A while back, I got an email from Emily Hauser, an OpEd writer for the Chicago Tribune, who rightly said, essentially: It’s all very well saying plastic bags are the devil, but what about the jobs of all the people who work in plastic bag factories? What do we do about them? Yesterday, here on No Impact Man, we talked about what I consider to be a sustainable eating plan, which depends, largely, on buying local, seasonal food. As with the plastic bag factory workers, the question remains: What happens to the Kenyan farm workers, for example, who depend on Americans to buy their produce?
This is a hugely important question that Emily and other readers raise. As Emily wrote: “Because what you're doing is so radical, it has led me to consider the possibilities of the logical outcomes of some of your decisions, should they become standard behavior across the board, and they raise questions that I believe we as a society need to consider.”
So let’s start with the concerns about local eating, published in Greater Good Magazine, of Peter Singer, the Princeton University ethicist, and his co-writer the environmentalist Jim Mason:
“If you have a dollar to spend on beans and you can choose between buying locally grown beans at a farmers’ market or beans grown by a poor farmer in Kenya—even if the local farmer would get to keep the entire dollar and the Kenyan farmer would get only two cents from your dollar—you will do more to relieve poverty by buying the Kenyan beans.”
I don’t think I have to forego sound ecological practices like not using plastic bags and eating locally and seasonally for fear of hurting the plastic-bag-factory workers and the far-away farmers. I do think I have a responsibility to keep their plight in mind and to try to help them, if the results of my living environmentally causes them suffering. But the question remains, how? In a way, the whole issue boils down this: If rich people consume less for the sake of the planet and spend less money, how are poor people, who rely on the spin offs of what rich people spend, supposed to live?
Let me say that I’m no fan of trickle-down economics—the idea that you buy a dollar worth of beans so a Kenyan farmer gets two cents. In our market place, the real point of buying beans is to, well, buy beans, not to help the Kenyan farmer. To my way of thinking, that method of helping people is far too indirect. Let’s face it, considering the current level of world poverty, it seems safe to say, at least as a method of humanitarian relief (as opposed to getting cheap food), buying far-away beans doesn’t work.
What about if we instead found a way to take the whole dollar (rather than the two cents) and use it to help the Kenyan farmer directly? That is to say, what if, instead of helping the Kenyan farmer as a side-effect of buying beans, we just helped the Kenyan farmer and buy beans some other day? I’m no economist, but how about if we took our dollar and used it to pay off that farmer’s debt so that he or she could keep the food at home and feed the neighbors instead of air shipping it to us?
It follows, then, that part of environmental living might include tithing to help poverty, at least for the more wealthy among us, a subject that Peter Singer covered with great eloquence in the New York Times Magazine. In his article, Singer said suggested that if the richest 10 percent of Americans tithed 10 percent of their incomes to world poverty, the yield would be $404 billion.
He wrote: “For more than 30 years, I’ve been reading, writing and teaching about the ethical issue posed by the juxtaposition, on our planet, of great abundance and life-threatening poverty. Yet it was not until, in preparing this article, I calculated how much America’s Top 10 percent of income earners actually make that I fully understood how easy it would be for the world’s rich to eliminate, or virtually eliminate, global poverty.”
In my note to Emily Hauser, I wrote: “For a couple of hundred years, progress in the northern hemisphere has largely consisted of how to take really good care of ourselves—at least materially. We've accomplished that and beyond. What a lot of people like me are calling for is the next stage of progress. Not more of the same but a whole new direction. We've learned how to take care of ourselves. True progress, now, is about learning how to take care of each other.”
To my way of thinking, doing that—taking care of each other—might be a lot better accomplished by my taking up Singer’s suggestion to tithe than by leaving poor people the two cents that’s left after I buy a dollar’s worth of Kenyan beans.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.