Four Questions for a Sustainable Society: Is it Fair?

Reader Contribution by Staff
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Because fairness is a subjective judgment, it cannot be finally determined. Take any human activity or condition and ask the question, “Is this fair?” and there will be disagreement. Inevitably. Fairness can be decided, but not determined.

Fairness is a measurement of consensus, judged by participants. When a group of people comes together in a voluntary activity — a company, a game or a social group — the participants are consenting to the fairness of that activity and its rules. Fairness is determined in real time as the participants interact with each other and the institution. If we consider the rules of a game unfair, we don’t play. That’s why fairness is so important, even if it can’t be pinned down.

We often have a hard time visualizing justice. If your people have been enslaved for generations, how do we determine a just compensation? If your culture lost its homeland in a war, where can justice be found? It can’t.

When we can’t determine justice, we can look for fairness. Fairness can often be applied when justice is out of reach. Fairness is a goal we can, at least, visualize. In the pursuit of fairness, then, we can begin to approach justice.

Fairness can be visualized when justice cannot.

Fairness is not cited as a prominent factor in the big events in our past. Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolph Hitler do not appear, through the lens of history, to have been particularly concerned with fairness. Certainly their enemies didn’t perceive them as “fair.” But to influence the world in which they lived, each of the great game-changers had to negotiate a sense of fairness within their communities. The Romans could not raise their armies without a code for the fair treatment of soldiers. Then as now, the army provided opportunities for boys from modest backgrounds to gain some education, to travel and to achieve success. In some sense military service, past and present, offers opportunities more based on merit than background and provides for some people, therefore, a fairer alternative than a career in business or government. Caesar and Hitler also found it necessary to levy taxes to establish and maintain empires, and a tax system is more effective if it is considered, if not fair, at least fair enough by the popular opinion. The Romans invented the census, which allowed them to tax their far-flung empire, and they established a system fair enough to keep their diverse subjects pliable. It may not have been fair, but it was fair enough.

Napoleon Bonaparte founded the Bank of France, reformed the French tax system and improved France’s schools to help sell the idea of a “fair” monarchy to the French people. 

The unfairness of British taxation was a big motivator for the establishment of the United States of America. King George III might have averted the revolution if he had only possessed a keener sense of fairness, as the Americans perceived it.

The United States were united by a sense of fairness. Fairness was the primary theme of the fledgling nation’s Declaration of Independence and the guiding principle and main bone of contention at the Constitutional Convention. We still defend the American system of democracy and free enterprise based on how it provides equal access to the machinery of government and the fruits of society. In a word, its fairness.

And many American would agree that the darkest chapters in U.S. history — the Indian wars, slavery, the Civil War and segregation — were characterized by our failure to apply our standards for fairness.

When perceived from the outside, it’s hard to see any great world power as governing fairly. Rome conquered much of the world by military force and subjected foreign nations to Roman taxation without providing any access to the decision-making machinery of its government. The insurgents battling U.S. soldiers today in the Middle East argue that the American presence in Muslim countries and the establishment of Israel in the geographic center of Islam are unfair to Muslim peoples. Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in central Asia rebel against Chinese authority. Pakistan resists the influence of its powerful neighbor, India.  A sense of fairness — or the lack thereof — is at the very heart of every major conflict in the world today.

Yet every successful nation must be perceived as fair by some percentage of its own citizens in order to survive. So behind every example we might provide of conquest and colonization across history, there existed a group of people who considered their leaders fair and their government reasonable — the Roman citizenry, the Mongol hordes, the French aristocracy. Those were the people inside the consensus process that forms the backbone of every society. And every society I can think of has contained a percentage of people who didn’t feel the social contract was fair. Those people — alienated from the society in which they live — foment rebellions, commit crimes, subvert government and short-circuit the economy. Because the rules are not perceived as fair, they naturally feel less of a moral obligation to obey the rules.

The so-called “Boston Tea Party” viewed as a seminal event at the founding of the United States was, in fact, an illegal act of vandalism perpetrated against innocent merchants to protest what was perceived as an unfair tax. My country’s founding fathers were protesters, subversives, somes vandals and insurgents — call them what you will. They rebelled against unfairness.

The highest goal of politics might be to instill a sense of fairness in society, since that sense of fairness promotes tranquility, productivity and prosperity. The cooperation that undergirds a healthy society — the social contract — is based on a sense of fairness. Without it, a society is unhealthy and unproductive and, ultimately, ceases to exist.

The next big challenges facing our species will be global challenges. The efficiency of our communication and transportation combined with the growing size and density of our population is drawing us closer together, forming a single global interest group that needs natural resources, clean air and clean water. Our air and water do not respect national boundaries. If Mexico’s air is polluted, so is the air of the United States, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua and El Salvador. If the water in the Congo River is contaminated, it taints the water of the Central African Republic, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Cameroon, Zambia, Burundi and Rwanda. When toxins are released into the oceans, they touch every shoreline in the world.

This obvious reality provides us with a bunch of political riddles that may not be entirely new but are increasingly common. We have been accustomed throughout the history of political science to the necessity of forming social contracts within nations and empires. Every political subdivision has existed on the basis of a social contract — written or unwritten — that delineated the responsibilities of rulers and citizens, governments and subjects, peasants and aristocracies.

And we have been accustomed to looking askance at the social contracts of other nations. We are skeptical of other systems. Occasionally, we envy them. Usually not.

But when we encounter a threatening phenomenon that does not respect political boundaries we must form alliances. In World War II the “Allies” — England, Russia, China, the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, etc. — faced the “Axis powers” — Germany, Japan and Italy. Eventually, nearly every nation in the world joined one group or the other. Both sides wrote treaties that delineated the rights and responsibilities of the participating nations. They determined a shared code of fairness that would govern their behavior as long as they needed each other. The governments and societies of Japan, Italy and Germany may have been as different as any three nations on Earth. One was a monarchy. One was a socialist democracy. One was a fascist dictatorship. Under pressure, they agreed upon a set of rights and responsibilities. Likewise, it’s hard to conceive of a single political entity encompassing the United Kingdom, the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Republic of China. Yet that union took shape comparatively quickly when the need arose and it lasted, in some form, right up to the present day. It was the basis of the United Nations.

Appropriately, the United Nations today is the principal agency attempting to address global environmental issues. In 1992 the organization published theUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The goal of the treaty is to protect the global climate by stabilizing human production of greenhouse gases, but it sets no specific limits and describes no mechanisms. Essentially, it is a document concerned with fairness, and it provides for “protocols” to be approved along the way that set limits and define mechanisms. Predictably, these protocols — including the definitive Kyoto Protocol — are controversial. At least the Kyoto Protocol is controversial in the United States. As I write this, the United States is the only significant emitter of greenhouse gases that has not ratified the protocol. Unfortunately it is also the biggest emitter per capita, and second only to China in total emissions. Therefore American residents face the largest changes in lifestyle if their nation is to contribute meaningfully to reducing emissions. American lawmakers argue that mandatory curbs on American emissions would unfairly inhibit the U.S. economy. The rest of the world responds that the real injustice is the unwillingness of the world’s richest people to join in the effort to moderate climate change.

Debates over whether human activity is causing climate change are mere distractions. The real argument is over what is fair. A lot of Americans, myself included, believe we are perpetuating the squabble over whether climate change is occurring mostly because we don’t have a rhetorical leg to stand on in the debate over fairness. We’re the richest people in the world and its biggest polluters, yet we don’t wish to change our lifestyles.

The only practical approach to solving environmental problems is based on a sense of fairness shared by those affected. There will always be argument over the subtleties. That’s how consensus is maintained. But we can’t ignore fairness as the central issue of the discussion.

It’s simplest to begin imposing a sense of fairness on our personal affairs before expanding our efforts to the global scale, I think. All the major world religions advocate charity for the poor. Charity represents fairness in its most elegant form. Those who have something extra share with those who have too little. The virtue of this concept is difficult to criticize. The wealthy person can contribute in multiple ways — both by giving money and other resources directly, and by refraining from consuming resources — food, water, energy — that are, therefore, available to others.

Our vegetable garden and fruit trees produce maybe 20 percent of the produce we consume over the course of the year. Maybe less. It varies dramatically with my level of dedication to the weeding, canning and freezing. My efforts are inconsistent, but I love watching the sun and soil create all those diverse and delicious foods: okra, asparagus, plums, pumpkins, blackberries, etc., etc. My enjoyment is enhanced by the recognition that my organic garden, teeming with biological diversity, might otherwise be a comparatively homogenous and unproductive patch of grass. My food otherwise might come from some monocultural field where nothing but the crop could live. By converting a patch of lawn to garden we provide new habitat and sustenance for millions of other living things — both in the garden and around the world where other creatures including other human beings can enjoy the surplus created by our backyard ingenuity.

The coffee in my cup this morning is triple-certified: fair trade, organic and shade-grown. Its fair-trade certification indicates that the coffee farmers and their workers were paid more for their beans because their labor practices and economic contributions were conscientious. The certification provides us with a “fairer” choice. Organic farming protects the soil, air and water. It’s more fair to all the living things that share those resources. And because coffee plants can thrive in the shade, it’s possible to leave the forest intact on a coffee plantation. The plants are marginally less productive in the shade of the big trees, but the forest, overall, is helping produce a healthier planet. The loss of some percentage of agricultural production is, it seems to me, a small price to pay.

I suppose my triple-certified brew costs about 20 percent more than conventional coffee, but I enjoy it twice as much, so I could drink half as much and still be ahead in the game.

And the benefits of my choice are not abstract. My coffee provides a conscientious farmer in Sumatra or Nicaragua with a better living. Trees are left standing, which otherwise would be bulldozed and burned. Over the course of a  year, maybe I preserve nesting places for a few tropical birds.

There are millions of ways of incorporating a sense of fairness in our daily lives. Do we courteously let others merge on the freeway? Are we honest in our business dealings? Do we share the household chores? Skeptics can laugh, I suppose, at these humble notions, but taken as a whole our awareness of the value of fairness creates one of the most valuable of our institutions, a civil human society.

In business the opportunities are more compelling. Do we compensate our suppliers and colleagues fairly? Do we return a fair day’s work for our wages? Do we refrain from exploiting cheap resources if they are destructive to the environment and human society? Are we a source of productive energy in the economy?

Fairness is both practical and inspirational. It is the fundamental value that undergirds all human endeavor, as well as society itself. It is also an ideal to which we can aspire, a source of standards that elevate our efforts and our achievements. How can we do without it?

This essay is excerpted from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want, published in December by B&A Books and available now on the Mother Earth News bookshelf.

Bryan Welchis the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on.

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundant by Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Welch