“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan
“Why” may be the most important word in America today. It's certainly the least answered question in this country, because we seldom honestly ask it. Most of us would just as soon not know why bad things happen, so we tend not to ask. The answer, we suspect, would just interfere with our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Kids will ask that question about anything at any time. They seldom get a decent answer because the adult they look to for an answer seldom has a clue why anything happens.
Generally I tend to answer questions of "Why..." with the full truth as I understand it. That often makes folks uneasy, however. People tend to shy away from truths that make them seem to be willing victims of circumstance, or merely pawns in the grip of powerful Others.
For example, I could tell you three of the reasons why Osama bin Laden chose to inspire and fund the airplane hijackers who flew suicide missions into the financial heart of the American Empire. Those three reasons, however, all fall into the category of "chickens coming home to roost" – and that's a phrase guaranteed to boil the blood of a true patriotic flag-loving ordinary American citizen.
Because in America today, any suggestion that American interference in the governing of foreign countries might have bad consequences for us all is considered as unpatriotic as desecrating the flag. You can speak the truth in America if you choose your words very carefully; just don't say anything that sounds like a "coming home to roost" kind of comment.
Why is that? Why do so many of us have a blind loyalty to the ideal of American goodness that we were taught to believe in? The evidence of our status as a nation of sinners is clear in our own recorded history, but so many of us reject that evidence with outrage or dismiss it as irrelevant.
But the consequences of our century-long attempt to build an American Empire exist whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.
The only time we don't want to hear a simple answer to the question "Why..." is when that simple answer is true. Because in America today, we prefer the simplicity of a short, neat answer that justifies our behavior. We don't have the necessary attention span to try and understand other people's motives, and we have no interest in examining our own. We'd rather feel better right now, and ignorance is bliss.
For example, I could describe the one simple reason why the price of fuel is vastly different in various parts of the world and rising so fast in North America. But that one reason is too true for most folks, so I'll pass on that. I don't feel a compelling need to face rejection or dismissal.
We ask the question "Why..." of others all the time, however. I know I do. I enjoy the wild variety of answers I get for their entertainment value, and because every now and then I hear a wisely phrased analysis of the reality behind the question. And then I learn something, which is the best fun of all...
"Why don't they..." is a hugely popular question too, but it goes off track on that third word. It should be "we" instead of "they" if the question is meant to be taken seriously. Talk about what "they" could or should do is just gossip, idle chat, harmless but pretty much pointless.
On the other hand, an honest examination of what "they" are doing now, and why they're doing it, is priceless. Like all efforts of value, it's not an easy task, but the information you need to understand how the world works is within your grasp.
Lately, a lot of people are asking the question, "Why are food prices rising so fast?" Experts offer their analysis of fuel prices and the impact on shipping food, climate change and crop failures, national hoarding by countries that normally export food, increased demand by an ever-growing population, the conversion of farmland from food crops to fuel crops and a myriad of other factors as underlying causes.
What you won't hear much is the true heart of the answer. Food is a commodity these days more than ever, an area of investment for speculation and profit. Global markets, free trade agreements and airfreight have made it possible for Big Agribusiness to become a world player in the commodities markets. Rice and oil are equally seen as products with the potential for big profits. Rice isn't food to those investors; it's just another opportunity to make more money without doing any real work.
The trade in rice is just one example that illustrates why there are food riots happening in Egypt, Haiti, Cameroon, the Philippines, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal, among others. Free trade forces have been able to influence governments to rely on imported food instead of investing in local food production. The farmers who remain are encouraged to grow cash crops and use the money they receive to buy food. Seed companies flood markets with sterile varieties of food plants that can't reproduce, ensuring that they can continue to sell seeds again next season.
It's not about any shortage of food on the planet; it's all about the distribution of food crops and how they are used. We humans already have what we need to feed everyone on the planet with organic, locally produced food. Instead, we grow mangoes and bananas on huge tracts of land in Central America, then ship those fruits to markets all over the world. Plantation workers have a little money in their pockets but not enough to feed their families even when food is available.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon blames the food crisis in his country as the direct result of U.S. corn exports to Mexico having tripled since NAFTA took effect. All that American corn being sold in Mexican markets has caused domestic corn prices to drop by more than 70 percent. Mexico's 15 million corn farmers have always been poor, but now they're hungry, too. Many stopped growing their own corn because their crop was losing money.
That's not the kind of loss that most American companies speak of, where potential profits are reduced to an unacceptable level. Small farmers around the world are seeing their costs for producing a crop exceed the price they can get for it in a global market where prices are manipulated just like the housing market or Wall Street stocks.
Water is also on the list of commodities to be marketed and sold. I'm not talking about the bottled water that urbanites carry around with them everywhere to stay hydrated at all times; that's just capitalism doing what it does best, creating a market for a dubious product where one never existed before. What I'm talking about is the process of privatizing water supplies for an entire town or region.
Of course, people in Hawaii – and especially on Maui – know all about the consequences of allowing a public resource such as water to be dominated by private commercial interests. When a natural and necessary element of existence is treated as if it were a product, the common good and quality of life enjoyed by the public will suffer.
When food shortages start to occur in the islands – and they will, that's nearly certain – people could try growing subsistence crops again to feed their families, but where will they get the water they need for those crops? How much will it cost and how will they pay for it?
Maybe then, enough people on Maui will ask the "Why..." questions that apply to water issues on the island.
Why does water that falls from the sky become a commodity when it flows across someone's property on its way to the sea? Why do the state and county grant an ownership right to water that belongs to the public? Why can one user take most of the water from a stream and send it far away?
But here's the one question that everyone needs to ask of themselves in these strange times; Why aren't we all mad as hell about the mess that has been created in our name?