Friday, November 30, 2007

Proximate Cause In a Long Distance World

Ethical distancing and ethical problems of scale are not limited to high-impact military technology. The behavior and nature of modern technocracies, business, and government organizations are equally illustrative of this cold evil. Witness how corporations, now working on the global scale, routinely make calculated decisions about the risks of the products they manufacture. Typically, they weigh the cost of adding important safety features to their products against the potential liability to victims and the environment and then make the best “bottom line” decision for the company. More often than not, safety or environmental measures lose out in this calculation. As for people or nature, they have been “distanced” into numerical units relegated to profit-or-loss columns. The corporations then decide how many units they can afford to have harmed or killed by their products.

We witness daily the way the modern corporation has become distanced in time and space from its actions. A pesticide company has moved to another country or even gone out of business by the time—years after it has abandoned its chemical plant—the local aquifer and river have become hopelessly polluted, fish and wildlife decimated, and there is a fatal cancer cluster among the families relying on the local water supply. The executives of a tire company are thousands of miles or even a continent away and do not hear the screech of wheels and the screams as their defective tires burst and result in fatal crashes.

The workings of the global trade and finance corporations and organizations epitomize the physical and psychological distancing of cold evil. In the isolation of their First-World offices, members of the World Trade Organization and their partner financiers and economists of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) make decisions affecting millions. This is most evident in the imposition of “structural adjustment” measures on developing countries. For decades the IMF and World Bank loaned money at considerable interest to “developing” nations, essentially to capitalize modernization and technification. The funding was often for huge, ecologically devastating industrial projects. Not surprisingly, much of the money ended up in the hands of corrupt governments or as kickbacks to First-World corporations. As payments became overdue and interest rates skyrocketed, many countries found themselves unable to repay these loans. To solve this repayment problem the IMF and World Bank implemented a series of “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs). These programs involve renegotiating a country’s loan on more favorable terms if it agrees to "adjust” its spending policies, which means reducing wages, lowering labor and environmental standards, slashing social programs (particularly in health, education, and welfare), and allowing increased foreign domination of the country’s industries.

The effects of the SAPs have been disastrous. Millions have lost their jobs and find themselves with no access to housing, health care, or food. Spending on education in many countries has declined by more than 25% in less than a decade. It is now estimated that as many as 19,000 children die every day from disease or malnutrition as a direct consequence of the SAPs mandated by the IMF and World Bank. Yet despite its horrific toll, the cold-evil practice of structural adjustment has gone without ethical censure until quite recently. Contrast this indifference with the public and media outrage that would erupt if a group of terrorists, driven by hot-evil hatred, were killing thousands of children a day. It is now accepted, even by the global financial technocracies, that SAPs have been fiscally ineffective as well as socially and environmentally devastating. But the trade technocrats and corporations simply view this outcome as a policy “miscalculation” that requires “modification.”

Cold evil’s distancing is also profoundly present in those who work for corporations and other technocracies. Our minute and specialized jobs have separated us from ethical consideration of our collective work. Whether processing financial statements at a bank, riveting at a Boeing plant, litigating for a large law firm, or delivering on-line data to corporations, most people’s work represents a tiny cog in the great machine of production. As a result, we become psychologically numbed and removed from the ultimate consequences of the collective work being done. We fall into what E. F. Schumacher termed “‘the sullen irresponsibility” of modern work. Moreover, even if a worker were somehow able to overcome this irresponsibility, to breach the distance and cry out against the immorality of modern production (“I reject this alienating labor. Stop the machines; they are destroying nature, society, and the dignity of work!”), that person’s employment would quickly be terminated.

Virtually all corporations and government bureaucracies are dictatorships in which autocratic managers quickly punish any underling who begins to demand an ethical basis for work and production. Each of us is caught, therefore, in a kind of job blackmail. By allowing ourselves to become numbed by inhuman, meaningless work and to become fully distanced from what we actually produce, we forsake responsibility for the consequences of our production system. We sell our moral birthright in order to “pay the bills.” In this way we each experience our own “pilot’s dilemma.” The distancing endemic to our huge technological system and the massive private and public technocracies that run this system have turned workers, the vast majority of us, into ethical eunuchs and even unintentional criminals.

Whatever their ultimate moral and physical cost, our paychecks do allow many of us to become profligate “consumers.” This cold-evil lifestyle is termed “the good life.” We proudly bring home the new, convenient, “family friendly” SUV, fully distanced from the global warming to which this gas guzzler contributes and the respiratory illnesses it cause in our and our neighbors’ children. Similarly, we buy our kids hamburger meals with “happy face” logos. But both parents and children would recoil with horror if suddenly forced to participate in the almost unspeakably cruel slaughter of the particular cow involved or to take a power saw to the rain forest or personally commit the other environmental crimes behind so many of our fast-food burgers. We turn the computer on without stopping to think that the power is supplied by a nearby nuclear power plant with all of its social and environmental risks. We even feel virtuous eating our vegetables, without a thought to the topsoil loss, pesticide pollution, and loss of diversity caused by their industrial-style production. If we paid attention to the sources of what we buy, we would find that we are complicit in myriad wrongdoings stemming from the technosphere’s systemic evil, which is not easily recognized because of the distancing involved.

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