Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Progressive's Dilemma

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 18, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 18, 2008.

Dave Pollard poses a series of questions for progressives. Since I am one, and have faced each of these issues, and no longer lose sleep over them, here are my responses.
Choosing Your Charities: There are a hundred good causes always asking for money, and hundreds of people on the streets asking for change, busking, washing your windshield, selling those 50 cent newspapers etc. How do you choose? Who do you give to, and when? Local or global? Health or social service? People you know raising money for luxuries or organized fundraisers supporting the really desperate? Cash or a good meal?
Health and social services should be properly funded by the government, to ensure equity of access, and should not be reduced to begging for handouts in order to exist. By onating to such charities I would merely be enabling this offloading of responsibility by those who would prefer to see such systems privatized.

Political charities, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, can expect no such government support, since they exist for the purpose of influencing government. This therefore is where my aid dollars flow. Mostly to Amnesty International, since they are addressing the most crucial political issues today.

I give money directly to the poor from time to time, on no set schedule, and in varying amounts. I prefer to support industry, but don't require it. I cannot help every single person who is poor, I don't have enough money, so I don't feel badly about saying no.
Local vs Organic/Humane/Fair Trade Foods: It's so hard to find stuff that's both. Between fresh local stuff that could well be tainted with melamine and other toxins, and long-distance, shipped-by-diesel ethical foods that might have no nutrition left, which do you choose?
In order: local, because it is the most efficient and environmentally friendly; fair trade after local because I would rather see people support their own needs than grow cash crops (which are almost always luxuries). Humane, when it's an option. Organic, when it is not obviously inferior.

The principle here is to have the least environmental impact while at the same time ensuring those who grow the food receive a fair return. This in general means eating fresh foods or unprocessed foods, which I do. If I'm doing that, I don't sweat the rest, which are minimal compared to the damage packaging and processing do.
Government-Assisted & Centralized, or Community-Based: On the big-ticket issues where inequality is at critical levels, like education and health, most progressives like the idea of universal, free-for-all programs. But at the same time community-based unschooling programs, and community-run clinics that use volunteers to stretch dollars, have a lot of appeal and they're the antithesis of massive, state-run programs. And what is your position on voucher programs, that basically give people the money (or equivalent) and leave it up to them how to spend it (on food, on their choice of schools etc.)?
Pretty simple answer: government assisted and community based. When asked what sort of programs I advocate, I support distributed and locally managed programs designed by and for people in communities. A good example of this is the CAP grants program.

As with the case of health care and social services, I don't think the education system should be run by volunteers. Because like health care and social services, these programs are too valuable to leave to the uncertain economics of charity (whether volunteer hours or donated money). If we value these programs, we should be willing to spend the money to hire appropriately educated professionals.

For similar reasons, I do not support vouchers. While I do support the mobility and school choice that they enable, there is no requirement to convert our educational system to a private for-profit system in order to make this happen. By distributing management, allowing local specialization, and enabling choice, we can have the diverse and innovative system we want. This can be done in a public system - has been done, in Edmonton, for example.

The belief that all government enterprise is necessarily centrally managed is one that is sustained only as a result of an ongoing misinformation campaign on behalf of those who oppose equity of access and who (therefore) favour privatization.
City Versus Country: Country is healthier, and better for the soul, but (unless you telecommute and are very self-sufficient) city is more ecologically sustainable, more land-economical. The suburbs are no compromise -- they're the worst of both worlds. So where do you choose to live?
Again, this is a pretty easy one: city, unless employed in pursuits that are necessarily rural (agriculture, forestry, etc) or unless you are able to telecommute and are relatively self-sufficient.

The country is not necessarily healthier and is not necessarily better for the soul. I have lived long periods of time in both city and country, long enough to have endured massive dust storms, layers of forest fire smoke, and all manner of airborne irritants produced by plants, animals and everything in between.

And cities can be both healthy and good for the soul. The air can be clean, there can be green space, and the opportunities for leisure, culture and recreation can be unparalleled. Where the city is a forest of concrete, those desolate downtowns of bankers' towers, it is depersonalizing, but where there is life, there is humanity. Vancouver was once like that, Melbourne was the last time I visited, Vienna still is.

I agree that the suburbs are not an option. I've lived there, too, and would not want to move back. And as an inner-city dweller, I'm tired of subsidizing their environmentally reckless practices.
Immigration Policy: At current rates of immigration, the US population will soar to 300 million by 2100, and the Canadian population to 35 million. Many people believe we have no right to keep people out just because of where they had the misfortune to be born. But such populations will wipe out our last remaining wilderness, increase pollution proportionally to their numbers, and devastate our forests and farmlands. So do you opt for human kindness or ecological sustainability?
Such populations will exist whether or not they are living in this country, which means they will have an impact on our wilderness no matter what. But the issue is not between immigration controls or reckless wilderness management; there is no reason why we cannot manage our wilderness responsibly and sustain significant levels of immigration.

That said, our wilderness is already pretty much in a state of degradation. people do not reflect what it means when we say that protesters are protecting the last of the old-growth forest in some remote B.C. wilderness, but it means that all of the rest of Canada has been logged to capacity. This becomes pretty evident when you fly over our forests or drive in the north. It looks like wilderness, but it's already being managed to extract as much profit as possible.

The challenge of immigration does not relate to wilderness. People aren't going to suddenly start farming the Canadian shield or forging homesteads on the tundra. They will locate to the cities, which is where they expect to ind employment and income. After all, that has been the pattern through the rest of the world. Rather, the challenge will become for us just as it is in the rest of the world: how to maintain our social programs - our public health care, education and social welfare systems.

But even here, this isn't a problem of immigration, it's a problem of sustainability. because we need to be able to address these issues worldwide, and not just in Canada. For if we don't, the solutions that emerge elsewhere in the world - a private system for some, and poverty for the rest - will overwhelm our own system, with or without immigrants.

The United States is rapidly reaching the point where it will have open borders whether it wants them or not. The issue it faces now is whether or not to recognize these immagrants, and no longer whether or not to admit them. It no longer manages the situation. We, too, will eventually be faces with the same situation, should conditions in the U.S. deteriorate sufficiently. Our efforts would be better spent learning how to sustain social equity than figuring out how to regulate immigration.
Stopping at Zero: Those who don't care about our environment, or don't know any better, have no compunction about having large families. What should we do about such people? Compensate by having none, or just one, of our own? Make it clear that we find their conduct irresponsible and reprehensible? Even if they're good in other ways, or the loved ones of our loved ones?
Evidence suggests that stable social and economic conditions foster population stability and even population decline. The widespread availability of birth control, strong social programs and support for the elderly, and accurate information about evolution (since some people foster large families to foster cultural or belief systems) will tend to help people regulate their own reproduction. It follows that efforts to regulate the size of families are misplaced and unnecessary, and to be undertaken only when all other means of population control have demonstrably failed and where a predictable population growth would result in environmental or economic devastation.

For my own part, I have no illusions or faith in non-corporeal immortality. So I do not see any need to procreate, and should my genetic material ever be necessary for the fate or future of humanity, they know where to find it (and in an age of cremation, a genetic preservation bank might be a good idea).
Watch or Turn it Off: The news is mostly bad, and mostly unactionable, so there's a tendency to shut it off and not subject yourself to more grief -- you know what's happening, and don't need to be reminded. Or do you? Is there something in that news that is your undiscovered cause, something that you can do something about, something that you really need to know?
Actually, the news is mostly fiction, so watching it is not a matter of being informed, but rather, of keeping tabs on the bad guys. I watch it because I like to be informed about what people are talking about, but I don't take it particularly seriously. Generally, what I see in the news is the same thing I saw on (right-wing) political activist mailing lists (such as RedState) a few days earlier. And like former Soviet citizens watching Pravda, I have learned to watch for the nuances.

And all of that said, the issues that face us today are eminantly actionable. I don't buy the whole "I'm so helpless I can't change anything" line. Minimally, I can change my own actions, which I do, living simply, interacting fairly, dealing honestly. And I can, through my example and my words, influence other people. And by working with those same other people, build great works or take part in global movements. We don't need to be 'managed' or 'organized' to create a better world; we merely need to be working in harmony for basic values of justice, fairness and equality.
Make & DIY, versus Buy: There is much to be said for self-sufficiency, both because it's ecologically sustainable and because it's pleasurable to learn to do things for yourself. But the trade-off is the time it takes you to learn and practice, and the fact that someone else may have this as their only skill, their only way to make a living, and if everyone does it themselves, they're out of a job.
There is almost nothing to be said for self-sufficiency. Mostly, there is almost nothing I can make more effectively and efficiently than someone who is actually trained to do it. Proper carpenters will waste much less wood than I would. Farmers can grow more food with less environmental impact than my hack gardening. Any DIY I do I do for my own sense of self-worth and accomplishment - purely personal satisfactions that, while worthwhile in and of themselves, do not qualify as the basis for an economy.

Probably the really big difference between DIY and buy is that if we must make everything ourselves, we will consume so much less. Because we're so bad at it, that it will take too much effort to maintain any significant level of consumption. But we can achieve equally effective results with a lot less effort. By living simply, by resisting consumerism, we can reduce our impact significantly while ensuring that what we consume is most efficiently and effetcively produced.
Made in China or Doing Without:There are many things, from clothes to computers, that are almost impossible to buy from local or even domestic suppliers. So the alternative to buying something shoddily (and environmentally irresponsibly) made by slave labour in China for some giant multinational corporation, overpackaged and shipped thousands of miles, that will end up in the landfill in six months, is not to buy that item at all (unless you have the time and skill to make it yourself -- see #8 above). What are we willing to live without?
First of all, I think the situation in China is exaggerated - and not limited to China, or even the underdeveloped world. A person who works at WalMart is, relatively speaking, as disenfranchised as a person who lives in a Chinese factory. And the reason is the same - not the Chinese government, which is far from the demon portrayed in our media, but the manufactured goods industry, which is the direct connection between the factory and WalMart.

The problem for a consumer today is that it is effectively impossible to distinguish between product made under such conditions and product made by people who are paid a fair living wage (note that price is not a reliable indicator, since price is based on willingness to pay, and not cost of production). Even if the label says 'made in Canada', and even if the product was actually made in Canada (the two are not the same), we are not guaranteed that the workers were paid fairly and not mistreated.

In sum, we cannot effect changes in the system of production through our purchasing decisions. This becomes even more evident when we understand that something like 80 percent of commerce is business-to-business, and therefore impermeable consumer pressure. We can from time to time obtain token vistories against particularly vulnerable companies, but we should not be lulled by these highly-publicized successes that we are effecting any lasting change.

Only through political and legal action will the inequities of the global marketplace be addressed. It is my hope that the current economic crisis will create sufficient transparency to be able to target such action.

In the mean time, I avoid shopping an WalMart and make sure to tip generously.
Choosing How to Spend Your Time: This is probably the toughest dilemma of all. So much needs to be done. But we need to focus on where we can make a real difference, and on causes that we not only care about, but enjoy working on. Life is too short to do work you don't love. And you need time for yourself and those you love, too.
It's not really a dilemma. I do work that is important, and I love it because it is important. But that is not to denigrate people who do work that is (putatively) not important. All of our work is important - whether we raise bees or build barns or play bass or catch trout, whether we heal the sick, feed the poor, educate the young, manage the books, kick field goals, or tend the cash at a 7-Eleven.

The belief that there is a dilemma here is an act of hubris. Nobody can expect us to do any more than we can, and we can do no more than what we love and what we are good at. Our society is a tapestry of all the works of all people, and it is in each of us deciding, in our own way and in our own time, what is important that makes it so, and indeed, makes it worth saving.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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