It is a time when one’s spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the past seems a storm-swept desolation, life a vanity and a burden, and the future but a way to death. It is a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying anymore? Let us give it all up.
— Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, 1873
In this age of abundance, our seeming progress is a veneer for the decay sweeping society. Across all forms of governance, the adverse conditions brought on by COVID-19 have shown how vulnerable our systems are. In threatening the livelihood of individuals across all facets of the human experience, this microscopic menace has revealed the underbelly of societal operations to those previously unaware: our way of life is entirely dependent on grossly inequitable economic transactions, environmental degradation and misleading indicators obscuring the true extent of social discontent. Standing in the way of progress are systemic perpetrators too tied to the antiquities of these inept institutions to enact necessary reforms. We now have a significant portion of the population lacking critical resources, like in our not-too-distant past, with the ramifications of climate change further diminishing their quality of life. It is now brought to public memory that perhaps we are reentering The Gilded Age — an era marked by rapid prosperity, technological advancements and economic growth, its golden exterior of prosperity disguising the destitution within.
So much has changed — and yet nothing has changed. With sea levels rising and exacerbating global inequality, the world, despite being better than ever before, seems more vulnerable than it ever was. Although our communities are quietly healing — with world hunger on the decline and literacy rates slowly rising — our lack of distributional agency has starved the world of its potential to eradicate these injustices at a significantly faster pace.
If we wanted to, we could end world hunger today — and we could do it with cereal. With the world producing an upward trajectory of 2.98 billion metric tons of cereal every year, we could supply every one of our 7.79 billion people with approximately 843 pounds of cereal annually, the totality of which would translate to 281 boxes of the three-pound Honey Bunches of Oats we see in supermarkets. That is a little over three-quarters of a box per day. Yet it remains that even with production surpassing demand, human beings consume only 46% of this cereal, with the remaining 54% entering the digestive tracts of animals that are eventually harvested for our diets or wasted in translation.
It is not just cereal that is prone to wastage. As much as one-third of the world’s food is wasted every year, averaging $1 trillion annually. This amount could feed the entire world twice, with excess. Contrary to popular belief, food production has kept up with population growth, meaning the concern of overpopulation is not a well-founded reason for food scarcity. Yet without proper distributional mechanisms to efficiently allocate our food supply, children across the world are condemned to continue eating leaves off of local vines to alleviate their hunger — and women continue to starve despite the fact that their unpaid household labor constitutes a $10.8 trillion industry, two times the size of our global tech industry. This lack of institutional initiative is our collective failure, for the only thing preventing us from remedying the crisis of starvation is initiative. What else does it mean when even in the age of abundance, nearly half of humanity is living on $5.50 a day? We have failed as a species.
Our indifference comes not just at the cost of human lives, but of the planet’s health as well. The carbon footprint of food waste alone devastates the climate so viciously that it is more catastrophic than the carbon footprint of any other country, after China and the United States. The interconnectivity introduced by globalization has intertwined formerly isolated issues such that injustices no longer occur in a vacuum, segregated by their face or form. They are interlinked in such a way that economic injustice is simultaneously worsening environmental injustice, which, in turn, is a form of moral injustice.
In the global initiative to increase workers’ rights and protect the environment, many individuals have rejected the pleas of experts and given into their deep-seated prejudices. Rejecting progressive reforms on the grounds that they ought to be limited to non-immigrants or those already dwelling within developed countries, rising movements continue to alienate the most vulnerable subset of the global population. This weaponized nativism mixed with a sudden concern for the environment — or eco-fascism — has inevitably resulted in violence. Such is evidenced by the brutal Christchurch massacre, where New Zealand’s Muslim immigrants were scapegoated for an issue spearheaded by the industrialized world.
Racial violence persists across the world even without the aforementioned motivation. It has occurred time and time again in the United States, from El Paso to Charlottesville, with white supremacists targeting identity groups instead of the institutional roots of social injustices. With the onset of globalization, human beings are increasingly connected across the planet. Our pollutants are also global travelers, leaving a wake of environmental harm in their path. A meaningful approach to sustainable development must therefore consider all contributors to environmental degradation, not just those of particular classes or races.
The insatiability of our current institutions disregards people on the fringes of society — those struggling for a means of political participation, those without the leisure for social organization and those lacking the resources to demand justice. It erases their identity to the aggressive other. And who do we have to blame but ourselves? The Gilded Age, upheld by our silent consent, is an age that we have given birth to. It is an age marked by increased isolation and diminished ethical identity, where moral questions are no longer tried in an individual’s mind but forsaken to the complacency of time. It is a culture of polarization and filter bubbles, one in which people feel lonely in their pursuits to purpose, where they do not feel a universality to human suffering because it does not seem to exist. It is a grim culture, a culture in which we are more connected than ever before but couldn’t be farther apart — a culture that shrouds its economic, environmental and emotional deficiencies with the intoxicating illusion of growth. We can no longer rely on growth to ensure wellbeing. We did once — to this disastrous effect.
Maybe history will forever repeat itself because human beings are condemned to similar characteristics across generations: characteristics of apathy ruled by a vicious egomania — or maybe there comes a time when we create a fork in our own paths, when we keep our past transgressions confined to our historical consciousness. After all, the current state of affairs need not be permanent blots on the human experience. Measures such as the Genuine Progress Indicator lend quantifiable tools to improve upon signals of wellbeing like economic health, environmental conservation and social investment. While it is not ideal, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Taking into account social, economic and environmental indicators, the GPI’s symbiotic variables present a far more thorough mechanism for analyzing the health of our society than the current dominating indicator: GDP. Although it will require infrastructural overhauls within our government agencies, calling for our representatives to establish institutions devoted to tracking our individual and collective wellbeing is necessary for genuine growth.
With a revived trust in the collective, we can say farewell to The Gilded Age — and it is indeed a bright time ahead. It is a time when one’s spirit is awakened and impassioned; when the past was a storm-swept desolation, but life no longer a vanity and a burden, and the future but a way to peace. It is a time when one is filled with sincere longings; when one no longer dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea but manifests that visceral serenity in their lives and in that of the collective — when one allows a smile and says, there is purpose in our insatiable calls for justice. We cannot give up.