the biggest threat to our environment. But habitat destruction, which often results in species extinction, is the primary form of ecological damage resulting from the middle class consumer lifestyle. Climate change is only one long-term form of habitat destruction – other forms are much more catastrophic in the near term.

Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl, providing housing for the middle class and the blue-collar workers they depend on, is one of the most extreme forms of habitat destruction, in which productive ecosystems are completely destroyed and replaced by machines and impermeable surfaces which concentrate wastes and toxic materials, increasing erosion and spreading the damage to the surrounding areas.

Since cities are dependent on a network of infrastructure delivering resources from the surrounding countryside and other distant trading centers, their damage extends outward globally to infrastructure and industry located out of sight and out of mind.

Industrial Wastelands

Industrial sites such as dams, mines, commodity farms, and factories, created to provide resources for consumers, also completely destroy productive natural ecosystems, replacing them with concentrations of toxic materials.

Tesla “gigafactory” destroyed a large area of wildlife habitat in the Nevada desert:

Infrastructure Barriers

The infrastructure required to deliver resources to urban areas and facilitate communication and mobility between them results in transportation and communications corridors which become toxic wastelands and barriers to wildlife.

Toxic Innovation, Toxic Materials

The continual improvement of middle class comfort and convenience through technological innovation results in a short product life cycle and rapid obsolescence. When obsolete products are discarded, few are recycled, and many, such as batteries and electronics, add toxic materials to the environment. Innovation is incredibly wasteful.

…high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality materials–that is, cheap plastics and dyes–globally sourced from the lowest-cost provider, which may be halfway around the world. This means that even substances banned for use in the United States and Europe can reach this country via products and parts made elsewhere….They can be assembled into, say, your treadmill, which will then emit the “banned” substance as you exercise. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

One of the most revolutionary scientific inventions of the past century was disposable containers which were intended to be dumped in landfills after a single use. As time went by, these containers came to be made almost exclusively of plastics, which take centuries or even millenia to degrade. Since the 1950s, the use of plastics has accelerated, especially by the middle class, in the form of food packaging, shopping bags, clothing, storage containers, disposable water bottles, phones, toys, furniture, appliances, cars, etc.

As these items age and erode, often imperceptibly, into the environment, they break down into microscopic particles or “microplastics” which spread throughout aquatic and ocean environments and are ingested by wildlife, interfering with animal and plant life cycles in unpredictable ways. The microplastics catastrophe is just beginning and may eclipse other problems we are now more concerned about.

Microplastics disperse in the aquatic environment:

Microplastics damage aquatic life:

Toxic Mobility

Technological advances in human mobility – travel and distribution by land, water, sea, and air – ensure the rapid spread of disease and invasive species, accelerating ecosystem damage and habitat destruction worldwide. Most destructive species are spread accidentally, but many are introduced intentionally: rabbits in Australia as a source of meat, pythons in Florida and bullfrogs in the American West by irresponsible pet owners.

This map of global ship traffic shows how invasive species have been spread from continent to continent historically, as nations and empires have used technology to enrich themselves and subject native ecosystems to collateral damage:

Container ships delivering products and raw materials to American consumers also bring destructive invasive species:

Scientists estimate that technologically-enhanced human mobility has historically delivered 4,300 destructive invasive species to the U.S., ranging from Burmese pythons driving native species extinct in Florida to nutria destroying native habitat in Louisiana, from feral hogs devastating ecosystems in the South to European starlings starving native birds nationwide. The economic cost of damage by invasive species in the United States is estimated at $120 billion per year and will continue to grow as a result of technological innovation increasing human mobility.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 30 years, and during that period, like most residents, I came to accept a landscape dominated by invasive plant species as “nature.” Invasive eucalyptus trees covering the hills, invasive ice plant along the coast, invasive yellow star thistle blanketing the inland meadows. It was only after I moved to southwest New Mexico, far from the coast and its ports, that I began to experience relatively intact, and far more diverse, native ecosystems.

Cheatgrass, an Old World species introduced to North America in the 19th century, has spread across most of the U.S., displacing native plants, encouraging destructive wildfires, reducing the nutrient quality of rangelands, and impoverishing native ecosystems.

Contemporary distribution of destructive Asian cheatgrass:

Rangeland devastated by fire after cheatgrass invasion:

Asian zebra mussels have been spread across North America by boaters since the 1980s:

Crayfish encrusted with zebra mussels:

Energy Consumption

Technological innovation and consumers’ insatiable demand for gadgets ensures ever-accelerating consumption of energy, resulting in increasing destruction of natural habitat for mining, manufacturing, and the siting of energy production. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy require oil fields, mines, raw materials and manufacturing for plant components, industrial sites for energy plants, and disposal sites for toxic waste. Solar and wind energy require mines, raw materials and manufacturing for plant components, industrial sites for energy plants, and disposal sites for toxic waste.

This solar power plant in the Mojave Desert destroyed many square miles of wildlife habitat and continues to kill thousands of birds and pollinators:

False Hopes of the Middle Class

Politics

The centralized nation-state is made possible by a hierarchy of wealth and power. It functions primarily to enrich and empower elites, and is inherently destructive. And when the fundamental institutions of society – the ecological and social values and practices – are destructive, as described above – then political reform is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Middle-class society depends on the global economic and military empire maintained by the elites, and to give these up would be class suicide for either group. To paraphrase Karl Marx, politics is opium for the masses.

Green Energy and Electric Cars

So-called “green” energy is an industry like any other. Its function is not to save the planet, its function is to enable middle class consumers to continue consuming more and more energy with their devices – devices which rapidly become obsolescent and are discarded and replaced, devices whose operations add waste heat to the environment, devices which concentrate toxic materials in the environment, devices which harm society in many ways, some of which have been described above.

Electric cars are machines assembled from thousands of components whose global supply chain is untraceable, via a manufacturing process and distribution network which are energy-intensive and wasteful just like that used to produce conventional fossil-fueled cars. The function of electric cars is not to save the planet, it’s to perpetuate the already destructive mobility of middle class consumers while making billionaires even richer.

Recycling

As technological innovation accelerates, more waste is produced. The vast majority of our waste is not recycled, and when it is, recycling degrades the quality of the materials. It also requires more energy and labor on top of that required to manufacture the original products. So recycling increases our already destructive consumption of energy.

As we have noted, most recycling is actually downcycling; it reduces the quality of a material over time…the high-quality steel used in automobiles…is “recycled” by melting it down with other car parts, including copper from cables in the car, and the paint and plastic coatings…Downcycling can actually increase contamination of the biosphere. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

Space Colonization

Some tech billionaires, and many engineers and science fiction fans, believe that we should, and will, save the planet we’re destroying by abandoning it to colonize other worlds. This fantasy results from their ignorance of ecology and human social behavior. Who gets to emigrate? Middle class American consumers? Agribusiness billionaires? Mexican farm workers? ISIS militants? It’s our dysfunctional behavior that’s destroying the earth – transplanting that behavior to another world solves nothing.

Even if some colonization happens, it won’t be sustainable. A healthy environment for humans isn’t engineered from scratch, by “terraforming” another planet. It evolves with the participation of uncountable wild organisms in a terrestrial ecosystem, and humans adapt to it just like their nonhuman partners. This is the only planet we have, and it will survive with or without us.

There is some talk in science and popular culture about colonizing other planets, such as Mars or the moon….But the idea also provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we’ll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this speculation, we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge. Or, for a moonlike effect, go to the nickel mines of Ontario. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

To me, the human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable – the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it. Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect us from ourselves. (Lyn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet)

How Local Providers Renew the World

Producers Not Consumers

Dominant, large-scale, centralized societies are destructive by nature. They have their own life cycle and exist primarily for the short-term benefit of the rich and powerful. They are not successfully managed or reformed for the benefit of local communities and ecosystems. The best we can do is minimize our dependence on them, transitioning from globally-dependent consumers to locally-accountable providers.

The best we can do for the earth and its people is to become successful producers and providers of basic needs for our local communities, conserving and re-using as much as possible of what we do consume, learning to do all this sustainably, and sharing what we learn so that future generations will succeed as well as us.

Local Heroes

Wherever we live, we can usually find people and organizations that are focusing their efforts on providing locally for local needs: farms, food co-ops, childcare centers, healthcare clinics, restorative justice services, churches, etc. These are the groups and people we should support and emulate, to rebuild our communities and thus take the load off the rest of the world.

Small-town farmer in New Mexico shows school kids how corn is re-seeded:

Urban youth learn to serve their community with restorative justice in Kansas City:

Traditional aboriginal skills are needed by the community to adapt to environmental crises, from crop failure to fire, flood, and war.

Students learn to process meat from an animal they killed on an indigenous skills course in Utah:

Peaceful Societies

While our dominant society destroys itself, there remain many little-known peaceful societies that offer the best hope for a sustainable future of humanity. These societies exist in the margins where they have been more or less successful at resisting the dominant society’s destructive impacts, perpetuating time-tested traditional practices and adapting to crises while our society continues to innovate and engineer itself to death. They are our best teachers.

Amish farmers in North America resist the destructive effects of technological innovation:

Unlike American middle-class consumers, the Piaroa of South America manage their natural resources communally and sustainably:

Instead of leaving their families to learn to be office workers and consumers, Ju/’hoansi children of southern Africa join their parents on foraging expeditions, learning to be providers for their community:

Like whales and other ecosystem partners, the Ifaluk of the South Pacific fish communally:

  1. Mae Swanbeck says:

    So now the middle class is the scapegoat for political correctness. How convenient.

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