The Dark Side of Philanthropy: An Important Consideration

Progress-page-0Before I continue, you must know that I do not, at all, propose that we cease in our philanthropic pursuits. I support and morally agree with the idea of helping others. What I am suggesting here, and I feel that the suggestion ought to be considered, is that we rethink the implications of our efforts.

Here are two very serious discourses at work in our society:

1.) Our impact on the environment is negative. We should do all that we can to lessen it.

2.) Others in the world are not experiencing life in a pleasant or just way. We should help them.

On their own, both of these seem like positive goals. Of course we want to preserve the environment in a state that allows us to live happily in it. Of course we want, if we can, to help others who need help. The problem is not in the rationale behind each individual goal. The problem is that these goals are in direct conflict with one another.

We say the reason for our unpleasant environmental situation lies in the way we live our lives. So, we react in kind. We decide to make changes. We decide downsize. We decide to buy organic food and eat locally. Industrialized and developed nations have a larger impact on the environment. If, for some reason, that was not clear to you already, here is a color-coded map from wikipedia ranking various countries by carbon dioxide emissions in thousands of metric tons per year (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons). Co2 world

The problem with many (I say many for a reason) of our philanthropic pursuits is that we are striving for an ideal of equality, bringing the undeveloped nations up to our standard of living. This seems counter-intuitive, though, seeing as it is our standard of living that is being condemned and blamed for such crimes as global climate change. What would the environment look like if all of our efforts to develop and modernize undeveloped nations were fruitful? If everyone in these nations drove a car? 2 cars if you really want to equate it with life in the United States. Well, considering what it looks like now, with the present state of development –it probably wouldn’t be pretty. So, how do we reconcile the fact that we are simultaneously trying to counteract our own negative force and giving the tools and means to others so that they can aspire to the same ‘height’? What is more important? Prolonging the larger, global human life-span, or improving the current lives at the expense of it? Personally, I think the latter.

I believe that the force of human progress is as natural as any force in the universe, we being an inseparable part of the cosmos which bore us. This thought, if you are interested, is investigated more thoroughly in other posts such as this one on the ‘meaning of life.’ I do not believe that our ultimate impact on the world is reversible. Perhaps it can be slowed or hastened by the choices we make at the global, national, and local level –but in the grand scheme of things, it is an inevitability we are dealing with. So, I am all for improving the lot of those who have not been dealt a good one, at whatever cost. It is a privilege to even think in these terms, a privilege to ponder the nature of ethics. The platform of progress provides those of us living in developed nations with the collateral fortune of such thought. There is a lot we take for granted.

What I am seeing now in the environmental discourse reminds me a lot of the concept of imperialist nostalgia, which is a term most often used in regard to the dynamic between oppressed people and their oppressors. Loosely defined, it is the nostalgic sentiment following domination which makes said domination appear innocent. It comes up a lot in Native American history. The white oppressors moved in, dominated, and effectively destroyed an entire culture. Then, they hearkened back to it longingly, mourning the demise of the thing that they themselves destroyed. While it was not people that were dominated in the case of the environment, the retrospective sentiments are similar. We unflinchingly dive into the future, driven by progress with little thought of consequence. Then, when the unfortunate consequences arise, we mourn what we have destroyed and place it on a pedestal as if that will some how remedy circumstance. The drive forward doesn’t stop, though. Sure, we change our diets and our behavior. We make the huge ‘sacrifice’ of turning out all the lights and purchasing expensive hybrid cars. But put as many little bandaids on the stump of a decapitee as you want, the man is dead.

My point is, that considering the potential outcomes of pursuit #1 and pursuit #2 on their own, the choice seems easy –help thy freaking neighbor. We can save as many whales and flowers as we want. We can even curb our CO2 emissions dramatically. The inevitability remains: The planet will not always be able to sustain us. Short of a dramatic decrease in our population, our greatest long-term hopes for survival lie in the colonization of extra-terrestrial bodies or the eventual evolution/extinction of our species as we move forward into either a digital or cybernetic existence (read more about this in my 3-part post Our Cyborg Reality). If we slow our progress, we won’t be able to achieve either. Technological and scientific progress, although largely responsible for many of our environmental problems, also hold the keys to our surviving them. So, yes, I believe if push comes to shove –and it has –we must place more emphasis on our efforts to help the men and women in the world who need it over the efforts to preserve our environment in a habitable state. Maybe this will come at the cost of a shortened existence for human beings, but at least in that shortened time, more of us will be able eat, sleep, and live more comfortably.