Recently, a friend posted an article that touched on economic disparity on a global level. The Foreign Policy piece, “We’re All the 1 Percent” by Charles Kenny, has its merits in the perspective it raises, and I will leave your opinion of the Occupy Wallstreet movement to your own, but the article generated enough discussion to produce thoughts below. In trying to figure a more on-point conclusion to the FP piece, it led me to a macro-level perspective on what is going on in our world today – one that views energy as a core part of the equation.
Putting a more planetary perspective on this matter is significant, though – I’m reminded of Nigerians declaring how they are the 99% during their recent protests sparked by the oil subsidy issues, among other things. I suppose the point I would want to emphasize is that, depending on your scale or scope, the matter of inequality runs deep, and needs to more consciously be examined. The manner in which the present-day world has come into being also needs to be examined, and if progress is going to continue (although that needs definition, too), things as they are seem unlikely to be able to generate anything else than what already is in place.
The harsh truth that Kenny perhaps dances around is that in the world as it is right now, the “%1 of the west” is in an exalted living situation, and there is a good chance such a level of wealth is not going to be maintained if there a real movement toward economic parity. The realities of that depends on your views, in some sense, of zero-sum-gain or not, but there are planetary factors that are finite – like water, air, livable land, many forms of energy, and even food. Population continues unprecedented growth, which is only enhancing the effects of the current system. Those are hard matters to sort out, especially when combined with a sense of wealth distribution — and not just monetary wealth, but other forms of capital (such as human capital) and related poverties (food, water, resources, intellectual, moral, energy, and so on).
Looking specifically at energy, even energy poverty is directly related to our opinions about what society ought to be like – and that is underpinned by our understanding of what society is capable of being. “Poverty” and inequality is a framework that has both relative and absolute measures. This also applies to how we use our energy – home heating, transportation, R&D or space exploration – and the related opportunity costs. Rivers can be dammed to create hydroelectric power, but this interferes with natural ecology, indigenous peoples, and other cities (or anything else) downriver. Oil can be used for pesticides, medicine, home heating, plastics, technologies, transportation, and myriad others – but how do we decide how to best use it? How do we choose between current energy needs and the impacts on the environment fossil fuel consumption has? Energy, and its absence, is deeply tied to constraints and possibilities, which in turn affect what society expects or envisions. The line “No energy, no town!” comes to mind – a quote from a futuristic action movie, sure, but it has many implications for urbanization and how humans gather a society around energy.
I tentatively suggest that the big-picture challenge is realizing that, as things have developed historically, so, too, has the human sense of values in terms of what is right or wrong, acceptable or not; however, a threshold approaches that has to do with planetary limitations (population growth, living resources, energy resources, ecosystems, etc), that are combining with social and economic models that have been constructed by way of unequal and ultimately unsustainable practices. The natural consequence of such is blowback and a bottle-necking effect as progress proceeds on its present trajectory — continued wealth disparity and quality of life disparity, erosion of planetary production capacity via overuse and nonreciprocal relationships, and in general, living conditions less conducive to thriving and prosperity than they were in the past. If left unmitigated, what that sort of situation appears inclined to produce is a great deal of strife as large scale forces attempt to re-stabilize.
I don’t have an answer for ‘the model’ to follow to effectively over-correct the current conditions and ultimately create a sustainable sense of growth; I think the truth is there is not yet one (at least, one put into practice at the appropriate scale, or directly addresses the contemporary situation). Maybe a return to a pre-industrial past will be only way forward – or maybe there is a way to innovate something new – I’m not sure yet, although I have my hopes in human innovation and ingenuity. Whichever the case, I believe we have a particular window in human history, right now, to find out and try to make some important decisions. More investigation is required, more research, and yes, even more failure – trial and error – is inevitable. Still, it seems there is a chance at foresight, and the knowledge that there are real consequences as to what follows via the actions we choose now. In one sense, it’s an evolutionary test, you could say; can we adapt to new circumstances and find a new way to thrive, or is this what human capacity can ultimately generate?
As trite as it sounds, the answer remains undecided, but the method for producing the answer is known: the answer will be produced by the way in which we, individually and collectively, live our lives.
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Jesse Parent studied International Relations at SUNY Geneseo and is studying STEM in preparation for a Nanoscience degree. His research focuses on Energy, Technology, Resources, Geopolitics, and Sustainability. For more of Jesse’s thoughts throughout the week and to see what news he’s following, you are invited to join the conversation via Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. Or visit Jesse Parent [INFLUENCE] to view Case Studies, Reports, Editorials and more.