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22.6.13

Suicide By Avarice

Greed is such a pernicious and fatalistic thing.  It is the ultimate denial of the future and of hope.  Greed is the determination that our wants (not needs) today far outweigh those of anyone else tomorrow, or even years from now.  In fact, greed is a kind of suicide and it is killing our species as surely as poison.

In the 1950s, Japanese - and to lesser extent European - demand for wood for lumber led to the near denuding of Kalimantan (Borneo).  Huge swaths of the island were mowed down because a few people wanted to make some fast money.  And they did, becoming fabulously rich in the process.

Later, it was the coal rush.  Demand for fuel across Asia once again caused a handful of people to lay waste to large parts of the jungle in Kalimantan, opening enormous pits to extract coal and then abandoning them once the financial wealth had been extracted.  This has left massive scars full of reeking runoff water across the island.  The fertile soil lost and the usefulness of the land for future generations destroyed.

But, a small number of
people got fabulously rich.

Today, it's palm oil plantations.  Across Sumatera, large areas of jungle are being leveled and burned in order to make way for palm oil growers who are getting quite rich off the product.  In the wake of the plantations are large swaths of land where ancient forests and habitats have vanished, and who knows what hidden treasures along with them.

A great number of medical discoveries were made in Indonesia's forests.  A bacteria in the soil of Kalimantan led to the development of a new class of antibiotics that includes Vancomicin.  However, greed on the part of the pharmaceutical companies has led to overuse of antibiotics, which has given the world incredibly strong infectious agents.  But a few people became fabulously rich.

Greed is the overwhelming feeling that your desires outweigh those of any future people at any time, and the willingness to destroy anything to get what you want.  The gross accumulation of wealth for its own sake is such a pointless and wasteful exercise, yet the desire affects most of us at some time or another.  For some, it becomes a way of life.

I have seen it destroy so many lives - people hell-bent on accumulating wealth to the point that they cease to care about anyone or anything but themselves.  They are willing to destroy vast areas of natural beauty, endure the animosity and disrespect of family and friends, and forego any enjoyment of their own lives in order to add more zeros to their bank accounts.

I met one Indonesian woman in Texas 30 years ago, the wife of a friend of mine.  At the time, she was a pleasant and decent human being, though she spent an inordinate amount of time fretting over the family's money.  One day, she got the idea to come back here and go into the coal trading business.  Today, she is fabulously wealthy.  If she quit today and spent a million dollars a year, her fortune would likely outlast her.  Still, she works night and day, ignoring or at least being bothered by family concerns.  She has become a sour, empty person who suspects everyone around her is after her money.  If her mining operations make any effort to be "green", it is nothing more than a PR stunt.  She has no concern for the lives or land she destroys in the pursuit of wealth.

I know an Indonesian man who illegally imports and sells nutritional supplements at a fabulous profit.  He owns a massive house, has hot and cold running servants and 15 cars all for a family of four.  He treats his employees only slightly better than slaves, working them long hours for virtually no pay.  When they outperform expectations, he doesn't offer bonuses, even when contractually bound to do so.  He spends inordinate amounts of his life running from revenuers and police, hiding his office location, changing his phone number constantly and suspecting everyone around him will steal him blind at the first opportunity.

Neither of these people has a life as most of us would define it.  They don't enjoy anything, are always suspicious and paranoid, and can't take the time to enjoy simple pleasures like children or grandchildren, or a relaxing week in the country.  For them, a vacation is hiding from the life they have created for themselves, rather than an extended rest.

For all their wealth, they have no peace.  Both of them spend their lives counting pennies and worrying that someone will steal them blind.  They have no qualms about throwing others in front of them to avoid losing their precious money.  They expend tremendous amounts of energy accumulating their pile of goodies and everything, including their own families, are expendable in the battle to keep their goods.

On the other hand, some of the happiest people I know have nothing that we would consider valuable.  In my own life, the times when I felt most free and unburdened were when I had nothing.  The year I spent in a monastery, I had no property and never had a penny in my pocket, and I felt completely free.  When one of my wives twisted off and took the family fortune to presumably trade up, I was left completely free to change the course of my life without worrying about someone else or protecting/disposing of property to do it.  In fact, my move to Indonesia was just such a time when I had nothing to protect, nothing to lose and an entire world of choices to consider.

Real freedom, as the Buddha and the Christ taught, is owning nothing and wanting nothing.  You can not be controlled if there is nothing you want or possess.  The whole world operates on a small group creating demand for useless gee-gaws and then controlling us through them, and all to feed their insatiable desire for more zeros in their bank accounts.

If you stand far enough back and look at the global situation, it all seems so petty and useless.  People climbing over each other, destroying our planet, fighting and hating all for more zeros.  It couldn't be more absurd, really.  All the evil we can muster for, literally, nothing.  The worst part is that there seems to be no solution to it, since the human animal seems so fixated on sparkly things.

What's worse is that things seem to be devolving, rather than improving.  As a species, we don't appear to be moving away from feeding our base desires, but rather becoming even more callous in their acquisition.  All the religion, morals, ethics, philosophy and experience have done nothing to quell the hunger.  Instead, the more humans there are, the more we are willing to dispose of to get just a little further ahead that the rest.

Our consumer culture has not lived up to the promises of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Back then, we were to be living lives of leisure with machines performing our most mundane tasks.  When I was a kid, the World Book encyclopaedia said that we would all be zipping around in flying cars.  Science fiction writers speculated that humans would be living and working in space and on other planets.  Only the Huxleys and Orwells and Kafkas saw humanity living in prisons of greed and avarice at the mercy of an elite whose boundless desire for wealth would enslave the world.

Do you ever consider how many people suffer horrible lives so that you can enjoy Nike shoes or iPads?  When you turn on the light, do you think about what amount of natural beauty was destroyed to bring it to you?    When you eat a fruit or vegetable, does it ever occur to you that it was likely harvested by itinerant laborers on subsistence wages?  How many people suffer and die to bring you the useless gee-gaws you consider as status items?  How much of the pain and suffering in your life is the cost of the comforts and status of those above you?

If the ends do not justify the means, then can all the suffering and death in the world be justified by the comfort and convenience of the next layer of humans?

The culture we live under now is only a couple of hundred years old, yet it has caused more death and destruction than all of human history before it.  Our consumer society is wasteful and dangerous to most humans on the planet and most of us tend to forget what actually went into giving us our pittance.  All we concern ourselves with is what indignation we suffer to make the next layer up more comfortable, and because we suffer for an elite, we have no problem with making the next layer down suffer for us.  Kind of like hazing...we had to go through it, so the next class does to, in order to justify our humiliation.

An entire civilization built on suffering and destruction can't last long.  Two hundred years may seem like a long time in the context of a lifetime, but in the Grand Scheme of Things, it is hardly a blip.  Eventually, all of it will end.  Nature will only tolerate so much of it and then She kicks back, and humans are products of that Nature.

Greed, like a poker game, only lasts until one player has all the chips, then the other players gang up and take them away by hook or crook.  Then the process repeats until enough folks wise up to the that there is no winning in the end.  Greed is a self-defeating trap.  The more you have, the more you suffer to keep it.  Just take a close look at the faces of billionaires.  Look hard at their eyes.  All the toothy grins can't hide the hollow, hunted look deep in their souls.

It is axiomatic that money can't buy you happiness, but neither can it buy you freedom.  It is a prison of paranoia that increasingly narrows the people you trust and the places you go until there is no one and nowhere suitable for a person of your wealth and possessions.  Ultimately, all those zeros is exactly what you have, and as a civilization, we are well on our way to have plenty of nothing.

The last remaining Big Question is, what will it take for us to realize this as a species?  The answer is rather unsettling.