Am I pulling my weight?
As with any headline ending in a question mark, the answer is very likely to be “no”. For instance the Slavery Footprint calculator says my consumption is supported by at least 20 slaves. Now I have a bunch of quibbles with how that estimate is calculated and presented, but there is no doubt the prices of the goods I consume would rise by some degree if there weren’t absolutely insane inequalities in the supply chain. Even ethical choices aren’t completely disconnected from the global economy. If I pick up a bar of fair trade chocolate it’s not going to be the case that everyone is working 37.5 hour work weeks and will receive an old age pension when they’re 67. So the question should perhaps instead be “What’s the magnitude of my over-consumption?”
Of course that is really difficult to evaluate, even on a small scale. Let’s go back to the question in the title and the situation where the phrase has its origin; sailors pulling ropes on sailing ships. A heavier and stronger man than the average might pull with the same force as the others, which would be less than what he was capable of, or he might pull with the same percentage of his capacity and be as exhausted as the others. In which case is he doing his fair share? Does your opinion change if he doesn’t get more food than the others to compensate for his larger baseline metabolism? How about if …
I could go on, but hopefully my point is already made, there is no way to perfectly evaluate if someone is doing and/or receiving their fair share. In a narrow context like the joint effort of a group of sailors, a consensus might arise, and the guy who never breaks a sweat might be ostracised, but our reality is one of being part of a global economy and I am well insulated from the effort and level of reward at the far end of the supply chains that end with me. And you the reader is likely to inhabit the same world of relative luxury.
But say we could easily evaluate who’s doing their fair share and who’s over-consuming. Let’s say we simplify and look at work hours. We’re then ignoring structural differences like how some countries have developed extensive infrastructure and automation, allowing production of more goods for the same work hours, but also how this development probably was supported by exploiting nations where this development hasn’t happened, so let’s put that aside for now. We look at how many hours people work and how many hours work their consumption represents and find …
At one extreme I could find that there’s minimal difference. So my over consumption doesn’t represent all that much of the world’s inequality. Say I work 2000ish hours and I consume goods representing 2100ish hours of work. Well then I don’t have much of an excuse for not changing my consumption, do I? I ought to consume a little less and pay a little more for what I do consume, preferably to those who’re “under-consuming”, allowing them to catch up. Easy peasy.
At the other extreme I could find that there are enormous differences. Maybe I consume 4000 hours worth of goods. Changing my consumption would then be a lot harder, but the immorality of not doing so would be much greater.
Over-simplified, sure, but if you live in the developed world, it is vanishingly unlikely that your personal truth doesn’t lie somewhere in between those two points, leaving the obvious conclusion: You’re not pulling your weight, at least not globally, and you’re consuming more than your fair share.
What the best choices are to remedy this may not be obvious, but perfect is the enemy of good, and it’s immoral not to bear this in mind when you make everyday choices. The available “ethical choices” might not be perfect, they might not even be better than the regular goods, but picking one over just plain “global economy output” shows you care and works to push the marketplace towards taking ethics into consideration and providing us consumers with the resulting information.