Advertisements

as though it matters

NOW IS THE TIME

***

to sit in the spring sunshine
and read the best dystopian fiction
that the English language has to offer

***

“The ethics and philosophy of under-consumption (are) a crime against society. …Now– such is progress. …not a moment to sit down and think.”

–Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

***

Yesterday a friend and I spent a couple hours driving and walking through fog to find the largest limber pine in the state of Montana.

Largest, you ask? Nominated trees are subjected to three different criteria. The height and canopy spread are triangulated in feet, the diameter-at-breast-height measured in inches. Those numbers are plugged into a simple, somewhat arbitrary equation to come up with a single number, a number taken to represent the tree’s size. The largest specimens to pass through the rigmarole are listed on state tree registries.

When we started hanging out a couple years ago, over a decade after we knew each other in high school, this friend and I quickly discovered that the state tree registry was an interest we both shared. It’s a nerdy thing to have in common, one to list under a self-deprecating heading like “Quiet Desperation: Life Over Thirty,” but whatever. If the excitement of a big tree is altogether foreign to you you’re not reading this blog.

The tree is located on private land in the Highland Mountains. It is nice to think of the Highlands as holding some sort of record because in so many ways they are an undistinguished range. Part of a boulder batholith that broadly extends far to the north and west, the Highlands are arid with lodgepole forest largely confined to north facing slopes, and otherwise feature great skirts of sagebrush like you’d picture in Montana.

Limber pines, it just so happens, are one of my favorite trees. They are white pines—closely related to whitebarks, with five-needle clusters and large, edible seeds. Among white pines, the limber’s distinguishing feature is its range. Limber pines alone rise from the black crusts of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon. They stand unchallenged along parched sandstone hogbacks. They are so often silhouetted against the sky as twisted, solitary old trolls because, character-wise, they are tortured and obtuse and solitary. They are perfect symbols of the West.

Because its range is so often characterized by adversity the limber pine isn’t known to grow especially large. What’s likeable about it is its expressiveness: atrophied limbs, twists and sprials, heartwood exposed and burnished by the elements, graphic countenances. They’re easy to anthropomorphize.

As we walked down what we figured was the last draw toward the champion I became concerned by all the recent mortality in other limber pines. “It’ll be a miracle if this thing is still alive,” I said, knowing that mature trees are often the most targeted by beetles. “Of course, everything about it is a miracle,” I thought again, trailing off. And, we soon discovered, the largest limber pine in Montana was dead. The last known time someone went out to visit it was in 2013; I guessed that it was infested with beetles in summer 2014, during our multi-year drought, and by the next year all its needles would’ve flared red. Now, the needles are scattered on the ground, the last pinecones have been dismantled by birds and rodents.

The shattered limbs, the last straps of living bark that still coil its contours like snakes, the hollows of rot excavated then filled with pinecones and elk vertebrae by pack rats, the enormous roots clenching mineral soil, the half dozen young green limber pines that surround it—even as a husk, the late, great limber pine tells a story of hardship and silent endurance that extends long before Europeans conquered the American wild. Now that story turns over to decomposers.

***

***

I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther– and we shall see.’

–Robert Frost

If wealth was purely a measure of one’s contribution to society than people would deserve respect in proportion to their wealth; that the wealthy do deserve respect and deference is suggested by our social norms. But correlation doesn’t mean causation.

The wealthy receive special treatment because there is a monetary incentive for others to treat them this way. It is in our own self-interest to treat those with the most money with the most respect. But it is not in our collective interest to do so: when wealth is categorically treated as a measure of respectability it makes our culture covet wealth blindly: ambition forsakes altruism.

It is pointless to refer to the ultra-wealthy as though they are a type. They span the spectrum of personality and ideology like every other socio-economic class. (If I am to say that wealth is not a valid basis for appraising character, than that must go for the ultra-rich, as well.) But it is hard to explain how a person either generous or humble could come to command the material resources that take thousands of other people to produce. Sometimes I catch myself reading and thinking too much about those who pursue laissez-faire ideals with tunnel-visioned fervor. I give myself a hard time. But my interest is not, I don’t believe, the cult of choreographed personalities: capitalism is a belief system with many logical fallacies (“phallacies”?). Power and acquisitiveness create addictions, and addictions create social diseases that manifest in ways you simply could not make up: I find these stories to be poignant lessons about how life should be lived.

After Martin Shkreli bought a pharmaceutical company last year he raised the price of the life-saving drug it produced, Daraprim, by 55.55 times overnight. People who needed Daraprim to fight their rare, and fatal, parasitic disease, now owed him $75,000 for a single bottle of the pills.

Shkreli did not help develop the medicine: not only had it had been around for generations, he lacked the skill set to do so. Shkreli did not view a career in medicine as a way to help people. In medicated and controlled illness, problem and solution, he saw a vulnerability to exploit. Put another way, he made an investment, and then leveraged that investment to maximize personal profit, as his culture taught him to do. “Should be a very handsome investment,” he wrote his stockholders.

Martin Shkreli’s choice is not an isolated aberration. In a 2016 investigative report by the U.S. Senate, his Turing Pharmaceuticals was one of the four highest-profile companies representing a wider trend. In a broader sense, the same story is playing out on many different levels of American culture. The one that I’m most familiar with is a type of extortion exerted on people who see value in land preservation.

Tom Chapman calls himself “a landowner advocate.” His mission is to point out the “hypocrisy” of those who believe that federal land is priceless, and at the same time, that it should be exempted from market forces. Chapman’s calling card is buying property adjacent to natural areas that are especially fragile, beloved, or both, and then drawing up plans for gratuitous developments. (Inholdings in wilderness are especially effective.) When the public objects he sells the land to the government at the price of top-tier resort real estate and pockets millions of dollars. This is extortion because he makes money by not causing harm.

Outside of my home of Livingston, Montana, we have the fall-out of a Tom Chapman copycat. In 1992 Jim Sievers, a San Francisco real estate developer, bought 140 acres—the legacy of an unproductive mineral claim from the late 19th century—deep in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s largest wilderness area. “In all the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness,” he boasted, “this is the tiara, the crown jewel.” Sievers played the good guy, forced into an unfortunate but inevitable bind placed by our economic system: “I’m trying to preserve that wilderness piece,” he said, “(and) I don’t need any more money.” At the same time, understand, he had a responsibility, a “fiduciary responsibility” to his children’s “trust fund”—and if the Forest Service wouldn’t buy the mineral rights to his property (“They’re going to cost plenty,” he intimated) he would be forced to start bulldozing a road across the wilderness to his land, where he would then build a gold mine. Fortunately, land managers called his bluff—the proposal was completely unfeasible. Bulldozers still made it in there (delivered by air), but today, the parcel hosts only a helicopter-accessed vacation cabin.

‘Following the money,’ they call it. Where does money lead us? It leads us toward the opposite of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” whatever that is. If you are in the medical field money leads toward cosmetic surgery, designer babies, and that ultimate vanity cause of the person who suffers for already having everything: the key to human immortality. “(Immortality is) about a future (where)… life is fair,” maintains Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris. Only a Google CEO would suggest that life is not fair primarily in the sense that even billionaires have to die. By pouring hundreds of millions of their own money into this literary archetype of human hubris, while funding for public-minded science and technology is cut across the board, billionaires distort the entire human endeavor.

In a plutocracy, real problems—like overpopulation—are ignored or evaded; they become worse. The ultra-rich respond by going on the defensive, insulating themselves, plotting escape plans from the disaster that they see as inevitable—thereby precipitating it. A recent article by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker documents the increasingly elaborate preparations billionaires are taking to survive the apocalypse. They buy condo space in underground bunkers guarded by gun turrets; talk militias. One privileged prepper estimates over half of American billionaires have jumped on board—stockpiled years of food, snapped up Western ranches and New Zealand farms, hoarded gold. Gold, that most symbolic of commodities, which is only real in the sense that its pursuit guarantees the utter annihilation of natural environments. The misallocation of resources becomes more absurd, the disparity between rich and poor becomes more cutting.

Achieving wealth has become a way to escape responsibility to society. That’s what Donald Trump meant when he told his television audience that he likes being rich because he can just grab women “by the pussy.” He also has gold inlaid in his floor. With a few notable exceptions, extreme wealth is not reinvested in improving society as intended. Self-interest is the driving motivation for wealth so self-interest is what is rewarded; the most self-interested control the most resources and they set the standards by which society operates. American billionaires haven’t needed to make an articulate case that their interests are in line with anybody else’s because, lucky for them, we have been trained well. We just keep following the money.