Translated from Spanish by Kelley D. Salas
They’re on social media, worrying about the environment and calling upon us to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens: don’t litter, don’t pollute, respect pedestrians, be kind to animals. They support the best causes, the ones that, on paper, no one can argue with, because they promote a better world: renewable energy, recycling, bike transportation, slow food. They’re committed to women’s rights and demand an immediate answer from the government on problems like violence, corruption, and street vendors. Sound familiar? Maybe you have several among your contacts on social media. Maybe you see yourself in this description because–let’s be honest–many of us use social media to complain about what’s wrong in the world, oftentimes more to vent than to demand an immediate result or start a social movement. But I’m talking about people who complain and who are part of a minority group, a group that can afford a lifestyle that the bulk of the population could never even dream of. This group of people, living in various places across the globe, has enormous advantages from birth and makes up an elite that, try as it might, can’t empathize with the reality of billions of people–a number that’s increasing due to coronavirus–because, to put it simply, they live in a different universe. These elites, who have only a superficial understanding of the emergency facing our climate and our society, feel they can legitimately demand changes to a system that sustains and benefits them, whether directly or indirectly. Of course, we’re not talking about a suicidal elite who want to abolish their privileges and march with the disinherited of the earth. These are people who suffer from a type of ignorance or blindness about their place in society. If the members of this group were polled or interviewed, we’d discover, surprisingly, that they view themselves as victims of the world they were born into; they’d likely describe innumerable calamities inflicted upon them by the government and other players who affect them. Incapable of owning their privileges or comparing their lives with the lives of ordinary people–those who risk exposure on public transport as they make long commutes to their jobs or who can barely make it from paycheck to paycheck because of their meager wages–they feel vulnerable and, above all, offended by the state of things. In this way, they appropriate the discourse of the nonconformists, of the rebels, of those who “think out of the box,” when in reality, their proclamations mean nothing because of their contradictory modus vivendi.
The newspaper El País recently published an article with a title that was quite a mouthful: “The phenomenon of privileged quarantine posts on social media leads to Internet debate on social inequality.” The article, accompanied by photos and videos, describes the new trend among artists, business owners and socialites of showing off the luxurious interiors of their mansions while enjoying the coronavirus quarantine. Some are learning new skills, like cooking, while others spend their days serenely taking in the immense gardens around their homes. Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by some Internet users who have criticized the fact that, while millions are losing their jobs or becoming severely ill because of the way they make their living, the twenty-first century influencers and the privileged are wondering on their blogs whether they should grill their salmon, or bake it.
Privileged people in quarantine, unable to boast about their foreign travel or their experiences living abroad, are showing off something more important–something they can enjoy in their mansions and something that’s very scarce for those condemned to inequality: time, peace, and quiet. These intangible goods, available for the taking for those at the top of the pyramid, are a pipe dream for food delivery people employed by Internet-based platforms that deny their workplace rights as they travel though streets rife with cars, pollution and danger. Enjoying a leisurely, quiet, sunset in a huge yard is an unknown luxury for someone who lives in a tiny house or apartment, for someone who has two or more jobs and barely has time to escape from reality for a couple of hours with the distraction of a soccer game or a movie on TV. From their luxurious retreats, the elite–in addition to the predictable complaints about coronavirus restrictions –are asking to do away with inequality, to reforest the land, take care of the water supply, support renewable energy and stop using fossil fuels that are burning up the planet. They also insist, through social media, on improving architecture in their cities, on building wide benches, redesigning parks and promoting inclusive urban planning. Who could argue with these ideas? No one. But when they come from a sector of the population that has accumulated its wealth by exploiting human and natural resources practically without limit, it’s an empty gesture, one that only the most gullible would believe. A true action step that would be within their grasp would be to assume the costs for their lifestyle, meaning: to examine the origins of their prosperity beyond their homes filled with solar panels, rain gardens, bikes for transportation and recycling. In doing that, they’d discover that inequality and unbridled consumerism are the true problem. If we don’t find a solution to inequality, and a fairer distribution of resources, the changes promoted by those at the top will be enjoyed by the same people who have been–and will continue to be–at the top. Sustainability and ecology will be luxury goods, as they already are in numerous cities, a utopia for people whose only hope is to struggle for their survival.
To change a system that has exploited the environment and entire generations of human beings, we must go beyond individualism and organize collectively. Absent that, so-called “social consciousness”–as much as we try to affirm it or demonstrate the contrary–will be a new label for “the good life.” A fight for social and ecological justice that comes from a place of privilege will be a placebo, or at best, a series of initiatives for the gated communities where the elite live. They’ll continue to pontificate from there, lecturing the stubborn folks who cause pollution in the streets and the uneducated who refuse to change their harmful ways. Of course, those who live on the margins of prosperity do have some responsibility, but the privileged ascribe to them the same capacity for action that they have, simply because they don’t know them and therefore, can’t imagine what their days are like. Can an employee who gets off work late at night and who lives far away from their workplace ride a bike to reduce pollution? Can a family that barely manages to stock its pantry with processed foods afford organic produce? Can people who lack drinking water be ecological and sustainable? Would they have taken classes on how to recycle the garbage that accumulates in their streets?
This is why social conscience is usually an aesthetic luxury for elites. They demand improvements to their cities so that the view through their mansion windows doesn’t clash with their everyday scenery. They fight against visual and sound pollution because it’s out of tune with their walks and bike rides. If they see a group of street vendors, they judge them as irresponsible people with no right to be on the street, never stopping to think about what brought them there. But the companies and factories that belong to these socially-conscious elites often indiscriminately exploit natural resources, even though they have recycling programs; they also benefit from the pitiful wages they pay their employees, even if they do give them–at best–social security and a meager pension that won’t be enough when it’s time to retire. The fight for a better world, as many academics and activists have argued, cannot be separated from a social restructuring process guaranteeing a much more egalitarian system. If it is, we’ll have cities within cities, walled-off spaces where all sorts of social and ecological utopias can be enjoyed, but whose functioning will continue to depend on the people who live outside, who pollute because they have no other option, who behave irresponsibly because they’ve never had the opportunity to do anything different; the people who are the workers, the employees, the assistants, the helpers and the consumers who keep the world running.
The elite, who can enjoy silence, nature, and the chirping of birds, function in a way that is similar to many first world countries. As an example, we can look at the Scandinavian countries or their neighbors like Holland or Belgium. All of them, despite their bike-friendly infrastructure, their exemplary recycling programs, their renewable energy and their forward-thinking policies, have very large ecological footprints, right behind the greatest polluters like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. How can this be? The answer is consumption: if this variable isn’t stopped, their ecological footprint–the amount of resources that the inhabitants of these nations use to live–will continue to grow. Regardless of the ecological policies these countries support, if they don’t think globally, if they build their prosperity on the backs of others–particularly on the backs of third world countries–their lofty ideals will not be achieved. These countries, just like elites who appear to have a social conscience, externalize the side effects of their success, and that’s why they believe they can change the world without even a millimetric change to the free market, the fierce competition that overexploits the poorest, or the financial deregulation that has turned the economy into a virtual casino. On the surface, their behavior is exemplary, and they might convince some that the path they are following will help to fight problems like climate change, for example. In contrast, when no one’s looking, they’ll continue extracting raw materials, deforesting lands, paying low wages, exploiting migrants, and flooding African countries with cast-off technology, passing it off as “second-hand merchandise.” Social consciousness should always be–especially during critical times like the coronavirus quarantine–about collective action, and not about individual acts that are done for one’s personal benefit and which, in the end, allow us to avoid talking about the true causes of inequality, exploitation, and global injustice.