The difference between right and wrong is obvious to almost everyone by the end of kindergarten. Temptations persist and everyone does things great and small known to be wrong when enticements and advantages outweigh punishments. C’mon, you know you do it. I do, too. Only at the conclusion of a law degree or the start of a political career (funny how those two often coincide) do things get particularly fuzzy. One might add military service to those exceptions except that servicemen are trained not to think, simply do (i.e., follow orders without question). Anyone with functioning ethics and morality also recognizes that in legitimate cases of things getting unavoidably fuzzy in a hypercomplex world, the dividing line often can’t be established clearly. Thus, venturing into the wide, gray, middle area is really a signal that one has probably already gone too far. And yet, demonstrating that human society has not really progressed ethically despite considerable gains in technical prowess, egregiously wrong things are getting done anyway.

The whopper of which nearly everyone is guilty (thus, guilty pleasure) is … the Whopper. C’mon, you know you eat it do it. I know I do. Of course, the irresistible and ubiquitous fast food burger is really only one example of a wide array of foodstuffs known to be unhealthy, cause obesity, and pose long-term health problems. Doesn’t help that, just like Big Tobacco, the food industry knowingly refines their products (processed foods, anyway) to be hyperstimuli impossible to ignore or resist unless one is iron willed or develops an eating disorder. Another hyperstimulus most can’t escape is the smartphone (or a host of other electronic gadgets). C’mon, you know you crave the digital pacifier. I don’t, having managed to avoid that particular trap. For me, electronics are always only tools. However, railing against them with respect to how they distort cognition (as I have) convinces exactly no one, so that argument goes on the deferral pile.

Another giant example not in terms of participation but in terms of effect is the capitalist urge to gather to oneself as much filthy lucre as possible only to sit heartlessly on top of that nasty dragon’s hoard while others suffer in plain sight all around. C’mon, you know you would do it if you could. I know I would — at least up to a point. Periods of gross inequality come and go over the course of history. I won’t make direct comparisons between today and any one of several prior Gilded Ages in the U.S., but it’s no secret that the existence today of several hundy billionaires and an increasing number of mere multibillionaires represents a gross misallocation of financial resources: funneling the productivity of the masses (and fiat dollars whiffed into existence with keystrokes) into the hands of a few. Fake philanthropy to launder reputations fail to convince me that such folks are anything other than miserly Scrooges fixated on maintaining and growing their absurd wealth, influence, and bogus social status at the cost of their very souls. Seriously, who besides sycophants and climbers would want to even be in the same room as one of those people (names withheld)? Maybe better not to answer that question.

The most galling example of wrong things getting done anyway is the corps of deciders who operate the machinery of government either from within or without. Since the middle 20th century, it’s been been known in the U.S. as the military-industrial complex (MIC), to which many add “-corporate” considering how fully captured by special, moneyed interests government is at all levels. (Read the MIC redubbed the MICIMATT: Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank Complex. Works for me.) There’s a huge overlap with hoary capitalists and influence peddlers, of course, but also enough outright despotism and corruption to deserve separation. The American Experiment has many attributes, among them its being an attempt at self-governance — a repudiation of hereditary titles descending through a series of monarchs or aristocrats, many of whom are ill-suited to manage the affairs of men. Self-governance is a double entendre and can arguably mean either (1) leadership drawn from among those governed or (2) restraining oneself from succumbing to lures and incentives to do things known quite clearly to be wrong or immoral. Handy examples of government failures with respect to the second meaning include suppression of free speech (and relatedly sovereign thought), seizure of authoritarian control a/k/a creeping fascism (the biomedical security state the latest gambit), torture, state-sponsored assassination and terrorism, and warmongering — all flagrantly and brazenly undertaken by the U.S. government in the 21st century but ironically projected via propaganda onto supposed enemies that would resist or repel U.S. power and imperatives. One can only guess at what awfulness hides behind the veil of national security. C’mon, how many revelations of wrong things getting done does it take to admit that the MIC is not interested in governing justly? My incensed response to revelations of U.S. armed forces personnel using torture (for no particular gain and most certainly at the behest of criminally insane administrators) is the subject of many previous blog posts. Unlike the examples above, regular citizens are unlikely to do things knowingly wrong if given governmental power, but something must happen to those in the C suites, board rooms, and government offices I can only infer. Just like the ultrarich, they reliably become wildly distorted people who learn to regard human lives and material resources abstractly as pieces capable of being shoved around a game board with impunity. History and judgment sometimes (not always) catches up to them.

To bring back the largest elephant in the room, one of two overarching themes of this entire blog, the way humans have self-organized at this point in our social history might be described succinctly as global industrial civilization. (Others might argue that the better term for the current mode is technocracy, but so long as humans need food, shelter, clothing, etc. and are not post-human as Transhumanists envision, technocracy is merely an outgrowth of industrial processes, not a substitute.) No one designed or engineered society this way. Rather, this final civilization (one of many to come and go in human history) is the result of long accumulation (roughly 13k years) of tinkering and adapting. And yet, as early as the 18th century, just when science began to reveal the world in ways superior to those of the past (one of those adaptive responses, arguably not really superior though undoubtedly more accurate), several individuals investigating the natural world recognized and revealed that disaster lay in our collective future so long as the primrose path (unlimited growth on a finite planet) was followed to its logical destination. What’s wrong about that is that the Cassandra story was stuffed down and ignored for so long that, now more than two decades into the 21st century, it can no longer be ignored, though it’s now too late to do much about it. Accumulated effects have now engendered their own inevitable consequences (e.g., loss of sea and glacial ice, inundation of the coasts, further melting of permafrost and release of formerly frozen methane, devastating reductions of habitat for both marine and terrestrial species, runaway global warming, and the acceleration of another major extinction event when Hot House Earth arrives) that have tipped over and could manifest the doom loop at any moment (still impossible to predict just when processes already underway will go critical). While it may never have been possible to forestall such events given limitations of human nature, inaction to ameliorate the worst case scenario (at the very least) is tantamount to accelerating toward doom, hastening our self-destruction.

In a sense, everyone who participates as a member of global industrial civilization is partly responsible. C’mon, you’re doing it, too. I know I am; admitted it right here. Everyone last one of us alive and breathing right now enjoys myriad products, services, comforts, and entertainments — many of them frivolous and entirely optional — that contribute to the problem. Of course, there are varying levels of profligacy. The worst examples are enabled by excess wealth and blithe disconcern with one’s ecological footprint (e.g., private jets). Even a relatively modest middle-class lifestyle has its impacts. Various online lifestyle and slave-labor calculators purport to show just how much a normal, First World person with a vehicle, a computer and Internet connection, and various trappings of modern life relies on energy and labor inputs. In another sense, we’re all trapped in a system from which there is no longer any possibility of escape. There is no new frontier despite the fever dreams of techno-utopians who imagine interstellar travel so that we can relocate to other planets (and then consume them, too). Accordingly, there is no ideological purity, no ideal way of being in the world that does no harm. Conspiracies aside, the collective decision to plunge forward heedlessly (accepting the status quo as a default, a refusal to change, and indeed an inability to do otherwise) is the principal characteristic of precisely the wrong thing getting done anyway.

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