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Inequality, the Environment and the Human Future

This 1994 commencement address identifies the growth of economic inequality as an existential danger and calls on students and others to prepare to take action to counter it.

[PDF Version]


Richard Hayes

Commencement Address
University of California at Berkeley Energy and Resources Group
May 21, 1994

Here are the main points I want to make today, right off the top:

  • The growth of economic inequality, and our reluctance to talk about ethical limits to personal wealth and consumption, threaten any possibility of achieving a sustainable and just human future.

  • A time will come when the need for a new discourse concerning ethical limits to wealth and consumption is widely acknowledged, but there is no way to know when that might be.

  • There is a special role for those willing to begin sowing the seeds of this new discourse now, and to bring others into this work as well.

I want to motivate these points with some history, some analysis, some exhortation and some stories.

Let‟s start with the environmental movement. In the quarter century since Earth Day 1970 we‟ve made real progress. We recycle, use energy-efficient appliances, avoid at least the worst pollution of our air and water, and enjoy many protected natural areas. These are important steps towards sustainability and should be celebrated.

But ahead of us are a range of issues of a different magnitude altogether. These threaten the functional integrity of both global ecosystems and human social systems, and come right up against the historic dynamic of economic growth. I‟m speaking both of newer threats such as climate change and massive biodiversity loss and of threats such as water and air pollution that may sound more familiar but which nonetheless—and certainly not by accident—have reached critically lethal levels in many poor nations and communities.

In 1957 climatologist Roger Revelle wrote: “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” He was referring, of course, to anthropogenic global warming.

This unprecedented perturbation of global ecosystems is worrisome enough by itself. But in addition we are now carrying out an equally unprecedented, large scale, social experiment, an experiment in global economic and social inequality. The technological revolutions of the past fifteen years—in communications, transportation, industrial systems, and all the rest—along with the liberalization of trade, have enabled huge new flows of goods and services to enter the global marketplace. Engineers, attorneys, MBAs, pop celebrities and energy analysts can now market their wares to customers in Berlin, Tokyo, Jakarta and Riyadh. Those who work with their hands—the parts assemblers, data-entry operators, farm laborers and textile workers—will be competing with their counterparts in Belfast, Juarez, New Haven and Bombay.

The implications for personal incomes are profound. We are on the verge of an explosion of global inequality. Financial capital can move at the touch of a computer key. Factories and support facilities can move in a short number of years. But labor—that is, people—moves only with difficulty, and when it does, it does so at the expense of families, communities, traditions and cultures.

In his bestseller The Work of Nations, then Harvard lecturer and now Secretary of Labor Robert Reich offered the chilling image of an increasingly affluent, professional one-fifth of the American population seceding from the remaining eighty percent. With growing numbers of resources the professional classes are building a parallel social universe, with its own systems of education, communication, transportation, health care, public safety and all the rest. The purpose is to reduce to a minimum the need for reciprocity with persons of different class and education backgrounds.

Globalization intensifies this new segregation. An international advertising executive living in Manhattan shares more challenges, desires, satisfactions and frustrations—in short, a life—with counterparts and clients in Brussels and Rio than any of them do with the public school teachers or grocery clerks in their own lands, or, for that matter, with the support staff in their own offices.

What follows is isolation, alienation, fear and reaction. The social contract lies in tatters. Support is withdrawn from failing common social institutions and their failure accelerates. All that‟s left is a grim resolve not to be left vulnerable at the bottom of the economic treadmill. In response governments push economic growth even more forcefully.

Can environmental values survive such a future? I can‟t see how. So what I‟m saying is that issues of economic growth, consumption and inequality reveal themselves to be environmental concerns of the first order.

It appears, however, that we cannot easily talk about this. Earlier this year the major environmental organizations held a retreat to discuss next steps in the fight to prevent global warming. Those gathered acknowledged that issues of growth and inequality lay at the heart of the problem. But it was understood that if we tried to make this critique an explicit part of our public message, we would in effect be excusing ourselves from the real-world negotiating table.

That‟s our dilemma. Discussion of limits to wealth, consumption and inequality hits too close to home for too many of us. But until we can talk about these matters any hopes we have of building a sustainable, just way of life will be in vain.

Now, having said all this, I have to say that I differ with those environmentalists who regard the history of economic growth in the West as a wholesale disaster, and who at least appear to dismiss the aspirations of poor nations and poor communities to attain to the same level of material well-being as the West has. The industrial revolution freed the peasant classes of Europe from centuries of hunger, disease, insecurity, ignorance and objective oppression. The poor nations of the world today—and all people—deserve this much. But the enhanced dynamics of inequality and ecological degradation that now accompany competitive industrial growth will preclude that growth from allowing an equivalent increase in social well-being.

It‟s important to remember that issues of consumption and mode of life were in fact very much a part of the environmentalist agenda that arose in the period following Earth Day 1970. This was the period of back-to-the-land, of the Whole Earth Catalog, of E. F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful, of Donella Meadows and The Limits to Growth, and of the Integral Urban House right here in Berkeley over on Milvia Street. It seemed obvious, at that time, that the level of material affluence that the West had achieved could not in good faith be held out as a vision to which the whole of humanity could aspire. It likewise seemed obvious that the unending quest for material wealth was destroying both the natural systems of the earth and the social and personal fabric of human life. (This thesis was put forth most eloquently by Theodore Roszak in his book Person/Planet, which still reads fresh today.) The activists of that time believed that with this double realization humanity had at last completed its exuberant but unruly adolescence, and could now begin its career as a mature species. We could devote our manifold talents to living lightly on the land, and fully, deeply and at peace with one another.

What happened? Why didn‟t this understanding take deeper root and flourish? A common charge is that our analysis was empirically incorrect. And it‟s true, many of the calamities we had predicted—or were portrayed as having predicted—did not arrive on schedule. We did not run out of mercury by 1985. We underestimated the power of technological innovation and market forces to address short-term resource scarcities, and so lost some credibility in the public eye.

But I think that something more fundamental was going on as well. I think that the affluent, professional classes of the world understood all too well that our way of life, when considered in its full material, ecological and social contexts, was indeed unsustainable. I think we stared into the abyss of that understanding … and blinked. We said, “This is more than we can handle. It doesn‟t appear that we‟re up against the wall quite yet. So let this cup pass from us.” This was the late 1970s. And as soon as those first hesitations arose the entire experiment quickly unraveled. In its place an unprecedented surge of individualist material acquisition and display was unleashed. This quickly become the dominant social value and has remained so to the present day.

The year 1988 witnessed a major revival of environmental concern. It was sparked when the objective evidence that the earth‟s global ecosystems were at serious risk could no longer be ignored. But this time around any discussion of constraints on consumption, or of alternative modes of life, was conspicuous by its absence. Why was this?

I can think of several reasons. One is that a decade of yuppie me-firstism had left us even more depleted than before in the sorts of spiritual resources that are needed to support major shifts in societal and personal values.

Another is the failure of socialism. This epochal event, coming after more than a century of world-historical struggle, cast a pall on any suggestions for any social order grounded on any basis other than individualist material acquisition.

And a third reason is the continuing impact of technological change. The swiftness and completeness with which the personal computer became a workplace fixture and household appliance seemed to lend credence to the claims of the technological triumphalists that a cornucopian cyber-future lay just over the horizon.

None of these accounts, however, change the fact that the future we are building right now is a future of massive inequality among persons and of massive transformation of the earth‟s natural systems.

Now, I am not a gloom-and-doomer. I realize my comments thus far might give that impression, but it‟s not the message I came to give and not what I want to leave you with.

The growth-at-any-cost road will not be traveled down unchallenged. There will be a reaction. We can‟t say when, or what shape it might take. But it will happen, for two reasons.

One is simply that the road we are on—the road of blind, banal materialism—is in the final account unsatisfying to the human spirit and soul. The late author Christopher Lasch once wrote—I believe in The Culture of Narcissism—that the spirit of our times might be characterized by the phrase, “Materialism: it isn‟t much but it‟s all we‟ve got.” I believe that as it becomes clear how little we are really getting from materialism, and how significant are the costs it imposes, we will see an openness to new ways of understanding human life on earth.

The second is that a world of increasing inequality cuts out from under itself any basis for social cohesion. A world of increasing inequality is not simply a bifurcated world of great wealth and great poverty. It‟s a stratified world, one in which the life experience of each layer becomes more and more differentiated from those layers above and below it. As the range of income classes expands the number of persons situated in any particular income class decreases. We will have less and less in common with one another, all the while being urged to aspire to even greater personal economic gain. Friends, this is the war of all against all. It cannot endure.

As I said a moment ago, we can‟t know the hour or the circumstance under which the successful alternative to blind, individualist materialism will arise. But I experience that fact as empowering, not discouraging. It means that the right thing to do is to just start doing whatever seems right. You don‟t have to have it all figured out! In this sense it‟s quite out of your hands. Some small, seemingly insignificant, action might be just what‟s needed to set off a chain of events you could never have anticipated.

I want to reference Christopher Lasch once more. In his last book, The True and Only Heaven, he identified the task before us as no more and no less than the creation of “A new vision of the good life,” one in which esteem and well-being are not longer tied to personal material wealth.

I agree wholeheartedly. What else can we say about this task, that of building a new vision of the good life? I have four thoughts.

First and obviously, creation of such a new vision requires action and example. Talking and writing are important, and as a first order of business we need more of both. But the prize we are after is a new social movement. We‟ll need to begin living our lives in ways that represent a clean break with some aspects of the ways in which each of us lives today.

Second, the importance of love. This is a powerful word and I don‟t want to devalue it by using it casually. But I think that any truly global solution is going to have to rely in a central way on the power of love. What‟s the alternative? A perennial candidate is a global solution based on the power of hatred. God forbid.

Third, the importance of faith that humanity is going to be around for the long haul. I believe there‟s no reason we shouldn‟t plan to be around not just for hundreds or thousands of years, not even just for billions and billions of years, but, in truth, forever. Here‟s my bottom line: I think we are sitting right smack in the middle of a big, fat miracle… and that we‟re here to celebrate it. What a tragedy that we let ourselves get distracted by, and then fight over, the baubles of material wealth, while all about us the great miracle goes unrecognized.

Finally, in developing this new vision of the good life there is a special need for persons who see themselves as leaders, activists, organizers and teachers. All of us can play these roles, in greater or smaller ways. The key is a passion to empower others. All social change relies on this. There‟s no greater reward than that of helping bring people together and helping create power where there was none before.

I want to finish by telling some stories. These stories address many of the same points I‟ve tried to put forth this afternoon. But stories often register on deeper levels than flat exposition does. These are stories about flesh and blood folks, they are all true.

You all know of Tom Hayden—founder of Students for a Democratic Society, organizer against the war in Viet Nam, leader of the Campaign for Economic Democracy. One of the consistently most creative and committed activists that came out of the sixties. But how many here know of Herb Mills? In 1960 Hayden was editor of the University of Michigan campus newspaper, and he wanted to learn more about the student movement, so that summer he came out to Berkeley. At that time he saw himself as a journalist, not an activist. Here‟s how Hayden tells what happened:

“The people I stayed with in Berkeley were very involved. This guy, Herb Mills, came up to me one day, and I had heard that he was a leftist, and I didn‟t know what that was, but he drove me out to Livermore one day and showed me the nuclear reactor, where all the hydrogen bombs were made, with the fence around it, and he described the nuclear weapons and the arms race. And then another day, he drove me out into the fields and valleys, and he told me about the Chicanos and the farm workers and the conditions of their work.”

Herb Mills was a grad student here at Berkeley. He introduced Hayden to the entire network of progressive activism in Northern California, and the rest is history. So even if you don‟t play the same role for your generation that Hayden played for mine—although you very well might!—you can certainly play the role that Herb Mills did. It‟s just a matter of taking that extra step to find out what‟s important to someone you meet, and sharing with them whatever it is you know that might be helpful.

I have another story. This one takes place in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The year is 1933. A small group is out on a morning hike, and the leader is a young man who had recently finished his studies at U.C. Berkeley. He‟s walking and talking with an older man, who‟s maybe in his thirties. The older man notices how much the young hike leader is moved by the beauty of these hills, trees and creeks. He says, “You should join the Sierra Club.” About a week or so later the young hike leader goes over to San Francisco, to the Mills building on Montgomery Street, joins the Sierra Club, and gets involved.

OK, so I have two questions. First: who was the young hike leader? Right, it was David Brower! But that‟s not the punch line. Who was the older man who encouraged David to join the Sierra Club? The answer is… nobody knows! David told me this story personally. The older guy was tall and wore a hat. That‟s it. If he was in his thirties in 1933 he‟d be ninety-something now. Maybe as we talk he‟s sitting in a rocking chair on some porch. More likely he‟s passed on. I like to imagine that one afternoon during the 1960s or ‟70s this man was reading a newspaper story about David Brower—maybe about Brower‟s early opposition to nuclear power, at a time when most environmentalists supported it—and was inspired, perhaps, to write a letter to his state senator, and that he had no idea whatsoever of the role he had played in the entire chain of events.

I have a final story. You all know of Chico Mendes, president of the Xapuri Rubber Workers Union in Brazil, who fought to defend the Amazonian ecosystem and the livelihoods of the rubber workers, and who in 1988 was murdered by the rubber plantation owners. But how many here know of Euclides Tavora? Let me read what Chico Mendes has to say about Euclides Tavora. This is from a set of interviews conducted with Mendes shortly before his assassination. He describes growing up illiterate on the rubber plantations, where schools were forbidden. Then he goes on:

“But something out of the ordinary happened to me. One afternoon in 1962, someone new passed by our house on the rubber estate where we lived. He was a worker, a rubber tapper, but looked and spoke completely differently from the rest. He began to chat and the way he spoke intrigued me. He brought newspapers with him. At the time I didn‟t know what a newspaper was. He said he would like to teach me how to read, and he and my father agreed I could take time off work on the weekends to go learn. Every Saturday I walked through the forest for three hours to get to his hut. We had no textbook, so he used a political column in the newspaper. After several months I could read and write. [Mendes was eighteen years old at this time.] We talked, and I was so interested in what he had to say.

“After a year had gone by like this, he began to tell me something about himself. He had been in the army, but the country was in a bad way, and in 1935 he decided to work for the revolution. He was arrested and imprisoned, but escaped. Then he joined another rebellion, was arrested and escaped again. In the 1950s he was active in the struggles of Bolivian workers. But then there was a repression, so he fled into the jungle and made his way through the rubber estates across the border to Brazil. He lived on his own and learned to tap rubber. After I had known him a year he told me his name. it was Euclides Fernandes Tavora.”

Mendes tells how Tavora gave him a full political education, listening with him every evening on a radio to Voice of America and Radio Moscow, and critiquing both broadcasts.

“1965 was the last year I saw much of Euclides. He gave me a lot of advice about how to organize. He said we had at least 10, 15, 20 years of dictatorship ahead of us but that new unions and other organizations would emerge. Despite the defeats, humiliations and massacres, the roots of the movement were always there, he said. The plants would always germinate again sooner or later. He told me nobody had ever been able to eliminate this movement for liberation in the world. Then he said, „Look, you ought to get involved in trade union organization in this area. They will emerge, sooner or later. I don‟t know when, but that is where you ought to be.”

Mendes concludes:

“I think that was one of the most important bits of advice he gave.”

Well, there you have what I wanted to say. The growth of economic inequality and our reluctance to talk about ethical limits to personal wealth and consumption threaten any possibility of achieving a sustainable and just human future. At some point we will engage these issues, but there is no way to know when that might be. And there is a special role for those willing to begin that work now, and bring others along… for the celebration.

Thank you.
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Richard Hayes is Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society. He has been active in social and political organizing since his student days at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. From 1983 through 1992 he was Associate Political Director and then National Director of Volunteer Development for the Sierra Club. In the early 1990s he was Chair of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Campaign Committee. He holds a PhD in Energy and Resources from the University of California at Berkeley.

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