Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.
Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.
The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.
Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,
“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”
The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”
I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.
In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer gives examples of people living various lifestyles as effective altruist. He explains that deciding to live off less money and making significant monetary donations helps people find a more aligned life than those who live a life of continuous consumer spending. Many of the individuals he references say that they expected making sacrifices and living as effective altruists to be challenging, but ultimately found the lifestyle strangely liberating. Singer explains why consumer spending does not lead to happiness by sharing the example of one effective altruist who can see that he is not missing much by not using his money to purchase items. “Ian Ross is familiar with psychological research about the “hedonic treadmill” of consumer spending, which shows that when we consume more, we enjoy it for a short time but then adapt to that level and need to consume still more to maintain our level of enjoyment.”
Singer shows that effective altruists who learn to live off a small portion of their income avoid the cycle of continually buying goods to boost their happiness. For them, their happiness comes from knowing that they are doing the most they possibly can to improve the lives of those who may be suffering the most. They do not direct their resources toward new items which are marketed toward them that they do not need. In order to boost the good they can do their budgets have to be carefully monitored and thought out which allows them to buy what they need and use the rest resourcefully. They are in control of their spending instead of letting their spending and desire to have the most up to date items control them.
Rather than moving through life adjusting their expectations to have more and more goods, bigger houses, and more expensive cars, effective altruists focus on continually using their resources in ways that will allow them to help others. They may expect to move up a corporate ladder and earn more, but as they earn more it will not be directed toward more debt and more payments. Effective altruists maintain a basic lifestyle, and use their additional resources to help others.
In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer discusses living a life driven by moral excellence. The secular philosopher builds on the idea of moral good based on our ability to reason and the faculties of mind which allow us to rationalize society and measure the positivity we add to the universe. Singer explains that we can be very ethical in our approach to life, mostly ethical, or somewhat ethical in our actions without truly pausing to consider our ethics and our actions or decisions. Throughout his book he contends that we can begin to understand just how ethical we truly are if we can honestly evaluate our actions through self awareness and through the difficult process of quantifying and measuring the benefits of our actions.
Singer writes, “Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.” In this sense Singer is approaching the world with the view that a minimalist lifestyle should be promoted if we want to do the most good possible with the time and resources we have available to us. We should look for areas where we have surplus, and find ways to share those surpluses with people who are not as fortunate. However, he would advocate that we find the most effective use of those resources to make the biggest possible impact with them.
Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer explains that simply directing spare resources toward charities and the disadvantaged does not reach the most people and provide the most good. Finding an area where your extra resource will go the furthest and provide the most for those who are in need is what Singer argues should be the main goal of an effective altruist (his term for the most ethical individuals). An example from the book of an area where an effective altruist can have the greatest impact is in developing countries in Africa and other tropical regions. The greatest thing that can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths in these countries is the provision of bed nets for a greater portion of the population. A single bed net can save a life for roughly $100, and it is hard to find another form of charitable giving or donation that can have as great an impact for as little of a cost. Singer presents multiple examples of powerful uses of extra resources throughout his book.
He also addresses areas of confusion and misrepresentation in ethical behaviors and actions. Singer contends that making donations impulsively, in situations where donations are being asked for in front of grocery stores or after tragic events, does not do as much good as we tell ourselves. According to Singer donations during these moments may be beneficial and help those involved, but we do not donate in these situations to be altruistic. The donations we make in these situations serve more to a help us avoid feelings of guilt, and we should never consider our own guilt when considering charitable donations.