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Planned Human Obsolescence

This academic term I’m teaching my college courses fully online; a year into the global pandemic of COVID-19, and it’s not safe to public health for classes to be held face-to-face.

Setting a time for meeting the class online is doable for some, but many lives are too disrupted to do so reliably, and so many students are choosing courses that are “asynchronous,” that is, which require participation at a time during each week when it works for the student, but no required time to all meet online as a class.

This makes the cascading scheduling challenges for students with children more manageable. I see their written posts timestamped at odd hours, often when their children—who are themselves in school from home online for many hours a day—are asleep.

Fully one-quarter of community college students are parents and a large percent of them are low-income. In the pandemic, many of them are working miracles.

This was the context for recordings I made on Valentines Day that I believe helped some of my students more adequately grasp their circumstances.

In my field of peace and conflict transformation a distinction is made between positive peace and negative peace. Negative peace is the absence of direct violence or war. Positive peace is the absence of the root causes of violence and war and the presence of truth and justice.

In making the point I focused attention on corrupted values and misplaced priorities in the US: on a day for celebrating love large numbers of homeless people would freeze to death.

Nearly half of students at community colleges (where I teach) are housing-insecure, about one in 10 have been completely homeless in the past year. Students are completing term papers on smartphones using free wifi in parking lots… many have lived-experience clarity in structural violence and are thankful to gain a vocabulary for explicating their own lives.

They are keenly aware of contrasts. ‘Perseverance’ landed on Mars to search for signs of life meanwhile parents are trying to figure out how to take care of their children without electricity, heat, or water. The Houston skyline was lit while neighborhoods sat in the dark, skyscrapers turned lights off because of complaints about the clear double standard. Politicians can escape the cold with a trip to Cancun, but those they “serve” suffer. These radical disparities are the backdrop of the lives of so many of my students and they know it every hour of every day.

Where we focus on the ludicrous lies during these human-caused-disasters, like the gaslighting about frozen wind turbines or solar panels, we scratch the surface of the roots of the injustice and violence.

Human life has not been prioritized. A look at those who hit the jackpot in disasters is proof enough. When electrical costs increase by a factor of 100 ($17,000 for one family!) that is not a crime, but it should be.

The strategy of contrived durability is not illegal; a phone maker is within their rights to choose a screen that is more vulnerable to cracking in the hopes that profitability will increase; pacemakers can be equipped with software that drains batteries more rapidly, surgery to replace a battery is dangerous, replacing the whole unit is safer. Sometimes there is even a claim of fiduciary responsibility to maximize profitability to shareholders. This could mean that steps to engage in humane behaviors could inexplicably be deemed unethical, or worse.

This is when “corporate ethics” is an oxymoronic term.

I do not know that any business is taking intentional steps to increase human suffering, but it is all in the plans. Deregulation of electricity in Texas is just one of many examples where risks are taken in the name of profit. Unfortunately, however, it is public risk and private profit.

Regulations could have required steps to winterize the electricity grid. Given the choice it’s clear that power companies will not make such a choice on their own. But the truth is that the costs were both shifted and exponentially increased. The broken pipes and bankruptcies are costs that are passed along to communities and, again, the most vulnerable are at greatest risk.

In war there is enough respect for so-called collateral damage and other violations that rules of engagement have been enacted. “Proportionality” dictates things like, you cannot shoot down children for throwing rocks and “Wounded” commands, in effect, that you do not kick a person while they are down—just like you cannot kill those who are surrendering, you cannot attack those who no longer pose a threat because of their injuries.

Of course, enforcing these rules is not as easy as enacting them, but at least the principles are in black letter codes in US military rules of engagement as well as international treaties.

But in our free market we do not offer similar protections. Price gouging of essential goods is frankly encouraged and those most vulnerable are most exploited.

Fifty years of trickle down has only increased the numbers of people food-insecure and in poverty while the gap between the rich and poor has grown. When people freeze to death it is a cruel reminder of the callous lack of concern with expendable human lives.

My students are representative of America. I stand with them. I hope we all do.