092: Paternalism and pride: why fly to Africa to eek out minor efficiencies when we waste hundreds times more? (transcript)

October 6, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

I have a letter from the president of NYU where I teach congratulating students on flying to third world countries – Africa, Central America, Asia, and helping people build schools, helping them work on projects there to make their lives better over there. I put to you that students at elite American universities are terrible at building things. NYU is building lots of buildings for itself here, right here in NYU where they could walk to. Why isn’t NYU using the students to build the buildings that NYU is building? If they build things for their own community, they have a vested interest in making things that work, that last, that endure, that they will actually use. But NYU doesn’t use NYU students to build NYU buildings. Now you could say well, in America the regulations and they have to use unions and sorts of things like that. Well, if those regulations are beneficial to the buildings and if it makes safer buildings and safer working environments, why don’t they also have the same regulations over there? Why don’t we follow them even if they don’t have the regulations there?

Also, NYU is a major land owner, a major tax payer in New York City. They can get around these things if they want. If they wanted students to build their buildings which are beneficial to the students and to the buildings, they would but they don’t because we all know that American university elite students are terrible at building things. For that matter, if the students really wanted to help people who could use the building, they could send them to places within New York City on the subway without burning tons and tons of CO2 along the way, to speak nothing of other pollution, but they don’t because we know that they aren’t effective at building things. For that matter if you really wanted effectively to build schools in other places instead of sending elite students, send out of work tradespeople. There are plenty of Americans who are experienced and skilled at building things – carpenters, plumbers, engineers. But we don’t send them. We send elite students because we know that they want to go there but we know that they don’t want to feel like they’re just polluting the world for their own amusement. We’re congratulating them to make them feel good.

You know I have another story of a student who went over to Africa I believe and they helped build schools and they found out that at night they would take apart the work that the students of the American universities did and rebuild things so they actually worked. The Americans contribution was negative. They actually moved things backward while feeling good about themselves. Why do we keep doing this? We know that it’s a lie. We’re sending them because they want to go see Africa, they want to see Asia and Central America and South America and all these places and they want to feel like they’re not just going as tourists and they want to feel good about it because what they’re doing is not effective. If you really want to be effective, send people who know what they’re doing which will help the tradespeople we send too. There are many examples of things like this not just elite American university students.

I wish I were only talking about elite university students but this perspective and behavior permeates our culture. I’m probably talking about you, I’m probably talking about most people listening to this. It’s everybody. Where we send people over there at great expense burning tons of fossil fuels for them to eke out some minor little gain and some efficiency when we in America are hundreds of times less efficient than they are. We should learn from them how to live more efficiently and humbly I might add with a lot less paternalism. The flow of money forever has been from there to here. That’s how rich countries stay rich and poor countries stay poor is that we figure out ways to get money to flow from them to us. Just send them the oil, or for that matter, a lot of these places have oil. Stop taking the oil from them and don’t even take it from them in the first place. But that’s not what we do. We send people over there on junkets, on vacations. We tell ourselves, having not flown for I mean my third year of it now, so many people tell me it’s impossible to live in the modern world without flying. This is a total lie. We fly people over these places to people who can’t afford to fly themselves. And many of the people who we send over there, who fly there to people who can’t fly these people who are flying there will point to people in America and because of these people’s skin color or their sex or their gender they will say that these people in America are privileged and yet these people are flying over themselves. What a privilege.

Now you might say, “But we live a better life than they do. Why should we learn from them?” My understanding is that in a lot of places in the Third World you can just walk into a store and buy opioids. But they don’t have a crisis and we do. We have an opioid crisis where people are stealing and killing and there’s lawlessness because these opioids which suggests to me that we live in a place where people don’t have expectation or even hope of a better tomorrow. If we’re living materially better but we have school shootings, we have opioids, we have suicides going up, that tells me that we don’t get what’s important in life. We could learn from them if not on the technology things, on how to view the world as a place where we want to live, how to enjoy community, how to get the best out of life not by watching more extreme TV shows, not by buying more things but well, let’s learn from them, from community, from building things together. I think that we could learn from them.

How can we build more community? How can we have more hope for the future for more of the population? That’s not a technology problem. That’s not something that we can solve by sending people over there. That’s something that we can learn of what’s valuable in life. What are our values? What brings meaning? What creates purpose? How can we help each other? These are things that all the technologies in the world won’t solve. In fact, it probably distracts us from. Look at social media that was supposed to make our world smaller, bring people together. Now we have to have the executives testify in Congress about how potentially and likely undermined our American democracy from the foundation. And the more people use social media, the more depressed that they get and driverless cars are projected to create more traffic. Uber, Lyft and their peers have already been documented to increase congestion, to increase traffic within cities, the opposite of what people thought they were going to do. I’ve already written how if you have a system that produces certain results and you make that system more efficient, it produces those results more effectively. That’s the opposite of what we want. We really have to look at our values, find out what the goals of the system are, change those goals. Then efficiency makes sense. It would be a mistake to hear what I’m saying and think, “Josh is against technology.” I’m against technology to assist a system producing results that we don’t want. I’m for technology that assists the system creating desired results but we don’t have a system that’s creating the desired results, especially with regard to the environment. We are polluting like crazy and we make that system more efficient. We pollute more and we’re teaching others to adopt that system. We could learn from them. We could certainly learn from our past. We can learn from lots of different places instead of what we’re doing which is going to other places and demonstrating through our behavior that we waste tons more than we save and tell other people what to do while we don’t do it ourselves. That’s backward.

So I put to you to consider not congratulating students at elite American universities for going over and doing things that they’re not really skilled at doing. Instead I put to you that we should look at our social issues and social problems and our emotional issues and emotional problems and learn how to solve them which technology doesn’t do. And I put you that often technology exacerbates. All of the self-congratulation for things that are not effective, it lowers our self-awareness at the individual level, at the social level, at the cultural level, at the national level. If you want to learn social and emotional skills, you have to face and overcome social and emotional challenges doing things like living by values. You look at your values and you say, “What’s something I value? What’s something that I care about?” I recommend looking at the environment. What environmental values do you have that you are not living by? Your driving, what you eat, your traveling, putting on the air conditioner more than you need to in the summer, putting on heat more than you need to in the winter, your voting patterns, things like that. And once you see a place where you have a certain value and you’re not living by it, choose to live by that value even if only for a week or for a month. Develop the skill of learning how to live by your value.

And I can tell you from personal experience and the experience of almost everyone on my podcast and a lot of people that I’ve talked to it’s hard at the beginning. It’s a challenge to face and overcome social emotional challenges. but when you do you learn to live a better life. Living by your values. What does value mean? Evaluate, what’s better and what worse. Living by your values means bringing what’s better for you in your life. Not what I think is better, not what other people think is better. But what you yourself consider better for you yourself. You make your life better. If you just stopped there, I wouldn’t care. You’re one person out of billions. That’s nothing. But it doesn’t stop there. Once you change other people change around you and when other people around you change, then everybody starts changing. But if you don’t change on the little things, you’ll never change on the big things. So this is where it all begins is with what you can do. If you’re sitting there thinking, “But what about all these other big things?” you can change yourself and that’s where it begins. Yes, it’s challenging. Yes, it’s hard. That’s what learning requires. But when you do, you’ll learn that you can improve your life without all that pollution instead of this paternalistic acting like we’re helping other people when we’re really just taking vacations.

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