Do you ever wonder at the efficiency of a modern life?
So many things that would take hours of effort in a previous life, like washing the laundry by hand, now take minutes of it instead. Entire classes of chores that our parents or grandparents did have been virtually eliminated from the to-do list of the average adult. When was the last time you needed to replace the wick of an oil lamp? Probably never. What a gift incandescent lightbulbs brought to our lives.
Much of this sharp upward curve in lifestyle efficiency happened within the last 100 years or so, thanks to advances like the telephone, the automobile, and believe it or not, barges (a huge factor in the ease of international shipping). The first-world human condition transformed by modern technology!
In a blink of a generational eye, the everyday elements of life started to take a lot less time. Your weekly grocery run was consolidated with “finding a book for your mom’s birthday” and “getting new windshield wipers” into an single easy trip to the nearest Target. You now do all of your banking, investing, and taxes online. You don’t even need to leave your house anymore for most things; you just spend a couple of minutes picking out what you want on Amazon, wait two days, and then it appears like magic on your doorstep.
The total and complete abstraction of the “where did this stuff come from?” question is, historically speaking, a pretty new thing for humanity. This ultimate efficiency we’ve managed to achieve, this frictionless and totally opaque exchange of goods and services, has been known in only the most recent fraction of a percent of recorded human history.
It’s worthwhile to spend 5 minutes thinking about how some of this magic happens.
Well, exploitation, generally.
The magic we’re experiencing is the magic of outsourcing, of geographical arbitrage, where you can save a lot of money on a problem just by moving it somewhere else. And by this point it isn’t really even news to most of us. We’re at least a bit familiar with the fact that our clothes are sewn under non-ideal conditions in Bangladesh (even though we can’t quite place that country on a map), and we’ve heard in the news references to the negative-but-hard-to-conceptualize impact of our growing islands of garbage in the ocean.
And, what a happy coincidence, really! As long as Joe is never directly faced with the full end-to-end impact of his buying a diamond ring for his wife, well, then everyone comes out better off – De Beers makes a few extra percent on the stone by “virtue” of skirting first-world labor laws, and Joe (kept in the dark about all this, of course) gets to marvel at the convenience of being able to pick up such a beautiful object just a few blocks away from his house, not knowing a single minute of its history.
The fact that it’s so easy to not look behind the curtain, to remain blissfully unaware of what you’re really paying for, is no mere accident. Large corporations, the kind that are big enough to start wondering how they can be shaping the opinion of the American public themselves, have been putting effort into doing exactly that for decades now.
We’re now living in a society that not only forces unethical goods and services upon us as often the only (practical) option, but one that also has incentivized lots of well-funded entities to work as hard as they can making sure we don’t even know about it.
What I’m getting at is, if you don’t know where it came from, how it got to you, and where it’s going after, then at this point you can’t trust it at all.
A Few Examples
To help make the point a little more “real”, let’s look at a few examples that most folks come across often in everyday life. Some of these instances you might have encountered before, others might be new to you.
Clothing. Most people are aware now that all the larger retailers outsourced the sewing of their clothes decades ago to abused adults and children in developing countries. What might not be as known is how rapidly this shift away from buying local happened. In 2020, the amount of American-made clothing made up just 2 percent of what was purchased by American consumers, down from 95 percent in 1960.
Trash. The fact that we can produce any amount of household waste, of any variety, and have it whisked away from the curb every week certainly falls into the “feels like magic” category. Of course, the reality is that most of this trash is just wrapped in plastic and thrown in a landfill, never to biodegrade. And while you may think you’re helping by cleaning and recycling your cans and bottles, there too they’re taking advantage of you not seeing where it all goes.
Meat. This one’s been getting a lot of press recently, and for good reason. You could already be concerned about the proven destructive effects of non-local factory farming on the animals, the environment, and your own health, but as is the way of big business, it’s also destroying long-standing family farms.
Investing. Congratulations, you’re making enough money to start socking some away for your retirement! Will you follow the modern personal finance advice and put it into a whole-market index fund, where you won’t need to worry much about its growth? It’s one of the most sensible options… and if you do, be aware that you’re largely supporting (hinging your life’s savings on, even) the slave labor of Apple, the dystopian spying of Facebook, and the worker exploitation of Amazon, to name a few.
Politics. In abstract, this concept of “electing representatives” sounds like a great idea; average people don’t have enough time or context to be up-to-date on every issue that comes up, so we can just outsource it, hire smart folks that we agree with to handle it for us. In reality, that “handling” is usually some combination of “bribery, lobbying, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, parochialism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement”.
If you’re thinking “hey, this all sounds very Season 3 of The Good Place”, you’d be right!
It’s the same principle, but sadly, the TV show’s goal of “entertain an audience” is a bit easier to tackle than my own goal of “figure out what on earth to do with my life in the face of all this”. The above categories make up some of the most fundamental pillars of life and social norms in our first-world society, so it’s no small task to confront. In effect, the exploitation is so pervasive that there’s no escaping it at all, which (spoiler alert) is the same conclusion that Michael Schur reached near the end of that season of the show.
So, here’s what I’m trying to do to escape it anyway:
- Buy meat-free (have been vegetarian for about 5 years now)
- Buy local (avoid Amazon like the plague)
- Buy used (it’s better for the world and for your wallet)
- Just don’t buy at all
(You’ll notice all of them have to do with consumption; most of the abuse mentioned above is undertaken with the goal of making a buck, so I’ve found the most effective ways to combat it involve not rewarding the behavior with a purchase.)
It’s not a very big list right now, but I’m always trying to find ways to add to it which don’t reqiure denouncing humankind, moving to Calgary and becoming a hermit. To be honest, it still feels like fighting a losing battle most of the time, but I try to celebrate the victories where I can. It’s better than not fighting at all.