I’ve said before that artists can be among the highest commanders of justice, but they must understand justice in order to command it. Artists often convey to us what we might want; in other words, Artists create demand (through ads and images and such).
I’m not sure I totally know what justice is, but I have some intuitions. Understanding justice I think must begin with an understanding of basic human needs, what a human is and what our human condition entails. A second foundation might begin with an understanding of virtue or the ideal.
If we don’t understand people’s basic needs then we might harm people unintentionally, or we might harm ourselves. For example, putting a baby in a scalding hot bath or killing a plant for lack of watering – these are errors of ignorance.
Additionally, we must guard against excesses. Americans, many of them, hardly understand what excess is, as excess is wrapped up in “normality.” Some excesses are considered good to those who have them (as a monopoly seems to “benefit” those who have it). But, an over accumulation of “material goods” should be seen like an over accumulation of fat – it strangles people’s hearts, to do the bidding of things rather than virtue. “The Lawn must be mowed,” “the wash must be run,” “the oil must be changed;” we often talk as if these tasks are moral duties. However, does our lawn feed the hungry? Do our errands add to our virtue? Does having one more room to vacuum, heat, & cool add anything to our generosity, or our patience?
“Live simply so that others may simply live.”- Amish Proverb
Live lean, live small, beware of injustice at every turn: it is in leaving that light on, in that extra cookie, in that pet, that piece of meat, that yard, those clothes, in what you find easy and convenient. Every action in our world today has an impact. Remember, the world works in terms of supply and demand; when we over-consume we create scarcity that drives up costs. There is enough housing and food and clothing for everyone, but our over-consumption drives up costs, creating difficulties for the poorest and the neediest among us.
“It seems to me, that you identify happiness with luxury and extravagance; but I have always thought that to need nothing is divine, and to need as little as possible is the nearest approach to the divine; and what is divine is best, and what is nearest the divine is the next best.” – Socrates [Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates]
Consider for a moment the impact of six ordinary things Americans consume: Housing, Pets, Meat, Lawns, Alcohol, and Sugar.
You might think that having a pet is no big deal, but did you know there are more dogs than children in the US today? Some dogs eat more than children do. Each time you buy dog food or cat food you functionally drive up the cost of food (because it takes some amount of agricultural land/fishing labor). When we overuse land we also inadvertently drive up the cost of housing too. When we multiply these small side effects millions of times (as there are some 70 million+ dogs in the US) the total consequence becomes huge – millions of acres of agricultural land used. We could then conclude that pet ownership deprives desperate people of food and housing. Last year, 3 million children died from complications related to malnutrition. We could fix this with just a small portion of the resources we devote to pets each year (we devote 60 billion dollars to our pets each year).
A similar thing happens with housing. Three houses could easily be built with the same amount of land, material, and labor used to build one standard 2300-square foot contemporary house . Instead of housing 2.5 people, the same amount of material would house 7.5 people. These houses would be smaller, but they would be the size of houses in the 40s and 50s (and these smaller houses would still be twice the size of houses from 2000 years ago; maybe 40 people would have lived in 2300 square feet divided into 10-12 small houses). In fact, if we simply took the existing houses and divided them up into smaller living units, we would have enough housing for over a billion people (we only have 300 million living in them now). This is entirely driven by people thinking they need more than they really need, the normality of excess.
Meat (including dairy and eggs):
There are many young people who are going vegan today in order to improve their health, mitigate animal cruelty and reduce their carbon footprint. However, have you ever thought about the fact that meat comes from animals that need to be fed often for several years, before we get food by eating them? When you buy meat you don’t necessarily see all the food that the animal ate, all the water it drank, and all the water and land those crops needed. Meat, then, is a very inefficient source of food, but also drives up the cost of grains and land and agriculture generally (via the law of supply and demand). At least 172 million acres of agricultural land is devoted to animal feed in the US (which is more than half of all agriculture in the US). About 50% of all corn (40 million acres) and 98% of all soybeans (74 million acres) and most all hay (58 million acres) are used as animal feed. This doesn’t include land used to house/milk/slaughter/process/cook/store/ship animal-based products. Because this industry uses so much (more land than any other purpose) it affects the cost of everything (via the law of supply and demand) from the cost of water and rice to the cost of toilet paper, housing and clothing. It impoverishes people in almost every way.
Some say that lawns are the largest crop in the US (NASA); if you add up all the lawns from households and government, roads, parks, commercial and business properties, it is a crop larger than 40 million acres (corn should be larger though, so I don’t know why they call it the largest). The problem of lawns is directly tied to the concept of suburban architecture, and is a leftover from the days when people parked their horses in the lawn. These 40 million acres are a vast money sink with little return; 77 billion dollars are spent each year on lawn-care in the US. In many places (like where I grew up) these lawns were once functioning agricultural land. With the land unused there is less supply; less supply means higher costs on agricultural products, clothing, etc. When people want large lawns this also drives houses apart and reduces the number of possible homes, reducing the supply of housing and increases the cost of housing. This also increases travel times and gas usage for commuters by increasing the distance between residential and commercial land (and adding even more distance between agricultural land and commercial land). People do need green space, and parks for air quality and stress reduction, and run-off/erosion control, but other methods like roof-top gardens and diverse agricultural uses like Permaculture can function much better than our current approach (giving agricultural produce, air quality, stress reduction, and run-off control in one efficient package).
Ecologically, lawns have a complex impact. Mowing, for example, uses gas and reduces air quality, while also using mined minerals to make the mowers. Many people use large amounts of clean water to keep their lawns looking green. To create lawns, often animal and bee habitat are destroyed (and bee health and population have direct impact on agriculture: “Why bees are disappearing”). Pesticide and herbicide use on lawns and agriculture can also create serious health and ecological problems (The Dark Side of American Lawns:Is It Giving You Cancer?).
Many young people today also love alcohol. However, when viewed from the perspective of an “ethic of supply and demand” alcohol directly drives up the cost of basic food because it takes from the same pool of resources every other food-based product pulls from. The impact is much less than meat (as only about 4 million acres is used for alcoholic beverages in the US, and alcohol has a decent shelf life). The demand is very high, though, because people are willing to pay large amounts for alcohol – this causes farmers to increase prices. (I’d guess that as much as 12% of food cost is created by alcohol, even if you don’t buy alcohol, because the bread-cereal-bean-etc. companies are in direct competition for the basic commodity of farm land and labor (my guess of %12 comes from the market share)). Remember, when a farmer switches from growing lentils to growing grapes, because they hope to make more money via the alcohol, this drives up the cost of lentils by reducing the supply. If you refrigerate your beer there is also an impact on energy use, all that beer also has to be transported and stored prior to purchase.
Some say that alcohol is also the cause of some forms of systemic poverty when we consider the effect of alcohol on unborn children (The Way to Beat Poverty).
Globally, 40-60 million acres are used for growing sugar. Is that really necessary when we also know it is bad for our health?
Complex Cumulative Effect
The ultimate side effect is not a simple picture, considering the impact of massive food waste problems, lawns (that could be more agricultural), architecture (green roof technology exists but it is hardly implemented), agricultural and industrial water waste, sugar, tobacco, marijuana farms, and excess textiles (also impacts agriculture as Cotton is the 5th largest Crop in the US). The cumulative effect is a massive inefficiency in our land use where 70% or more of our land use is unnecessary. Additionally, excess energy use, water use, metal and mineral use is another equally complex area of supply and demand, with far reaching impacts and implication on the cost of nearly everything. Banking and loans can often add another layer of cost as sellers drive up costs knowing their customer is going to use a credit card or loan. And there are many other elements of waste and inefficiency I’ve left untouched throughout our culture of convenience, and “normality”.
The human condition is partly this: we don’t live in a world of endless resources (that only exists in video games). Game designers might call it a ‘hunger game’ where players have a limited amount of resources – but this isn’t a game. Having more than others doesn’t make us “winners,” it simply makes life more difficult for other people to live, by driving up costs. I’ve heard it said that if everyone on earth lived like middle-class/upper-middle-class Americans we would consume the resources of seven Earths (23oo sq/ft houses/2.5 people on 1/4 acre of useless grass, with 1.8 cars, eating meat, sugar, alcohol, eggs, cheese, milk, coffee, while trashing about 40% or more of our food, with a pet, 2.93 TVs, and tobacco, plus 10,932 kw/hr of energy used each year, 300 gallons of water a day [Repeated 2.8 billion times]) . We don’t have seven Earths, we only have this one to share. We have to realize that lifestyle choices are not without ethical implications. Maybe it is time artists change the lifestyle they deem “good” and “normal” or “in style” through the arts and media. We need our “American Dream” to change.
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” – John the Baptist [Luke 3:11]
My intention isn’t to say these things are all intrinsically wrong and must stop 100% now, but rather it is time to think differently about them. Maybe consider having meat once a year or once a month rather than every day, the same with ice cream. I don’t think conditions are so dire that we must stop using all these things at this moment (though some global warming folks might disagree). We might, however, come to a place in the near future (2030s-2040s) when we really have to make major sacrifices (with the compound effects of global climate change, the end of antibiotics, self-driving cars, drones, automation/robots, 3D printers, Ultra AI, and the end of cheap oil). We can’t reach a point of using no food or housing or energy at all, and that would defeat the purpose (because human beings need some things), we simply need to reach a point of balance where people and the environment are respected more than things or style. Our land and energy use can become fair and balanced (people often call this sustainability, or social justice; sometimes I call it macroethics). It makes no sense to have homeless people while 10 million houses stand empty, or starving people while much of our food is trashed. It makes no sense to ship food from foreign nations facing hunger while we easily have 40 million acres of “yards” that we could make much more use of.
Many Political leaders today are very concerned with the economy, but I think the problem is one of consumption, desire and demand (especially on the part of the middle and upper class). All you revolutionaries out there, don’t take this as a cause for violence – people have walked into this current dilemma blind and ignorant. Most have been schooled in consumption rather than ethics or efficiency. Many people in our culture do not stop to think about ethics, outside of a simple concept of law, bodily harm, or grossness. Many people do not think about the large-scale consequences of repeating simple inefficiencies, or repeating consumption habits 300 million times – the American population (or 7 billion times when considering the world population). People have simply been distracted by this silly game they are playing of “being normal,” but I think they can come around with a little encouragement. Remember, part of my concern is that our consumption habits lead to harm and dehumanization, and if these things are wrong, we can’t justify harming or dehumanizing those who are currently caught up in it or propagating it (without contradicting the basis of the ethic).
There may also be other, less economic, more spiritual and cultural benefits to living simply: things like deliberate living, mindfulness, art, community, and civic engagement. Maybe less stress (from being without debt, and having less to manage) and doing what we love rather than doing things in order to keep up appearances, or constantly feeling forced to keep pace with our debt (or our neighbors). A life of increasing consumption may not be better, but a life of increasing ethics and virtue must be of greater worth.
My data above comes from:
NCGA (National Corn Growers Association): This is a useful data sheet on agricultural land use:http://www.ncga.com/upload/files/documents/pdf/2011_woc_metric.pdf
AGMRC (The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center):
Soybean usage and Statistics:
Agricultural Land Use:
Beer Production and Industry Statistics:
Alcohol Impact on the Unborn – creating systemic poverty:
March 2016 issue of National Geographic (cover story)
Household Statistics (and Lawns):
Lawn Care Industry Statistics:
Herbicide/Pesticide Use Problems:
Why Bees are important, and why they are disappearing:
Trees Give Stress Reduction:
World Health Organization (Child malnutrition):
The Diane Rehm Show:
The Lure of Minimalism