Today I made a step towards moral and existential sanity. Today I stopped supporting a malevolent, inhuman and amoral force.
Let me back up a moment. Two years ago, freshly graduated from an East Coast status enclave, I took a job in Japan, where I lived in a mountain community that is rapidly fading into a coal mine ghost town.
Well paid, and with no student loans thanks to my industrious grandfather, I needed something to do with the portion of my salary that didn’t go towards food and beer. The local bank paid interest rates of about .001 percent.
Where to put my money? How to turn it into more? Why did I want more money so badly?
These were three easy questions.
I wanted more money so that I could travel the world and indulge my dream of becoming a great writer, living like Hemingway in Paris, Spain and Cuba, fishing and chasing pretty girls. Not a bad goal, really.
I’m not all that smart, but my education has given me a small sniff of how the world economy functions. I know how to make money. Buy stocks.
The technique of buying stocks came naturally to me as well. It was just like playing Fantasy Baseball. With a little research and the click of a mouse, I bought the stock of big mining companies that are headquartered in the United States, Australia, China and Canada, but have operations in countries like Peru, Cambodia and Sudan.
Why did I buy these particular stocks?
Because buying stock in international energy and mining corporations is one of the quickest, most reliable ways for rich people like me to get even more rich – this was true two years ago, and it’s still mostly true today. The elite of Shanghai, Sydney, Manhattan and Moscow all know this.
I managed my stock portfolio the same way I managed my fantasy baseball team, and I made plenty of travel money. I made enough to fulfill my fantasy and take an extended holiday. I chose my destination the same way I chose my stocks. What place would give me the best value?
Another easy answer – go to the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. In Southeast Asia a young person like me can live like royalty for less than it costs to rent a studio apartment in Tokyo or Manhattan.
And I had a great time. For months, I sipped fresh mango juice on tropical beaches and managed my stock portfolio from Internet cafes. It was great. Except for one thing.
Show Me The Money
In Cambodia, there were people with no legs who dragged themselves across the sand. There were little metal bombs in the forest waiting to lash out and kill you. There were girls younger than anyone in my Facebook network selling their bodies in brothels.
There were businessmen, generals and politicians driving through the desiccated countryside in black Lexus SUVs with military license plates. There were luxury hotels with teak bars crowded with tourists like me, everyone sipping a taste of exotica.
Every day in Cambodia I saw injustice so obvious, so callous and so inhumane it filled me with a sense of guilt and rage.
So I did what my generation does best: I looked for entertainment elsewhere.
I left the beach, and took a bus way off into the boondocks, to a province called Mondulkiri that borders Vietnam. There, I nearly killed myself drinking Mekong Whiskey and rode elephants through upland forests that stretched far and green and pure for as far as the eye could see. I had adventures. I felt like the hero in a Graham Greene novel.
One clear day I was driving through the forest with a 24 year old Englishman named Jack Highwood, one of only a few foreigners who lives in Mondulkiri. Jack runs two projects: a bar called the Middle of Somewhere and an NGO that promotes healthy coexistence between people and elephants.
“It’s a shame all this is done for,” said Jack mournfully, reaching for his cigarette lighter.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“BHP Billiton bought the rights to this whole forest,” he said. “It’ll be stripped clean.”
BHP Billiton is one of the stocks I bought in Japan. BHP Billiton has given me over $12,000. Seeing the letters Ã¢â‚¬ËœBHP’ gives me a soft, warm, proud feeling. I tried to look on the bright side.
“Maybe you could work out some sort of partnership with them,” I suggested. “Get some money for your NGO.”
Jack braked for a pothole and looked at me sideways. “Maybe if there was a scrap of good in what they stand for,” he said. “But there’s not.”
Deep down, I knew that what Jack said was true. But instead of selling my BHP stock, I bought more and went to Laos.
Laos…beautiful Laos. Laos was surely paradise. In Laos I ate tropical fruit and played in pristine waterfalls. I ambled through golden temples and drank cold beer by the Mekong River. But I also felt a certain tension. I sensed fear and desperate paranoia. I smelled smoke.
The smoke was easy to explain. Laos was on fire. It was the dry season, and the mountain forests were burning night and day. The hazy air made for spectacular sunsets.
But the tension…that was harder to account for, because the people of Laos could not have been more hospitable and kind. I met monks and farmers and earnest young students. I felt no animosity – only that vague and unsettling paranoia.
One day I learned that when my father was my age, an army captain in Vietnam, the United States haphazardly dropped millions of tons of bombs and deadly chemical weapons from airplanes onto Laos. They dropped 500 pounds of high explosives for every man, woman, child and baby in the country. They tried to bomb Laos back to the Stone Age, and they almost did. Many survivors lived in caves.
I wondered why.
The answer, I discovered, was that the Americans were nervous. They dropped all those millions of tons of bombs on monks and mothers and rice farmers living in bamboo huts because they were worried they might not be able to control them. For years, they kept the bombing secret from the American people.
Now, I know which people made the decision to bomb Laos and Cambodia. I’ve met some of them. I’ve sat down at a table and broken bread with former Defense Secretary and World Bank President Robert McNamara, who made decisions that are directly responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents, vast ecological destruction and the hopeless, cringing poverty of entire nations.
And the thing I couldn’t get, the thing I couldn’t understand, was this:
Robert McNamara is a good man. He loves to go hiking in Colorado. He is deeply intelligent and sincere. When, on the day I joined him for lunch, a student asked Mr. McNamara how it feels to be one of the biggest murderers of the twentieth century, I thought the question was inappropriate and cruel. For the record, Mr. McNamara replied by saying, “I don’t think I am.”
How could upstanding citizens like Robert McNamara be responsible for the utterly inhuman apocalypse of mortal thunder unleashed on Laos? How could good people be responsible for such evil?
I didn’t have the answer to this question, so I bought stock in a company called Goldcorp and went to Thailand.
The Ignorance of Evil
By the time I got to Thailand, I had put so much money into stocks, I didn’t have much left in my travel fund. Instead of redeeming my precious stock, I went to a farm where I could live for close to free.
Life on this farm was strangely simple. Food came from the garden and was delicious. Sun came from the sky and was warm. Water came from the river and was laced with invisible poison – carcinogenic pesticides produced by multinational corporations and shipped by the ton to countries like Thailand.
The weirdest thing was that even though I spent almost no money while living at the farm, buying little more than bottled water, I have never been happier. I worked with my hands in the earth. I slept well and deep. My food tasted great and made my body healthy. I started each day with a sunrise. At dusk I listened to music while stars flickered in the purple sky.
But I still didn’t sell my stock.
I didn’t decide to sell my stock until today, when I was driving through the golden autumn hills of Vermont listening to an old man’s voice – loud and brave and clear: “Sing a sadder song of freedom,” he sang. “Slowly sinking like the sun.”
Next to me in the passenger seat was a beautiful young woman named Becky who I’m starting to like (although I haven’t told her so yet).
And I got to thinking – what if, someday, I marry someone wonderful like Becky? What if we have children? What world – what truth – do I want my children to know?
Knowledge and Morality
When a wealthy American like me buys a stock, or invests in a mutual fund, that action has a very real impact somewhere in the world. All too often, that impact is invisible, totally divorced from moral consequence.
The gap between action and consequence is the central problem of the global market based economy. There is no room for moral judgment in a system that only rewards profit.
Just as Robert McNamara and the men who incinerated Laos would never, could never, have torched bamboo huts and Buddhist temples by hand, so too would American stockholders recoil from the real damage inherent – but invisible – in their carefully managed stock portfolios.
When tons of bombs and rates of return become abstract numbers, we lose the qualities that make us moral beings. We become inhuman.
The refreshing news is that we have the potential to recapture our morality. Just as our money can do evil, poisoning water systems, displacing indigenous people and destroying the forests that are this planet’s lungs, money invested with care and attention can be a force for good.
The key is active, empowered awareness. When you travel, think about where your money is going, and what exactly you are supporting.
Likewise, when you invest in a stock, or a fund, or even just go shopping for a new pair of shoes, make the effort to consider the moral implications of your action.
These are exciting times in which to live. The possibilities are endless. We have more freedom than any generation before us, but that freedom is dangerous and destructive without moral awareness. We must not succumb to ignorance, fear and greed.
Our character is defined by the choices we make. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may depend on our ability to extend our empathy across oceans, to act with knowledge, and most importantly, to act with love.
And please leave comments below!