Let them eat cake

In my quick post yesterday I touched on the trade-offs between self-interest and ethical living, and the middle-class pull to buy the best environment for one’s family. The modern Western lifestyle throws up anxieties like this all the time, because it turns out that pretty much everything we do is (on some level) unethical or hypocritical.  Travelling to the shop in a car certainly harms the enivronment.  Buying food when you get there will create landfill.  Organic food is not Fair Trade, and vice-versa.

Banking, clothing, and electrical goods all have similar ethical dilemmas attached to them. However, few of us have the time to track the myriad ways in which we’re tacitly endorsing some hegemony or exploitation.  Even when we’re made aware of an abuse, its difficult to extract ourselves from complicity.  We don’t have time to change banks.  We cannot simply stop filling our car with petrol.  The best we can do is try to cut down on our excesses, and gradually change our purchasing and lifestyle choices in the hope of making a marginally less destructive contribution to humanity and the planet.

There are all what we might call #FirstWorldProblems, but they have big implications for policy and politics.  Too often, the issues we face in society are attributed to people being selfish, thoughtless, lazy, or without the right information. But often, its simply that they do not have either the time or the money to follow their instincts.

And that’s just the middle class.  The poor have it much worse. Evgeny Morozov, in his fascinating book To Save Everything, Click Here, quotes writer Greg Crister:

[I]n Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, class and income often definejust how easy it is to eat healthy food. He notes, “The poor … lead lives that are more episodic than those of the more affluent. The are more likely to experience disruptions in health are, interupptions in income. Food, and the ability to buy it, comes in similar episodes—periods of feeling flush, periods of ebing on the brink of an empty pantry.  The impulse is to eat for today, tomorrow being a tentative proposition at best.” Once we start factoring in structural factors like poverty and income inequality, then obesity lends itself to a very different set of solutions than when it is defined simply as a lack of knowledge about nutrition.

Morozov also notes how income may affect one’s ability to make good choices when it comes to the information one consumes:

Likewise, adopting a light but nutritious information diet might seem easy, but its not an option available to everyone.  What would such a diet entail?  Perhaps you’ll need to spend a few weeks tracking the most interesting people on Twitter and subscribing to their feeds on your tablet using an panoply of clever apps like Flipboard or Zite.  Perhaps you’ll need to purchase subscriptions to the Kindle editions of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, and a dozen other publications. It may also help to invest in proprietary software that will show you links you may not have discovered, while removing links to stories you have already seen.  Most of the measures on this harldy exhaustive list require one of two things: time or money.  If you have neither, you are likely to end up on a high-fat information diet glued to aggregators like Gawker, TMZ, or the Huffington Post.  Simply knowing that the Wall Street Journal is more nutritious than TMZ won’t magically put $21.62 in your pocket to cover the cost of a monthly subscription via Kindle.  If you can’t afford an iPad, you won’t start using Flipboard, useful as it is.

You can aplly this principle to other areas of life, too.  Teenaged pregnancies and benefit claimants, to pick just two examples from today’s newspapers.  Right-wingers get angry when left-wingers appear to condone and enable negative behaviour.  What of personal responsibility, and a sense of morals? That misses the point: Chiding those who are ostensibly making the ‘wrong’ choices is like saying ‘let them eat cake’.  Sometimes the wrong choice is the only choice they can make.

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