“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”Thoreau
In this quote Thoreau is referring to philanthropy as practiced in his time, yet I feel it is relevant today in an even broader sense.
The United States is a house divided. Never before has our social discourse been so polarized. The Left and the Right cannot even speak to each other. Both sides feel under attack. Both sides are scared. Each side feels like the other is the Enemy.
There are countless problems in the country and the world, all existing simultaneously. The Left is killing unborn babies. The Right is dictating control of women’s bodies. The Left wants the country to be overrun by immigrants. The Right is tearing children from their parents. The Left wants to make it harder for people to earn an honest living. The Right wants to destroy the environment and kill us all through climate change. The Left wants to take the money of working people and give it to lazy slackers who don’t contribute. The Right wants to destroy the social safety net. And so many more.
My contention in this post is that all of these issues, and any future issue that is the focus of national attention for a news cycle, are branches of evil. This doesn’t mean that they’re not important, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about them, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything about them. What it means is that these issues are symptoms, rather than causes.
Let’s take the hot issue right now – kids in detention centers being taken from their parents and abused. Is it terrible? Absolutely. But why is it happening? The Left says it’s because Trump’s administration is heartless and cruel. The Right says it’s because illegal immigrants are trying to come here with no respect to our laws and take hard-working Americans’ jobs away from them. To an extent, both of these narratives are true. Both they are both incomplete.
Why are these people trying to come to the US? Because they are seeking a better life. Why are they seeking a better life? Because their old lives were shit. That’s the only reason you’d walk your family thousands of miles to an uncertain future. Why were their old lives shit? For a number of reasons, but the biggest is that foreign (mainly US) corporations, with the help of the US government, have been taking their resources and destabilizing their governments.
…we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen.Medium.com
From John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man:
I was hoping to end a war I had helped create. As is the case with so many things we [Economic Hit Men] must take responsibility for, it is a war that is virtually unknown anywhere outside the country where it is fought. I was on my way to meet with the Shuars, the Kichwas, and their neighbors the Achuars, the Zaparos, and the Shiwiars—tribes determined to prevent our oil companies from destroying their homes, families, and lands, even if it means they must die in the process. For them, this is a war about the survival of their children and cultures, while for us it is about power, money, and natural resources. It is one part of the struggle for world domination and the dream of a few greedy men, global empire.xvi-ii
Ecuador is in far worse shape today  than she was before we introduced her to the miracles of modern economics, banking, and engineering. Since 1970, during this period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent.xviii
During this same period, the indigenous cultures began fighting back. For instance, on May 7, 2003, a group of American lawyers representing more than thirty thousand indigenous Ecuadorian people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against ChevronTexaco Corp. The suit asserts that between 1971 and 1992 the oil giant dumped into open holes and rivers over four million gallons per day of toxic wastewater contaminated with oil, heavy metals, and carcinogens, and that the company left behind nearly 350 uncovered waste pits that continue to kill both people and animals.xviii
Trying to help the families in detention centers on the border is all well and good, but it does not address the conditions that created the situation in the first place. By enjoying the resources that our corporations have taken from Latin America and paying taxes to a government that has overthrown democratically elected presidents to install military dictators friendly to US corporate interests, we are the cause of the very problem we are now trying to fix. Even if we were to somehow rescue and save all of the families currently in the detention centers, there will be more. Cutting down a branch without digging out the root is a temporary solution at best. There will soon be another branch.
So what is the root? In the case of immigrants in the detention centers, it’s US corporate and governmental pillaging of Latin America. Even more broadly though, I put forth that almost all worldly injustice has a foundation of economic injustice. As long as there is economic injustice (the root), it will breed countless other forms of injustice (the branches). Where does ecological destruction come from? Short-sighted pursuit of profit. Where does racial injustice come from? Historically, slavery was obviously an economic endeavor, and today the main fear of immigrants is that they will take current citizens’ jobs – again, economics. Helen Fischer in her fascinating book The Anatomy of Love makes a very compelling case that the injustice between men and women was first started with the adoption of the plow 4,000 years ago which created an economic imbalance between the sexes. This economic imbalance persists to this day, and is behind most of the injustices that men perpetuate on women. Why is there sex trafficing? $$$. Why are there starving children? Because they have nothing to offer to trade for food. Perhaps the one type of injustice that economics don’t play a large role in is LGBTQ+ issues, and even here I have a suspicion that economic issues do factor in somehow.
To put it all into a word, it’s capitalism. Capitalism as practiced today, and the scarcity that inevitably accompanies it, can reasonably be said to be behind almost all modern injustice. What’s much harder to swallow is that by participating in capitalism, we first world citizens create the demand that is the fuel for the world destroying machine. We Americans have cheap gas because we kill innocent civilians in the Middle East and support cruel dictators there as long as they allow us access to their oil. We have cheap clothes and shoes because they are made by women and children in horrifying conditions. Our cellphones are made in factories that more closely resemble prisons and which have nets installed to catch people attempting to escape by suicide. We destroy the earth and sea digging for fossil fuels and valuable metals. All so that we can have air conditioning and Netflix. In other words, we are “doing the most by [our] mode of life to produce that misery which [we] strive in vain to relieve.”
Now we did not choose capitalism, we were born into it. Most of our affluence and privilege is never even thought of, it simply is The Way Things Are. Growing up my family used A/C in our house, because why wouldn’t we? In many places you need a car simply to live. But we can no longer claim ignorance. A casual look at any problem of the world, much less all of them, reveals that things cannot continue as they have been.
As an individual, there’s very little most of us can do to directly help the immigrants in the detention centers. Unless you’re a doctor or such with the available time, probably the most you could do is donate to the ACLU. Most of us will probably voice our disapproval on social media and call it a day.
What you can do as an individual, however, is stop contributing to the conditions that created the current immigrants and thus prevent a similar thing from happening to others. This is how you strike the root. What does stopping contributing to capitalism look like? Many things.
A simple heuristic is to seek to meet as many of your needs as possible outside of the money system. Food offers an easy example. By growing your own food, you prevent a great amount of injustice. Bananas are instructional. Banana plantations are often hotbeds of human rights abuses. Bananas must also be shipped to the US using fossil fuels. By no longer buying bananas, you are no longer personally culpable for that expenditure of fossil fuel nor the market demand that fuels human rights abuses. (Sorry to ruin bananas for you) A much more domestic example is corn and soy in the US. Monocropped industrial agriculture is terrible for the planet, farmers, and your health. And corn and soy are in almost everything. Similarly, ditching your car for a bike relieves you of the culpability for all of the death and destruction that accompanies oil production.
Thinking along this line however quickly reveals how hard what I’m asking is. Most Americans meet pretty much all of their needs through the money system. To meet your needs without using money would require a radical restructuring of your life. Most of us would have no idea how to even start going about this.
It’s easy to point a finger at the other side and make them the bad guys. It’s easy and it feels good. Self righteousness is seductive. What’s not easy is to look in the mirror and recognize that you may have been out of integrity.
Perhaps though, recognizing these truths might grant us some grace for others. Underneath our seemingly unbridgeable differences, we’re all the same. We’re all looking for the same things. We all want to feel safe. We all want to love and be loved. We all want respect. Perhaps recognizing the ways in which our lifestyle choices are out of integrity can help us understand and have empathy for the choices of others. This is a hard time to be a human. There is so much suffering in the world today. But fighting each other is not the answer.
I believe that the world’s problems will only be getting worse. I further believe that the solution to them lies not in authority or an institution, but in each of us taking personal responsibility for the consequences of our lifestyles. This is difficult because we humans are loss adverse, meaning that losing $100 feels way worse than gaining $100 feels good. This applies to us first world citizens because we have a lot of privilege and affluence, and letting it go will feel like a loss. It is not easy.
When the next outrage is reported in the news, rather than blaming someone else, I encourage you to examine how your lifestyle may have contributed to it.