Sink or Swim

Elton Wong

I got the new Rage Against the Machine CD last week, the day after it came out. Man, it kicks some serious ass. I’ve been a fan of those guys ever since I was a sophomore in high school when my little, short-lived garage band performed “Killing in the Name Of” at the Ames High battle of the bands. We sucked, but it was cool anyway.

My band broke up a few days later after our bass player was arrested for attempting to drive his car through the vice principal’s house. I had always wondered about him.

The thing I’ve always loved about Rage is it actually has a point. Most of the “alternative rock” that was popular during my high school years featured teen-angstful, self-indulgent whiners who sang about how hard their lives were.

Rage Against the Machine was basically Marxists who rapped about social inequality, racism and capitalist exploitation of the underclass in the third world.

Even today, no group has what it has. The liner notes for The Battle of Los Angeles contain information on how to become involved with Amnesty International, The National Committee for Democracy in Mexico and Unite!, a union for workers in the garment industry. In its music video for “Guerrilla Radio,” sweatshop children work on sewing machines on a stark white background in a wicked parody of ads by the clothing manufacturer GAP.

When Zack de la Rocha raps “Was it cast for the mass who burn and toil/or the vultures who thirst for blood and oil,” it’s invigorating in a way that modern rap, with its materialism and misogyny, could never be.

In my western civilization class in high school, I heard a quote that struck me. It went something like this: “Anyone who is 18 and is not a liberal has no heart; anyone who is 50 and not a conservative has no brain.”

I read an interesting article for my environmental ethics class a week ago. It was titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” written by Garrett Hardin. In this essay, Hardin compares wealthy nations to lifeboats, and the poor of the world are compared to those swimmers in the ocean.

According to the essay, it is impossible for the rich to help the poor without destroying themselves, just as those in a lifeboat cannot help the multitudes without capsizing the boat and drowning everyone.

As uncomfortable as Hardin’s conclusions are, I cannot help but see he is factually correct on many points. For instance, most everyone agrees that the human population is currently much larger than can be sustained healthily on the Earth.

There are 6 billion people in the world, many of whom live in cramped poverty. We would obviously like to see the elimination of poverty and the world standard of living increased, but if everyone in the world were to live even an American lower-middle-class lifestyle, it would be nothing short of an ecological disaster.

An increase in the standard of living is equivalent to more consumption of resources, which inescapably means more environmental destruction. It seems simply wrong to turn the earth into a giant feedlot for mankind.

To make matters worse, we are only doing harm to the third world when we provide food and agricultural technology, Hardin says.

Food aid does temporarily lessen starvation, but it also causes the population of the aid-receiving nation to increase more, thus increasing dependence on aid and making the problem worse in the future.

Agricultural technology would similarly boost population through increased production and fail to solve the underlying problems.

Hardin proposes what seems unthinkable: That we, as wealthy nations, cease all food aid and technological exchanges with third world nations so that “the rate of their population growth would be periodically checked by crop failures and famines.” Thus, “the proportion of people in rich and poor nations might eventually stabilize.”

Heartless as this proposal may seem, it corresponds best with what most Americans actually believe.

We all entertain notions of charity and altruism, but we all still buy our cars and computers and prime rib steaks when people on the other side of the planet grow up malnourished and uneducated — if they have enough food and clean water to grow up at all.

I originally thought that it was hypocritical of me to listen to a band that rebelled against wealthy conservative values while enjoying the lifestyle afforded to me by virtue of living in the most economically prosperous nation in the world.

As I think about it now, though, I can’t really do anything else.

I have no plans to get extremely rich, but I plan to live comfortably. I plan to have a house and pay to send my kids to college.

I plan to enjoy good food, symphonies and art. When I feel guilty in the meantime, I can drop 10 bucks in the Salvation Army bucket and go volunteer at the hospital.

I suppose I should get used to it. It’s the American way.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology from Ames.