We are all interconnected. I have always believed this. In my long career of brief relationships, I average one love per decade, I have loved women from four continents. The only differences between the girl next door and the girl of twelve time zones away involve upbringing, cultural conventions, and values. The flesh and the bones, the brain and the heart are all the same. We all have emotions. With an open mind, we can make a connection with any other person in the world. It gets tricky once the connection is made, and that’s where negotiation and cooperation come into play. Anyone who has ever been in a committed relationship for a long period of time will tell you that negotiation and cooperation are just as important as love and emotion in their partnership. This is true whether they are committed to the girl next door or the girl from twelve time zones away. There are many times when I identify with the people of other countries when the people of a great country live right outside my front door.
I was fortunate enough in my first year of the Marine Corps to serve in Iwakuni, Japan, a tiny fishing village that also served as host to a Marine Air Base. It was on the mainland, but far enough from Tokyo that I never made the trip. I experienced in Iwakuni people who had forgiven the excess of multiple nuclear attacks and embraced us as fellow human beings. Sure, there were protestors who resisted our very presence on their island, but the nice people who welcomed us into their homes were numerous and hospitable. It was here that I started my path to believing that we are all connected. I embraced the idea that we are all connected and that our different cultures are all just branched of our collective family tree.
I can remember my first trip to New York City. My friend Pete and I were overwhelmed by the people when we got off the subway on Canal Street in lower Manhattan. It was 1996 and the City was still a devil’s playground where anything and everything was available if you were in the right place at the right time. We roamed the night in search of debauchery. I can vividly remember walked down a street being buffeted by a gauntlet of diverse people and thinking, “I wish I had my own language too.” I think that I might have even mentioned that to Pete. I immediately felt kinship with the various Africans, Asians, and South Americans on the street. I wanted to go up and hug each one of them and welcome them to America. My country. The land of the free and the home of the brave. Because what is more brave than uprooting yourself from whatever corner of the world you come from and planting yourself in the hub of the wheel of the world? New York City chews up and spits out millionaires on a daily basis, yet people from all over the world go there with little but the clothes on their back and manage to survive and thrive.
In my experience, the difference between the poor people of the rest of the world and the poor of the United States is the culture of upbringing. I have had the pleasure and honor of working with a succession of immigrants to the United States from various parts of the world in my various careers. Among the first jobs that I took after my stint in the Marine Corps was a supervisory position a plastics company in Columbus in 1986. My work force was a crew of Cambodians, the very same legendary “boat people.” I encountered a group that was very family oriented, highly loyal, very talented and teachable. My crew covered all of the generations, from the grandfather type of seventy down to the teenagers barely old enough to qualify for a job. Grandfather was an accountant back in Cambodia before the country went to hell and Pol Pot took over. And then they were fleeing for their lives. It is impossible to quantify the stress and the grief that they went through to come to America, and yet they were happy-go-lucky and playful. Imagine working the graveyard shift with a seventy year-old and a seventeen year old! It was free of conflict, everyone helped each other and we were highly productive.
Here in the United States we have devolved into a cultural caste system of the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class encompasses perhaps the richest two percent of the population. The illusion of democracy is what keeps the other ninety-eight percent in check. Most of us believe that our vote counts just as much as the vote of Paul in San Jose or Linda in Bangor or Keith in Upper Arlington. Which is true to a certain extent. The whole electoral system of elections is a vehicle to ensure that individual votes mean nothing in the face of the collective vote. Whether or not this leads to election fraud is a conversation for another day.
Our cultural caste system is driving a wedge into the very heart of the most prosperous, productive and innovative country in the history of the world. Multiple wedges. We see conflict along racial lines. We have clashes of liberal and conservative ideologies concerning topics as varied as abortion, gay marriage and gun control. We see religions, all God-fearing and espousing to the same basic concepts, in conflict with each other to the point of hatred and calls for eradication. All of these conflicts have one thing in common. They take our eyes of the big picture, the real story. They distract us from the fact that the rich still get richer and the poor still get poorer. Even this is all just an illusion.
We have poverty here in the United States because the system is rigged against us. We spend more than half of the budget of our nation on programs dealing with health, aging and unemployment. Even the poverty line in the US is an illusion. The poorest people in the US would be some of the most affluent in other countries. The poverty line in the United States has been set at a level of roughly $22,000 US per year for a family of four. In the meantime, there are 1.7 billion people throughout the world who subsist on an average budget of $1 US per day. Our spending is so far out of control that the average household in the US has a credit card debt of almost $15,000 US. Roughly calculated, a person living in poverty in India or Africa could subsist for 40 years on what one US family owes to the credit card companies.
So how did we rack up all of our debt here in the US? Mine went toward computers and electronics, food and beverage, and a few medical bills. Others have racked up debts with multiple cars, houses, student loans and travel. We are the very essence of a consumer society. We are obsessed with consumables. How many of us take out a loan to buy new furniture when the old is fully functional? How many lease a new car every two to three years? How many have to have the latest greatest computer or television, knowing that it is obsolete before we pull it out of the box? We go out to expensive restaurants, run up extravagant bar tabs, take the kids to Six Flags, all on the credit card dime. Big deal. We’ll pay that off next month. Or next year. After all, there are no payments until 2012.
We have grown fat here in the US, both in the literal and figurative sense. We are an addictive society. Our expanding waistlines have come from the advent of easily accessible processed foods with little nutritional value. Our food companies go out of their way to provide cheap empty calories that taste so good that they are addictive. Little things like high fructose corn syrup and MSG go straight to our thighs. We puff away at our cancer sticks, consume gallons of adult beverages and stop by the drive thru for our 1,000 calorie appetizer. We’re in between our two jobs. Of course we eat it in the car.
There comes a time when any rational human being has to say enough is enough. There are common sense solutions to the majority of our worldly needs. The ancients harnessed the natural elements of our world to take care of their basic needs. Earth, water, wind and fire were enough for them to get by. The hunters and gatherers of old knew how to manage their resources to get the most out of them. The founders of agrarian farms knew they had to stay mobile and manage the land. They migrated to keep the fields fertile and livestock healthy. They didn’t subsist on just one crop or one meat. They were lean, healthy and athletic by necessity. Sure, they were short-lived. Back in those days a badly broken leg or minor ailment could be the death of a person. But I like to think that their simple lives served them well throughout their days.
Today we live in a world of tumult. With seven billion people in the world it is not realistic to go back to migratory tribes or hunter-gatherers. But by the same token, it is not feasible to go on planting the majority of our arable land with corn and wheat. It has been proven that cultures who dine on the indigenous plants and animals of their locality have a lower instance of obesity and heart disease. They also have a tendency to eat a more varied and seasonal diet. It makes no sense to grow only one variety of a crop when there are hundreds available. Naturally and organically grown crops are better for the land, conserve more water, and require no chemical fertilizers that end up polluting our soil and water. It makes no sense to grow our animals on steroids at factory farms when there are proven healthier ways to go about it. In short, our current business model for farming only works for those multinational companies who use it to print money like they are playing Monopoly. Which is exactly what they do.
I said earlier that there are haves and have-nots. The wonderful about us human beings is that we have a highly developed power of cognition. When forced to make decisions we have the ability to do so. I believe that we have come to a time when we are forced to make decisions. It is time for us to choose how the world moves forward. It is time for us to choose whether we burn out our planet or we grow it anew. Those of us who have the ability to make informed choices with our remaining pennies can help decide which way the world turns. It is the least that we can do for our 1.7 billion cousins out there who are looking for that $1 it takes to survive for one more day.