As Above, Not So Below

I just finished watching today’s Brotherhood 2 video, in which John made a very valid point. He was talking about Deep Economy, and the fact that it bothers him to “live a life which depends on an underclass.”

It really would be faster if you would go to watch the video, but if you refuse to do that, here’s the short version of what he meant. He started out talking about car ownership, and the often repeated statistic that if the Chinese owned cars in the percentage that Americans do, the number of cars on Earth would double. If everyone owned cars at the rate that Americans do, car ownership would quintuple, according to John’s math. This, John points out, is clearly ecologically unsustainable.

John is a recent car owner, since he just moved to Indianapolis from New York. In New York, he had an apartment, a good grocery store, access to public transit, and a good independent bookstore, four conditions with John believes people are entitled to, because they are necessary for life. John was arguing that his lifestyle in New York is the sort of lifestyle which is essentially sustainable for the whole world, in various forms. But as soon as he got a car, he suddenly entered a lifestyle which is not sustainable for everyone, creating a sort of class barrier.

It’s not that cars aren’t attainable for everyone, although that’s certainly true. It’s that universal car ownership would basically kill us, so we need cars to be unattainable so that we can all live. Thus, many of us are living lives which depend on an underclass, and it is troublesome. This class difference between industrialized nations and the developing world isn’t just sad, horrifying, and rather disgusting; it’s also tragically “necessary.” Were everyone to attain an American lifestyle, the world would be at risk of implosion.

I’d take it a step further; I think that most Americans are leading that kind of life. I, for example, am using a computer right now. Computers represent a huge drain on resources and an alarming source of pollution; would it really be sustainable for everyone to own one? Indeed, though I like to think that I live a relatively low impact life, I really am coasting on the backs of a seething underclass, wearing my pajama pants made in India, using a hairbrush made in China, eating with silverware made in Taiwan. Although I genuinely want to believe that my lifestyle would be ecologically sustainable if it was globally replicated, I’m not sure that it would be.

Part of this is a population problem; obviously, if the Earth’s population was much smaller, we could afford more ecologically unsustainable activity, because the impact would not be as severe. Since we aren’t going to fix the problem by voluntarily killing off a chunk of the population, or even by committing to a global one child per family policy…what are we going to do?

Most of the industrialized world probably doesn’t care. Those of us who like to think that we are socially conscious will agonize about it in our well insulated homes on our personal computers, and most of the developing world will keep right on going. It’s too late, really, to completely change the way that we live and think. Are we, perhaps, on a juggernaut of destruction?