Wealth is an abstraction. It is the taking of value from the realm of the actual, the fabric of a living earth, and creating a gradient of poverty. What is read as wealth is a condition of lesser poverty than those wealth pushes into the maw of destruction and diminishment it shoves along ahead of itself. This process has consequences. The poverty it creates is tragically real. But the benefits of wealth are an abstraction. An abstraction that hides its perpetrators from the free-fall they are in alongside all the rest of us. It’s just that riding “on the top of the heap” the view of where we’re going is obstructed by all those they’ve pushed beneath them. This Ponzi Scheme is reaching its inevitable conclusion – rates of progress towards this end may vary. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.
An aspect of this greater dynamic, the generation of poverty, appears on a graph as a hyperbolic curve of disproportionate wealth distribution. This video shows it quite well for those of us in the United States, while conveniently forgetting the entire rest of the world. Factor every person in the world into these graphs and it becomes almost too much to conceive.
What is made much of is the skewing not only from what it once was, but from what most of us imagine it is now. This is only one factor where there is a tremendous dissonant disjunction between perception and reality. It will be interesting to see if any graphs get made for say the loss of abundance versus the increase in percentage of biomass trapped within people….
An interesting possibility arises from considering what that graph of wealth distribution is really showing us. Its makers are working under the assumption that wealth is real. That it is not simply a perception of relatively less poverty as we ride a fall into the obliteration of abundance. If this were the case, then it would be a matter of justice and equity to share things differently. Since wealth, even as a grand abstraction, carries with it the wielding of actual power – even though the direct correlation between what one imagines their wielding of power is accomplishing and the web of “unintended consequences” it leaves us mired in is totally imaginary. That power does great damage to the world. Chiefly as those wielding it attempt to maintain their illusions within the abstraction of the concept of wealth as an actual gain.
But the graph is not showing a thing. It is showing an abstraction built around a series of perceptions that are then misconstrued as some sort of quantifiable reality. It’s possible that there-in lies the shape of the graph and its trend towards our ever-popular “hockey stick” shape.
If wealth, the perception of an insulation from the poverty its pursuit creates and increases at an ever faster rate as the support systems of our world are eviscerated to maintain it, then it would be clear that the perception that it is working would continue to skew from the left side, the end closest to the realities of poverty, towards those at the extreme right end, who have the bulk of all the rest of society between them and these increasingly dire effects of our general impoverishment. It takes ever-higher levels of wealth to provide “adequate” insulation.
Now, this insulating effect is temporary. It is also mostly an illusion. It may buy perfumes, but it does not buy clean air, or uncontaminated food. It buys marginally cleaner air, marginally less contaminated food, for now….
So this chart is showing us something akin to a Hubbard’s Peak. Although in this case, it is not a depletion of a singular “resource,” but of a complex of depletions as they are registered within the monetization of our relative poverty as this is measured as “wealth.” In this case this meta-graphical representation is showing us the way the front face of the wave of general collapse appears to rise at an ever faster and higher rate until it abruptly falls off the other side and heads down into the following trough.
What is of actual interest in this is the way on the other side of this peak it is likely that those on the far right of this graph will feel the greatest force of the plummet towards depletion and a new “steady-state” that is likely to hurl us all into a possibly – no, most probably – geological epoch of shattered abundance and persistent poverty. Everything that now keeps them at “the front of the cart” will likely hold them there as the trajectory noses over.
The same myopia that leads all of us at the front of the cart – anyone with the capabilities and resources required to be reading this is certainly on the skinny nose-bleed edge of that other graph that wasn’t made that would show all of us on earth. This same myopia is the actual “benefit” wealth has conferred on its holders all along. The “luxury” to be able to ignore harsh realities even as they carry us inevitably along. Ask Mr. Vanderbilt as the deck began to tilt alarmingly and the actual plunge from “First Class” into a cold uncaring sea took form in his mind’s eye. Our tragedy is there within the disparity between an awareness of our condition and the access one has to power. More than that, the conviction that wielding power from any position of manufactured certainty can be anything but tragic in its outcome.
Those with wealth are more insulated. They are also more deluded. They can “afford it.” They also have access to power. They wield that power under the delusion that it will get them what they think they want. What they insist on calling wealth. What is really a comfortable seat on “the road to ruin.” So, the more deluded get to create the most havoc while thinking they are doing themselves a favor – if not quite giving us all what we are just too soft to see as their “tough love.”
There is no “solution” to this. Any generalized attempts to abstractly “Fight Poverty!” or “Win Justice!” only deepen our divisions and rob our attention from the question towards a series of strivings after ill-considered “answers.” These occupations are just another flavor of “enjoyment” of an access to relative wealth. They attempt to wrestle some of that power away from those farther to the right on our graph in the delusion that “If only I had it, I’d use it wisely!”
One thing stays with me from visiting the site of an outpost of Empire that was left to sink into the dust of the ages after having been fought over with increasing desperation. Walking amidst the ruins of Conimbriga what stood out, what remains with me to this day, is that at some point, most likely as the result of supreme exhaustion and lack of any viable options, those people left there, just walked away. The old delusions fell away. The futility of striving after their maintenance became irrefutable, unmistakable, inarguable. They had no choice, other than to kill themselves and anyone they could take with them – and I’m sure there were bouts of this throughout the period of unrest that led up to its abandonment. But at some point, those who remained just walked away. It was as if they had awakened from feverish dreams and caught sight of where they really were and saw that there was nothing there of substance to hold them.
Our culture worships delusion. We hold dreaming to be “self-evident.” The “right” to destroy the earth in chasing after our illusions is staunchly “defended.” But at some point, some will wake up. They will come from varying positions on that graph. They will have unpredictable and irreparable collisions with the reality of our impoverishment and the ways this reverberates through our world. But they will walk away from the entire fantasy of wealth. It will have been beaten out of them by life as it is encountered in a world lacking any resilient abundance, any uncontaminated haven. They will have seen what is. It will not be a matter of opinions, of convincing, of generating consensus.
From this side of the curve it is hard not to see this eventuality as a “defeat.” It is hard to see that it is the only and quite slim chance for any kind of wisdom. Such lives may seem un-wealthy, but they are less impoverished than what we hold onto at all costs today. They offer us the only possibility that humans can share in the healing of what has resulted from this grand delusion. It will be a return in one way. It will be a return to valuing joy over the illusions of wealth. As they walk away, I cannot help but see the beginnings of a smile forming on their faces. This rekindling of innate joy has no resemblance to the rictus of grimacing after the fleeting pleasures and intoxications wealth has attempted to replace it with. In that smile is nothing less than our rejoining the world.
2 thoughts on “On Wealth”
I’ve wondered for a little while whether wilful ignorance is the last great luxury good. The put-on air-headedness of celebrity heiresses and teen sensations is as much a status symbol as a dog-in-a-handbag. ‘I’m so safely insulated that I don’t need to be capable…’. Long fingernails, un-sunned skin and smooth hands (in men and women) are all just physical manifestations of this…
I wish I could feel your confidence about the joyfulness of the disillusion; the citizens of Conimbriga looking up and realising that despite the end of ‘the world as we know it’, the sun still shines, the rain still falls, we have two good hands and two good feet and we can still walk away…
..but there was no ‘away’ for the Easter Islanders once the last potential-canoe tree was cut & burned. Once the last Diprotodon was speared and eaten in prehistoric Australia, there would have been a miserable population crash amongst the ‘Future Eaters’ before a new, leaner steady state evolved.
It seems to me that these ‘worlds as we know them’ go right to the wire, down to the last moa, the last lousy maize crop, the last tree in increasing desparation before we hit year zero. I love the romantic idea of a gentle segue to a ‘world made by hand’, like people walking away from their gridlocked cars, but suspect that transitions like this involve empty bellies, barbarians at the gates and a scrabble for the pieces for a generation or two.
Other than that, I suspect you’re right about almost-instantaneous change. I’ve had my mind shifted on its axis too many times to have much faith in its consistency.
Glad to have you back!
Willful ignorance is the “bargain with the Devil” we make when we chase after wealth. What’s so hard to get across is that this isn’t a “moral” failing. It leads us to our own destruction.
You’ve given me an opportunity to clarify the point about joyful disillusionment. They are not smiling because they expect to find a better place in “the Future.” They smile because they are alive. They have dropped illusions that kept pushing them to attain something else. They finally have a moment for, well, for the moment. Awakening from a dream that kept them from being alive now, they are now alive. No guarantees about what comes next. None demanded.
This is crucial. It is so easy to slip into expectations of optimism – or pessimism. Each takes us out of where we are and puts us nowhere.
Would it be nicer if we woke up in a world of abundance? Resoundingly yes! But, we don’t have that world. We won’t have that world for a long long time. The Earth will take as long as it takes to recover some form of abundance and relative equilibrium. But is it better to wake up from these destructive dreams anyway? I do believe so. So much has been sacrificed. So much still to be lost that’s already underway. So much suffering. To refuse this opportunity to wake up, to be honest witnesses, to have even but a moment of actual, real life; would only compound our tragedy.
The rest is beyond our capacity as individuals to willfully change things for the better. This is fully within each of our abilities.
May this, as it catches on, help our general condition?
It can’t hurt?
Is anything else a useful response to our condition?
None that I am aware of.
But we cannot fully access creativity from within our dream-state. In this sense we give up without even making an effective effort if we deny this opportunity.
Our habits of thought are always eager to rush in with scenarios of what this or anything else might lead to. That just runs us back into the old dream again.
More on this as we go on….
Thank you for writing!