Monday, September 20, 2021

Only you have the power to change your world

“Our mission is a world free of poverty,” states the World Bank slogan, emblazoned in huge letters upon its headquarters.

It’s easy to understand why many of us flinch at this. It is, after all, a bank. And to stay in business, banks have to make money.

A quick look at the statistics of developing nations shows the gaps between the rich and poor have been increasing since the World Bank started tinkering with foreign economies.

That’s probably why the last two U.S. conventions of global development organizations have been met with violence.

Although I wasn’t there, I’m told the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle was a chaotic mess.

The World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., was much less volatile. I remember seeing more aggression from the D.C. cops than the protesters, but some of the more confrontational activists definitely tried to take matters into their own hands. And it was a little intimidating when they rolled out the miniature tank at the demonstration in front of the Department of Justice.

It felt exhilarating to be there. I felt as though I was helping to make a positive difference. That’s because at the time, I lacked an understanding of the source of the problem.

I am the problem.

In this particular case, I thought the World Bank was responsible for the conditions of extreme poverty and hardship in developing nations. I made this connection, I think, because it is the agency responsible for enacting programs to eliminate world poverty. It cleans up our mess, and, in many cases, what it does doesn’t work very well.

But without delving too deeply into economics, the reason the way people in Africa live the way they do is because I live the way I do. The notion of raising them to our level is an elaborately financed joke. My lifestyle, as an American, is so exorbitant in the resources I consume and the system I contribute to that equality on my level is structurally impossible.

It would take five planets’ worth of resources to fuel the capitalist machine and balance my overconsumption, and then we might be able to bring them to our industrial level. But until I change what I do, others will continue to suffer.

And this is just the beginning.

The biggest hypocrite of all is the American college student environmentalist. We actually entertain the fantasy that we are having a significant environmental impact by recycling everything in sight, avoiding the use of plastic, cutting down on frivolous car trips and so on. It distracts us from the tremendous volume of waste and resources the systems we contribute to secrete.

MSU, for instance, dispensed 125,884 cubic yards of what’s called uncompressed Municipal Solid Waste (an Environmental Protection Agency category for the stuff you throw out) during the last fiscal year. And while we have room for improvement, we set a fairly good example as an institution, recycling close to 19 percent of all our Municipal Solid Waste. And there are initiatives on campus to substantially increase this number.

That’s nice. But Municipal Solid Waste only accounts for 2.2 percent of the total 165 pounds of waste you, the average American, will create - today.

Don’t shake your head in disbelief. The MSU power plant, for instance, actually throws out more used coal than we throw out trash. Getting the idea? Have you used the bathroom or taken a shower today? Eaten industrially processed food? Purchased an industrially manufactured shirt? Driven a car? These conveniences add up.

I do have a point. Social activism strokes the ego. There are seemingly invisible malevolent forces at work all around us, and of course we’d rather be good (than bad). But the reason you so rarely see Haitian tree-huggers and Zimbabwean environmentalists is not just that they’re too busy being hungry. It’s also that they’re not contributing to these problems in nearly the same capacity as we are.

To put it another way, we have the energy and resources to care about these problems because we consume so much energy and resources.

Please do not misunderstand me. I would never say recycling and screaming at D.C. cops have no place. They should be very effective in temporarily prolonging our self-destruction. I have always recycled, and I will continue to do it. But we should do these things out of guilt, in spite of ourselves. If you believe your lifestyle is positively affecting humanity and your planet, I would disagree. If you continue to contribute to this society, especially this American society, it is your job to try and minimize your damage as much as possible.

I’ve thrown up my hands, convinced fighting the destructive system itself has long been futile. I see two options.

I can drop out, and go learn how to live in the woods. Or, rather than fighting with the system, I can fight within the system to enact social change.

In this country, there are plenty of opportunities for social change available. Women, when you get your degree, you can expect to make 76 percent as much money as me for performing the same job. Does that anger you? It should! Last week, our president was talking about reducing our foreign military commitments. This week, bombing Iraq is part of his “strategery.”

There’s madness in every direction. Why aren’t we flooding the streets in droves exercising our right to peacefully assemble? Has the sitcom age of 30-minute comedic problem-solving really reduced my generation to such a pitiful state of apathy? These gigantic problems can seem so overwhelming at times, and yet, simultaneously seem so distant.

But Gandhi taught us the power of political change lies in the collective presence of the individual. What I mean is, there are great leaders, but in the end, only you have control over yourself.

Andrew Banyai, a political science and pre-law junior, can be reached at banyaian@msu.edu.

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