1.3 The Story of Inequality

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It is that quest for growth that created Smalley’s top ten list of humanity’s “problems”. These problems are systemic since their root causes are structural or cultural and therefore, largely independent of the individual actors. For instance, in the Oscar-winning movie, Spotlight, the psychiatrist and ex-priest, Richard Sipe, traces the sexual abuse scandals that are rocking the Catholic Church to the Church’s requirement of celibacy for priests and its policy not to ordain women priests[22]. At any given time, roughly 50% of the priests are violating their vow of celibacy and consequently, this creates an environment of secrecy in which the abuses flourish. The abuses happened due to these systemic causes, and not because Catholic priests are more deviant compared to priests of other religions or denominations.

In December 2011, I witnessed an archetypal event that illustrated the systemic nature of our global socioeconomic and environmental predicaments. I was watching a village woman milk her cow in the village of Karech, adjacent to the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan, India. I have been working in Karech since 2008 and I have received a more intense educational experience at Karech than all my years at Stanford!

Due to human activities including livestock grazing and firewood gathering, the Sanctuary, located on the border of the Thar Desert, is experiencing rapid degradation. People in this region of India are first hand witnesses to the major environmental catastrophes that the world faces today and their experiences are tremendously valuable for our understanding of these issues. Of the three major conventions that were adopted by the UN at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the villagers in Karech are experiencing all three environmental catastrophes on a daily basis[23]. Until about a century ago, these people were leading hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but they are now trying to adapt to a farming and herding lifestyle as the forest degrades around them. These days, families in Karech supplement their meager income by raising cattle for milk to trade with families in the neighboring town of Gogunda and by raising goats and selling them for export to the Middle East.

The woman began by untying the calf and allowing the calf to suck on the mother cow’s udder. But within 30 seconds, she started pulling the calf away from the mother. The calf resisted her stoutly. The woman wasn't strong enough to pull the calf away and so she called her husband over. Between the two of them, they pulled the calf away from the udder and tied him in front of the mother. The calf was now bleating, obviously in distress, and the mother cow began licking her child. The woman milked the cow completely until there was nothing coming out of every teat in the udder. She extracted about 10 liters (2.5 gallons) of milk, sufficient to fetch her little more than lunch money for her family. She then released the calf to suck again on the udder and send a message to his mother's body that she doesn't have enough milk for her baby and needed to produce more.

All four sets of actors were suffering immensely in this drama:

1) the affluent consumer in the town of Gogunda who was suffering from obesity, diabetes and heart disease after consuming milk products;
2) the village woman who was desperately eking out a living;
3) the cow and her calf who were being ruthlessly exploited; and
4) the wildlife in the forest which was being starved to death, as the forest is constantly depleted when biomass and nutrients are eaten by livestock and shipped out to far away places in the form of milk and other livestock products.

While affluent consumers enjoy the material benefits of industrialization, they suffer from chronic diseases as well as social isolation and mental depression. Almost half the people in the US, the wealthiest country in the world, consume anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications or mood-altering illegal drugs on a regular basis[24]. Wall street executives suffer one of the highest per capita rates of illegal drug use[25]. These consumers are largely disconnected from the direct consequences of their consumption as the deforestation and desertification happens out of their sight.

In contrast, village women in India enjoy the social benefits of a well-knit community, but they suffer from the environmental burdens of industrialization. The forests are dying, the desert is expanding, the temperatures are soaring, and the monsoons are erratic, mainly to meet affluent consumer demands. To top that, the firewood that villagers use for cooking produces smoke which now contain toxic industrial pollutants!

The toxic pollutants that we pump into the atmosphere in our industrial societies through burning fossil fuels and through our chemical processes, eventually come down in the rain, get absorbed by vegetation which filter these chemicals and store them in their trunks, branches and stalks. The village women are burning these tree branches and breathing the pollutants, while also recirculating the pollutants into the environment. As forests die out, there are fewer trees to do the pollution filtering and storage, which means that the concentration of these pollutants increases over time. Every year, we pour fresh toxic pollutants into the atmosphere.

Farm animals eat the vegetation and accumulate these toxic pollutants in their fat tissues as they grow. When affluent people consume livestock products, they ingest a concentrated dose of these pollutants, which they accumulate and store in their fat tissues as well. Thus, animal foods have become a source of numerous chronic diseases in affluent communities, since they effectively recirculate our industrial pollutants back to us. The USDA estimates that 95% of the dioxins in our bodies, which are some of the strongest carcinogens known to man, come from the foods we eat. Dioxins are released into the atmosphere whenever chlorine reacts with hydrocarbons and this happens, for instance, when we bleach wood pulp as consumers have been conditioned to prefer white paper over brown. The four main food sources of these dioxins are fish, eggs, cheese and meat, in that order[26].

There is no escaping the consequences of our actions, our Karma!

Thus far we relied on structural and cultural inequality both within and across species boundaries to fuel consumption growth leading to all that suffering. We have a financial system that largely originates new currency into the hands of the wealthy in the cities and in the global North and then trickles it down into the villages and the global South through economic transactions. We have inherited a culture that hierarchically layers people above animals and therefore pays scant regard to the well being of animals. As Dr. Paul Farmer said,

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

While such structural inequality was perfect for fostering the exponential growth of the socioeconomic system, it is destroying the planet and failing us at the moment.

[22] Sipe, Richard, A Secret World: Sexuality And The Search For Celibacy, Routledge, Jun 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1138004740

[23] The UN Convention on Biological Diversity can be found online at http://www.cbd.int , the UN Convention to Combat Desertification at http://www.unccd.int and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at http://www.unfccc.int .  

[24] 49% of the people in the US have some form of anxiety disorder, depression or substance abuse issues. All of them are taking some form of chemical supplements to address these mental problems.
The average high school kid in the US today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric ward patient in the 1950s.

[25] Please see this article and the references cited therein: https://www.thefix.com/content/wall-street-addiction-finance-cocaine-meltdown7456

[26] Please see video on dioxins in the food supply and references cited: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/dioxins-in-the-food-supply/