I am an American and I dwell comfortably, without a shred of guilt, within the rotting carcass of capitalism. Unlike other decaying bodies, there is no odorous stench, but an aroma, sweet and cloying.
I arise on a cool, autumn weekend morning. I decide to begin my day with a long quiet soak in the hot tub. The sky is gray and a mild breeze rustles the tops of the tall trees around me. I reflect on the luxury of actually having a weekend. For some, time is little more than a string of days whose beginning they can barely remember, and the end of which they can hardly imagine. They squat with their mothers and fathers and children in refugee camps bounded by soldiers and razor wire, sitting on the borders between countries who either cannot support them or will not accept them.
I cup my hands and bring steaming hot water over my head, again and again. I contemplate my breakfast. I’ll fry up some eggs, I think. I’ll leave the yolks runny, and top them off with a couple of thin slices of turkey and two thick slices of cheddar cheese, melted beforehand in the microwave. I cup my hands, but this time I stretch out my arms and slowly bring them together and pull them apart, slicing the surface of the water like a swimmer.
It begins to rain, but at first I think its just wind in the trees. The sound gets louder and louder, but I remain dry, because the tub is surrounded by a canopied gazebo. The rain is thin and hard to make out. Later I realize it was a mix of snow and sleet. I live in the middle of the country, so I don’t have to worry about mudslides, or flash flooding, or forest fires. Not yet at least. So for me the weather is comforting, a sign of the same change of seasons I’ve lived with all my life. The weather isn’t my enemy. No, instead it’s directed its wrath onto the thousands of Syrian farmers who fled their drought-ravaged farms into urban centers, where the combined weight of their hunger and desperation led to the riots that Bashar al-Assad so violently and mercilessly quashed.
It’s directing its wrath at the dozens of island nations doomed to be underwater within the next fifty years. The capitalist model demands that growth proceed unabated, that fossil fuels continue to be extracted, for no better reason than demand continues unabated as well. The snake is swallowing its tail. The snowball Senator Jim Inhofe carried into the Senate chamber has long ago melted, and by the time the whole sorry edifice comes down, he’ll be gone too, unrepentant and unsanctioned.
The rain has stopped. I climb out of the tub and pull the top to cover it until I return. In the kitchen I pull out all my breakfast ingredients and lay them out on the counter. As I heat up the olive oil inside the stainless steel pan, my two dogs sit on either side of me, looking up, tails wagging. I’ve already fed them, so I assume their full bellies will offset the fact that if they get any part of this meal, it’ll be a spoon or maybe a plate to lick, nothing more.
Suddenly, they’re snarling and snapping at each other, tangled up in my feet, a blur of teeth and lunging. Even after I grab their respective scruffs, they continue to go after each other. Finally, I separate them into different rooms, where they immediately become calm. This is normal. They’ve already forgotten the encounter. They won’t hold a grudge, and so neither will I. It was all just a matter of proximity, and desire. They wanted what I had, and they didn’t want to share, even though they had nothing in their possession to share to begin with.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe we just don’t want to share. Maybe it’s just that simple. After all, there’s nothing within the capitalist model that says we have to share. It smiles upon those who do, I’ll grant you. It bestows upon them all sorts of awards and accolades. But the contributions of all the charities in the world add up to barely a drop in the ocean. That suggests there’s very little incentive built into the system for any real largess. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could divest themselves of most of their fortunes, and through targeted and judicious spending, end fossil fuel extraction, subsidize green energy, and alleviate world hunger. The money would eclipse all the contributions of Jimmy Carter and Bill Gates, bless their hearts, and still leave more than enough to allow Jeff and Elon to live like Croesus for the rest of their lives.
But the problem was never spending the money. The problem always was and continues to be, what we spend it on. And poor people just don’t make the grade. Warlords in Afghanistan were the recipients of unlimited and unexamined American largess for years, money that was meant for schools and hospitals, but never made it quite that far. Oil companies continue to receive government subsidies that began when the industry was embryonic, designed to help fledgling companies just getting onto their feet. Very few people want to extend the green economy the same courtesy. Close to a trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy doesn’t seem to be a problem. Neither does unlimited defense contracts for weapons the military doesn’t need or doesn’t want, or both. How often do you hear these names in the news: Lockheed Martin? Raytheon? General Dynamics? That’s where the money’s going. And just you try to stop it.
Well, I’ve finished my breakfast. I think, no, I know, I ate a little too much. That extra egg, because I didn’t want it sitting in the fridge all by itself. Or the muffins. I could’ve done without those. But I’d bought them on a whim, and now I just can’t let them go to waste. My refrigerator’s a wonderland of exotic foods from all sorts of places. Whole Foods. Trader Joes. The local farmer’s market. The catered affair that insisted we take home all the uneaten meals and desserts, else they’d just be tossed.
It’s nice to live in a first-world country. To have the luxury of overeating, or more ironically, to go on a diet if I so choose. By the same token, it’s probably presumptuous, maybe even dangerous, to pretend the third-world doesn’t exist. Especially since it’s where we get most of the raw materials and cheap labor for our creature comforts. And especially since its going to be the first to go when the oceans swallow its islands, when its fields go fallow from drought, and when the refugee hordes come swarming at the gates. I think the one luxury I can’t afford, is to be surprised when it all comes to pass.