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Income Ethics: Planetary Social Responsibility

Graph: Fulfillment, Consumption, Enough

This essay is part two of a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough (this essay), discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. If you'd like to follow my work, please subscribe or check back here for updates.

When we came into this world, our hands were open. We live, our fists clenched, struggling to hold onto anything we can, but when we leave, our hands will once again remain open.

We come with nothing, we leave with nothing, and while we're here we own nothing. Every person who lives will go through this cycle, no matter who they are, where they're from, or how much they inherit.

Everything we have is borrowed, a temporary resource to use on this journey through life. We take nothing with us, and yet we are given so much while we're here. The whole world, all of life, is one big family, yet many of us ignore it and forget that it exists.

Distracted by the fleeting impermanence, we futilely clench our fists to that which surrounds us, focusing so much on protecting our so-called assets that we inadvertently damn others in our family to an inhumane and immoral standard of living. The current state of our human family isn't sad: it's disgraceful.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have the ability (the time) and the resources (the wealth and knowledge) to choose how we live and to make a difference in the welfare of our family. Unlike those who struggle every day to simply survive, there is a select few of us who get to choose.

As a member of that group who can choose and who, for most of his life, did nothing with that choice, I can say that many of us in the developed world are not using our free choice to change the state of our human family. Instead, we're living in luxury and aspiring towards extravagance, selfishly consuming more and more and not really thinking about where it leads.

We eat more than we need to, we spend more than we need to, and we hoard more than we need to. We play games with our resources in the 'financial markets' and acquire unnecessary junk in the 'supermarkets'.

Instead of deciding what truly matters to us and then releasing everything else to those who need it, we allow fear to guide us. We embrace scarcity because others are embracing it. We unconsciously spend our life doing things that ensure the poor remain poor, the rich remain rich, and everybody in between suffers for as long as possible.

Where does it stop? At what point do we recognize our enough and start giving back to those in need? When does our time and money cease to represent a vote for poverty and instead become a vote for equality?

We create budgets for reducing debt and achieving long-term goals, but have we created a budget for humanity? Have we created a budget for serving our human family with the limited time we have available? Have we taken the time to assess what we have and asked ourselves if we might be holding too much?

If you can afford three meals a day, you are in the top 15% of the wealthiest humans on Earth.

What are we doing with all that wealth? Are we hoarding it like paranoid pack rats, padding our bellies and bank accounts and chasing the volatile and impermanent equity of our physical assets?

Or are we living within our means, recognizing what is really necessary to achieve our goals, and then searching for ways to redistribute excess so that we may contribute to the betterment of all life?

Throughout history, the wealthy members of successful societies acted as the caretakers and custodians of their community. They used their wealth to ensure a moral, just, and dignified standard of living. The societies that failed? They had one thing in common: the wealthy hoarded.

For the first time in written history, a global society is emerging. We are in a transition that ends with each individual representing one member of a global community. The biggest mistake we can make as individuals is to remain blind to the individual responsibility that comes with the privilege of having access to this global community.

What Does It Mean To Accept This Responsibility?

Our planetary social responsibility is a responsibility to protect our home (Earth) and our family (all of life). It's a responsibility to ensure that our actions, as both individuals and groups, support the continued welfare of this home and family.

Accepting this responsibility doesn't mean that we should neglect ourselves or throw away our ambitions or personal goals -- it doesn't mean we should become martyrs for the greater good. What it does mean is that we should recognize the treasure that is this human existence and accept the responsibility for the potential that it awards us.

It means that we should ask ourselves how our work (the activities undertaken with the intention of achieving specific results) and the output or return of that work (the results, whether direct or residual), affects our home and our family.

It means understanding how our work relates to our goals and to what extent that work utilizes our unique potential. (If we are, as groups or individuals, not aiming to use our unique potential to the fullest extent, then we're doing a disservice to ourselves and to the world.)

Accepting this responsibility also means understanding how our lifestyles -- the things that we consume, the groups that we relate with, and the leisurely activities that we partake in -- affect the world and its people, and it means taking an active role in changing our habits to improve our lifestyle.

It means asking ourselves how our personal priorities and goals, both of which direct how we spend most of our life, affect the future home for our children (all children are our children) and whether the long-term affects of those priorities and goals will contribute to a net-positive or a net-negative future for our human family.

Wouldn't you want to know if your work or your lifestyle was somehow contributing to the deaths of 17,000 children every night? I know I certainly would. The answer to that question isn't easy to find, but it should still be asked; it should still be something that's on our mind when we make decisions about our work and our lifestyle.

Fulfilling our planetary social responsibility will inevitably look different for each individual and fulfilling it won't change the world overnight. But there is one thing we can all remember: Equality cannot be maintained for a few at the expense of the many. As Martin Luther King observed, "where there is injustice for one, there is injustice for all."

Read the previous part of the series: Income Ethics: Embracing the Human Family
Read the next part of the series: Income Ethics: Digital Art and Equality

Mentions

  • 10 Facts You Need To Know About Poverty | The Fifth Column
  • 15 Facts That Will Make You Realize How Lucky You Are | Giftedgreen
  • FLYWORLD
  • John Leano
  • Kinan Jarjous
  • Dan Goodwin
  • andrea
  • Anonymous
  • Kristy Powell
  • Lynn Fang
  • Katie Gresham
  • Jeanie Witcraft
  • Manuel Loigeret
  • Joel Zaslofsky
  • Jeremy Branham
  • Dena Botbyl
  • Steve Marquez
  • Swapnil Tamse
  • Merna Schmidt
  • Jacqueline Daw
  • Esther van der Wal
  • andrea
  • Pulsar
  • Ricky Ferdon
  • Bill Gerlach
  • Ricardo Misawa
  • Alfredo Jenks
  • Jackie Torres
  • Lisa Baldwin

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26 Comments

  1. Great Raam. Not much to add except thanks for keeping on.

    Our ‘luxury’ isn’t even good for us. We eat so much more than our stomachs and livers can handle, most of it totally lacking in nutrition or even harmful. My wife just cleaned her liver of thousands of little stones gathered in just 22 years of normal life and 6 years of vegetarianism. The result of relative affluence no doubt.

    It’s probably worth noting as well that apparently after basic needs are met, more money does not equal more happiness.

    The ‘first world’ cant keep outsourcing the consequences of it’s affluence.

    I always believe that change is underway although it seems to be sneaking up pretty quietly. Maybe one day we’ll suddenly notice that everything has changed.

    I myself am enjoying being more proactive these days.

    Good to hear from you, looking forward to the rest.

    • Ali, I love this line:

      “The ‘first world’ cant keep outsourcing the consequences of it’s affluence.”

      I think it’s both a push- and pull-type scenario here driving both direct and indirect influence. Capitalism must cast its net of consumption wider and wider to find new markets and continue growing. While on the other side of the equation, many people — for one reason or another — have been conditioned to equate the possession of that stuff with a certain level of fulfillment. When all this meets in the middle — that’s when we have the situation we’re in.

      • Bill, what you said about capitalism needing to cast a wider and wider net to find new markets made me think: Doesn’t that guarantee that capitalism will eventually hit a wall? What happens when all the markets have been saturated? When the standard of living for the entire planet has been raised to something close to equality, will the environment that capitalism thrives in disappear?

        I’m no economist, but this also makes me wonder if inequality is actually in the best interest of capitalism and for as long as we choose to maintain a capitalist society (whether globally or nationally), we will actually be choosing to maintain inequality.

        • I agree Raam. When one looks at the bigger picture, doesn’t it seem like it had to hit a wall at some point. Even once every market is saturated, everyone speaks the same language, and everyone eats the same food, at some point, how will we keep producing and producing for ever?

          Either the resources have to run out or our dumps will be to full or…. and the list keeps going..

          I just dont see how this can last for thousands of years

          • It can’t, Matt. It just can’t. And for some it might be too “futuristic” thinking, but let’s imagine what the inevitable future is going to be for our species… how will we be spending our time and our resources 300, 500, or a thousand years from now?

            If we’re just cutting ourselves short and making life more difficult to get where we’re inevitably going, then we should stop whatever we’re doing and shift our focus so there isn’t so much suffering and waste between here and there.

    • Ali, thanks for adding your thoughts here. As usual, they give me more to think about! 🙂

      I think we associate money with happiness because it does bring genuine happiness. It allows us to feed ourselves, house ourselves, and be generous to those around us.

      However, there is no obvious and visible line where, as the amount of money increases, it stops contributing to that happiness (or rather, to that standard of living that makes us happy). So instead of making us happier, the side-effects of ‘too much’ money sneak up on us, affecting us in subtle ways and changing the way we think of ourselves and the world around us.

      It skews our perspective and because of the fluid nature of the world (amplified by the fact that we’re also in a transition to a global community), others suffer at our expense without us really directly experiencing those effects.

      But like you said, and I agree, the change is already underway. The very fact that we’re having this conversation and that there is *anyone* interested in reading this post, speaks to the reality that the change has already begun. I think it’s a mistake to believe that it will happen on its own, as that gives us as individuals an excuse for not being part of the solution.

      That’s why I believe we need to accept this responsibility — this planetary social responsibility — to ensure that we live our lives as both individuals and as groups, contributing to the solution and not sitting on the sidelines (or worse, contributing to the problem). We need to be, in your words, proactive.

  2. Raam,

    There is not a lot I can add here for you have set this new series off in an amazing way. Your words continue to challenge me (and I’m sure many other people) in three ways:

    PERSONAL — I can’t do anything about how I’ve lived in the past, but it is with a compassionate eye towards the future that I continue to look for ways to only take what I need so that the earth’s bounty can be shared with our ‘family’.

    PROFESSIONAL — It’s a slow and slogging process but I am figuring out how to ensure that my ‘work’ and ‘outputs’ are in line with a global citizenship and humanity.

    CONNECTIVITY — Perhaps that’s not the best word to describe it, but it is that growing awareness in each of us that enables like minds and spirits to find one another, connect and help create this mass of momentum and movement towards a better future.

    The amazing thing (in my mind at least) is how interconnected all three of these things are. Pursuing one helps you pursue the others; taking steps in one area blazes a path for you in another.

    At some point, we will reach that critical mass where the systems and infrastructures of “today” will break under the weight and strain of these new pursuits, allowing us (collective humanity) to rebuild things from the ground up.

    Thanks for being an inspiration, brother. Be well.

    Bill

    • Bill,

      Thanks for breaking down the three areas. I think perhaps “connectivity” could be replaced with “global family” or “human family”. After all, it’s in getting to know our family — in connecting with them — that we understand their needs and aspirations and allow for collaboration and ‘group effort’ towards goals that are desirable for all.

      That’s one reason why I’m so open to various social groups: I want to understand why people love what they love, why they live how they live, and why they place importance on things that I cannot understand as being important. In being open to their perspective, I’m able to think more holistically with my own choices and understand the world (my family) a little better.

      Regarding systems and infrastructures: I don’t think changes in these areas will come abruptly, but rather that they will happen gradually. Smaller communities will discuss and experiment with “better ways of living” (me and you are already members of one such small community) and as a better way emerges, others will learn from and implement those systems and ways of living into their own lives.

      It will take generations, but that’s how humans evolve as a species: One generation makes mistakes, and teaches the next generation in the hopes that they won’t make the same mistake.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here — I always love hearing your perspective. 🙂

  3. Yes, Raam… good words, my friend. You and I live in THE country of consumption and self-service. Certainly, there are those who are aware, but overall it seems we raise our kids to perpetuate the ideas of “making it” and “how to succeed”. We graduate kids ass deep in debt and teach them that’s it’s okay to enslave themselves to a bank or mortgage company for 20-25 years of their lives. They learn that they’ve gotta have the right furniture, car, this for their kids, that, etc. And yet outside of our borders people starve to death every day (and go to sleep hungry here at home too). We’ve gotta wake-up, and your voice and that of others is vital to that social awareness. Namaste!

    • You’re right, Ricky, and I think the only way we can really “teach our kids” is through setting an example. It’s tough for children (and young adults) to take advice from people who don’t seem to be following that advice themselves.

      If we don’t want our kids to be neck-deep in debt, perhaps we shouldn’t be neck-deep in debt ourselves (in which case, our priorities and lifestyle should reflect a desire to get out of debt ASAP). If don’t want our kids to accumulate unnecessary material junk, living far above their means, then we need to make sure that we’re not sitting on unnecessary junk and living above our means.

      Unfortunately, there is little in the way of role models. Adults to do their thing and so the kids are left to figure things out entirely on their own, using a combination of societal norms and reinforced models from the adults around them. Adults need to work 50-60 hours a week to afford their lifestyles, so the kids don’t get any real lifestyle advice from the adults and are instead left with no other models for their own future.

      The bottom line is, in addition to advice, we need to lead by example. We need to become role models — in all aspects of our lives — for the adults we want our children to become. It starts with us.

    • Suzzy,

      Those two stories are incredible… and amazingly, they speak somewhat to my current situation: I was paid to build a shed up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this week. I chose to build it alone because I enjoy doing things alone. But I recently discovered that I will also likely have to build it entirely without electricity, as my dad’s generator seems to be broken. That means hammer and nail, and hand-saws instead of electric ones.

      But as I do things on my own, I’m reminded of the power of doing things together. It reminds me of how much we really need each other and how much each member of our human family plays a part in our lives.

      Just take any of the materials that we own or the things we use and try to imagine how many people were involved in its creation: there are literally hundreds of thousands of hands that went into the creation of everything we use on a daily basis! It’s actually quite humbling to realize that: No matter where we go or what we do, we really do need each other.

    • Sandra,

      That is indeed a startling fact, one that makes it easy to see just how ‘wealthy’ many of us are. I certainly don’t think it means that everyone who eats three meals a day is automatically living luxuriously, but it’s certainly a barometer for our status in the global community and a simple reminder that we live with abundance.

      (Also, as a side-note, I believe the exact figure is something along the lines of three meals a day for three weeks straight, because there are of course some people in the world who eat three meals a day, but then go hungry for the next week. I didn’t mention this only because for anyone reading this, three meals a day most likely means three meals every day.)

  4. Raam,

    This article was so powerful I shared it in as many ways as I could conceive. In an email to friends, on Facebook, through Twitter and more. You have a knack for encapsulating the essence of what many of your readers – including me – aspire to be and work to evolve into. I hope others who read this appreciate it more than just a slice of humble pie.

  5. Raam,

    Thank you as always for making me think and being a wonderful human being.

    I wonder if you or any of your readers can check my math:

    – 17,000 children will die of starvation today.
    – If I sponsored a child through an organism like World Vision, I could provide clean water, nutritious food, healthcare and education for one child for $1/day.
    – 15% of the world’s population represents about 1 billion people.

    So if I, and my 1 billion friends, were to spend $1/day to sponsor a child – and we clearly can afford it since we can afford 3 meals a day – we would save the world in a heart beat.

    That’s $1B/day going to those who need it. Sounds too simple. Why aren’t we doing it? What am I missing?

    • Yan, thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

      I think what’s missing is the group: Individually we can see how, as a group, we have great power to change the world. But unless there is evidence of a group taking action, we won’t do anything.

      That’s why when Haiti was devastated and needed money for relief, people donated because they heard lots of other people were donating. It was on the news that people were using their cell phones to make donations via SMS text messages (the donation was simply added to their phone bill). Once it got on the news, people started talking and soon enough the group effect took hold.

      But Haiti was a sensational news item. It happened quick and the images broadcast all over the news were very “in your face, this is happening now, we need to act now”. You’d wonder why 17,000 children dying every day wasn’t always on the news every day, but that goes to show that the vast majority of our news isn’t about news, it’s about selling sensation and fear.

      So how can we change that? How can we show that we care? I believe we can start by accepting that we’re willing to do something even if there is no visible group doing it with us and that we’re willing to do it because we feel it’s the right thing to do.

      That’s what this income ethics series is largely about and you’ll see in the last part of the series how I’m defining my ethics for generating income. By defining my enough and living within it, I can redirect excess to those who need it. I’m not doing this for any reason other than a feeling of personal responsibility… a planetary social responsibility.

      If each of us recognized this responsibility and then took a good look at our lives and asked how we could contribute (simplifying our lifestyles, defining our enough and choosing to live within it, redirecting excess abundance to those who need it, volunteering, donating, taking time to educate ourselves and share with others, etc.), and then proceeded to make lifestyle and habit changes that reflected those ways of contributing, then we’d all be doing far more than $1/day to contribute.

  6. I really shouldn’t be commenting because I have nothing to add. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate this series, particularly this post. Also it’s great to read the thoughtful conversation happening here in the comments of the post between you, Bill, Ali, etc.

    I’ll be sharing this most certainly and I look forward to the rest of the series. Peace, brother.

  7. Raam, you really hit it on the spot. I feel a fervent battle cry boiling within me, a cry that is so uncontainable that its strength and urgency bursts forth, and in so doing, produces great momentum in my life to continue examining how my actions impact others. Thank you. Thank you so very much.

    • As energy does not die, it’s my hope that I can transfer some of the momentum I’ve gained in my life onto those who seek it. Through careful introspection and a desire to understand how our action affect others, we can change our lifestyles and our habits to better reflect the life we wished everyone was living.

  8. Great post, Raam. The unfortunate reality is that people consider this a binary situation: you either live your life and pamper yourself or you deprive yourself of everything and/or “worse”, become a philanthropist.

    The reality of things is that when people have more disposable income, they want more. And they want to make more money to consume more. Marketers do a very good job in feeding this greed, and it only takes either a very concious decision or a slap in the face to wake up that this isn’t how the world works.

    • That reality is what needs changing, Kinan. Living with a scarcity mindset isn’t necessary and the sooner we realize the true value of what we have, the sooner we will shift that mindset to one of abundance.

      The feeling of not having enough stems entirely from not knowing what we have. When we truly understand the value of what we have, our endless desire for more ceases to be a voice of reason.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for sharing the link to Atlas Shrugged; I had not heard of that book and it sounds like there are some interesting ideas presented in there. 🙂

      Regarding commenting: Comments require approval before they’re posted to help prevent spam. I welcome disagreeing comments as much as comments that agree!

Webmentions

  • 10 Facts You Need To Know About Poverty | The Fifth Column November 2, 2011

    […] you can afford to eat three meals a day for three weeks, you are part of the wealthiest 15% of people on […]

  • 15 Facts That Will Make You Realize How Lucky You Are | Giftedgreen November 2, 2011

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  • andrea November 2, 2011

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  • Bill Gerlach November 2, 2011

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  • Ricardo Misawa November 2, 2011

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  • Jackie Torres November 2, 2011

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  • Alfredo Jenks November 2, 2011

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  • Lisa Baldwin November 2, 2011

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