The Coin of Power; or Another Case of May Be

As I was talking with my son about last week’s reflection on bitcoin, I told him how someone at a conference once told me to buy bitcoin—back in 2012. I told him that if I had bought just a thousand dollars’ worth, we’d now have $3.5 million. He said that’d be nice. And I had to really think about how differently my life’s path could have unfolded and find ways to communicate that with him.

I mentioned, fumbling, that new problems come with being rich—having to manage money, pay others to help you manage it, worry about the inevitable ups and downs of the bitcoin bubble. Then I explained that I probably would have sold much of that bitcoin earlier (not trusting the bubble to go on so long). So would I have felt better knowing I could have had $3 million but only got a few hundred thousand, or would I have felt better never gambling in the first place?*

Still, that didn’t seem to placate even me! So I returned again to the story of “May Be,” telling it again to Ayhan:

“An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.”**

It’s hard to tell whether something will be for good or for ill….

May Be: The Bitcoin Version

Maybe things would have been better, but maybe not. Perhaps I would have given some of that wealth to Worldwatch, the sustainability think tank that shaped my thought over 16 years, and saved it from its silent demise—but perhaps I would have been running it as well (focusing my life’s energy on fundraising and book and project development, and never finding the chance to explore deeper ecocentric thinking).

Perhaps I would have self-funded Yardfarmers and watched as it flopped, or worse, succeeded, and if the latter, found myself locked into a path of reality TV development.*** Perhaps I would have gotten distracted making eco-board games, or perhaps I would have self-funded a PhD. Most likely, I would have found excuses not to flesh out the Gaian Way (which I value more than any of my other work, but because of this, self-doubt reigns strongest). I’d have said, ‘Let me study a bit more before I put these ideas out there. Let me establish some tangible projects or a Gaian Foundation first.’ Worse, would I then have doubted the sincerity of those who joined the community? Are they here just because we offer grants? Perhaps good would have come out of my bitcoin fortune, but just as likely, it could have been accompanied by some ill.

The Coin of Power

I also realized as I continued the fantasy the next day—while/instead of meditating in the morning—that no matter how hard I resisted, my carbon footprint would have grown significantly. More travel—suddenly less expensive relatively (especially driven by ‘excusable’ reasons like bringing my wife’s parents, who live in Turkmenistan, to visit). Perhaps we would have even bought a small house in DC and maybe a little two-family in Middletown where my mom could live and make the other unit into an Airbnb she could manage except when we stayed for the summer. So I imagine our carbon footprint would have shot up just in our going back and forth to Connecticut (as well as in property, travel, upgraded appliances, and so on).

That reminded me that wealth takes on a life of its own. It’s like the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings.**** It sounds wonderful—slip on the precious and you will have all your heart desires—but no matter if you’re a little hobbit with small ambitions or a power-driven noble wizard, it bends you to its will. If anything, that thought cultivated a bit of compassion in me for the wealthy—they are not fully themselves, like when Boromir lashed out at Frodo at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Even the faint call of wealth can make us do crazy things—and extreme wealth can make us do really crazy things, whether that’s buying superyachts or pissing away money and carbon for a 5-minute ride into the thermosphere (not space).

Complete with helipad and boat launch. Yours for just $500 million—plus $20 million a year to maintain it. (Photo from DCwom via Wikipedia)

To Mount Doom

So, to keep extending the LOTR metaphor, we need to destroy the ring. Or at least keep it carefully guarded and out of people’s hands (but you know what that leads to…). That’s why I was excited to see this simple idea of a one-time wealth tax on billionaires’ earnings during COVID.

In the US, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the “Make Billionaires Pay Act,” which would levy a one-time tax of 60 percent on billionaires’ gains between March 18th and the end of 2021, raising $420 billion (based on increased wealth as of August 5, 2021).

Oxfam has gone a step even further, suggesting a 99 percent tax on pandemic wealth gains for billionaires around the whole world, which would raise $5.4 trillion while still leaving “the world’s 2,690 billionaires $55 billion richer than before the virus struck.” 

In the US, senators suggested using the gains to fund Medicare and extend unemployment payments, while Oxfam noted that this money could provide vaccines for the entire world and far more. Vaccines are good, and that money could also help significantly in solving the climate crisis—if used to shift the economy toward renewable energy (while lowering overall energy consumption); to nationalize and then shrink unsustainable industries; to reskill populations for sustainable livelihoods; to increase family planning access and comprehensive sexuality education; to restore damaged ecosystems and heal and expand forests; to fund social marketing efforts to encourage sustainable as opposed to consumer lifestyles, and so on. Of course, those investments are about as likely to come into being as the wealth tax is in the first place. Or about as likely as a little hobbit successfully dropping a ring into the fiery abyss of Mount Doom.

Please insert your bitcoins here. (Mt. Doom from The Lord of the Rings via Wikipedia)

But then again, at least in stories, there remains hope that we pull victory out of the clutches of defeat. In this case, much of this wealth will evaporate in the collapse anyway—that’s one consolation.***** But it’s not enough to hope for that—especially as the wealthy will stay wealthy in that case (relatively speaking); it is the poor who will suffer the most—starving as the elite hoard resources. Instead, we need to understand that as much as fighting for renewables, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, slowing population growth, and building a degrowth and circular economy, it is environmentalists’ duty to fight for reductions in inequity and reining in the excessive wealth of the richest. Never can it be ok, let alone sustainable, for 26 individuals to hold more wealth than 3.6 billion people. It is our responsibility to fight that, as few billionaires, or others, can resist the dulcet whispers of the precious coin of power. So we must help them to not succumb; we must pull it from their clawing grasp before they turn into coinwraiths bent on following their master in the dominion and destruction of Middle, and all of, Earth.


*As I wrote this, I suddenly remembered my father’s twice weekly ritual of buying a lotto ticket. How he dreamed of getting rich and escaping the rat race. I wonder if he ever played out the darker side of winning it big….

**Reprinted from Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors

***I have found myself, at least once in my career, wishing not to succeed. I had no desire to run a TV show for years—so when I imagined Yardfarmers succeeding, I did it with deeply ambivalent feelings!

****Why yes, I am reading The Lord of the Rings series with my son! How’d you guess?

*****And thus will do no more harm to the Earth.

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5 Responses

  1. Thomas Ellis

    Another insightful and thought-provoking essay, and an astute reading of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy (or tetralogy, more accurately, if you include The Hobbit). The whole Bitcoin phenomenon (of which, admittedly, I know very little) strikes me as a good example of just how virtual the concept of money actually is. It is ultimately just arithmetic: an abstract transform of the arbitrarily consensual value of commodities, and commodities themselves are ultimately arbitrary–just boundaries by which we cut little pieces of Gaia out of their matrix, and put a price tag on them–whether they are trees, tracts of land, coal, oil, metals or other substances mined from the Earth, or the products manufactured, or the services enabled, from all of the above. And unfortunately the arithmetical production rules of Glomart (the money game, for it is, in truth, just a game) are antithetical to the production rules:

    1. GLOMART (the money game): “More is always better”
    GAIA (the game of life): Enough is enough.

    Glomart is a maximizing system, whereas Gaia is an optimizing system. That is the fundamental difference, from which all the others derive.

    2. GLOMART: “You are what you own.”
    GAIA: You are what you do.

    In a money economy, our social value derives from how much we possess; in the real world (Gaia), our biological and social value derives from how, in pursuing our own goals, we serve the larger whole–our communities, ecosystems and the biosphere. The latter (Gaian) value system was common to every indigenous, pre-agricultural society.

    3. GLOMART: “Nothing has value until it has a price”
    GAIA: Value is incalculable because it inheres in interconnectedness.

    In the global market economy and the cultures it supports, commodity value is the only legitimate value–how much something is worth on the market. But in Gaia, the value of any subsystem–whether bacterium, protist, fungus, plant, or animal–derives entirely from its interrelatedness with all around it. Again, these are diametrically opposed values: Glomart value depends on isolating things from their context so we can put a price on them; Gaian value depends on their interconnections.

    4. GLOMART: “The bottom line is the bottom line”
    GAIA: Life itself, and its perpetuation and diversification through the generations, is all that ever matters.

    In Glomart, all that ever matters is the profit margin, regardless of its destructive effects on the biosphere. In the real world, the value of life itself and the systems that support it always overrides the value of commodities.

    Note also that I use quotes around the production rules for Glomart, but not for those of Gaia. Because the former values are illusory and the latter are real.

  2. Tom Read

    Thank you, Erik, and thank you, Tom. Your thoughtful writings help me learn and grow. That’s why I joined our Gaian group in the first place, along with the pleasure of meeting interesting and often like-minded people. It seems that life is all about relationships, eh?

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Tom! Yes, absolutely about relationships, including with other species, the land, and Gaia as well. Even if those latter are oftentimes more abstract, more aspirational.

  3. wornsmooth

    Superb post!

    In my opinion a driving force of people in the USA to attain more and more money is the need for security. If we had built a society with more safety nets and less Darwinian type economics, there would be less striving for “more”.

    Richard H. Tawney wrote The Acquisitive Society in the early 1920s. One quote i wrote down:
    “the need for security is fundamental, and almost the gravest indictment of our civilization is that the mass of mankind are without it.”

    Stay well, money is only truly important when one doesn’t have any.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks! A great quote and a book I was unfamiliar with. I just read a bit–on what an acquisitive society is–and I thought I’d paste it below for other readers. As relevant today as when written a century ago (from the electronic version at Project Gutenberg) (And see especially the third paragraph for a very Gaian perspective!)

      “A society which aimed at making the acquisition of wealth contingent upon the discharge of social obligations, which sought to proportion remuneration to service and denied it to those by whom no service was performed, which inquired first not what men possess but what they can make or create or achieve, might be called a Functional Society, because in such a society the main subject of social emphasis would be the performance of functions. But such a society does not exist, even as a remote ideal, in the modern world, though something like it has hung, an unrealized theory, before men’s minds in the past. Modern societies aim at protecting economic rights, while leaving economic functions, except in moments of abnormal emergency, to fulfil themselves. The motive which gives color and quality to their public institutions, to their policy and political thought, is not the attempt to secure the fulfilment of tasks undertaken for the public service, but to increase the opportunities open to individuals of attaining the objects which they conceive to be advantageous to themselves. If asked the end or criterion of social organization, they would give an answer reminiscent of the formula the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But to say that the end of social institutions is happiness, is to say that they have no common end at all. For happiness is individual, and to make happiness the object of society is to resolve society itself into the ambitions of numberless individuals, each directed towards the attainment of some personal purpose.

      Such societies may be called Acquisitive Societies, because their whole tendency and interest and preoccupation is to promote the acquisition of wealth. The appeal of this conception must be powerful, for it has laid the whole modern world under its spell. Since England first revealed the possibilities of industrialism, it has gone from strength to strength, and as industrial civilization invades countries hitherto remote from it, as Russia and Japan and India and China are drawn into its orbit, each decade sees a fresh extension of its influence. The secret of its triumph is obvious. It is an invitation to men to use the powers with which they have been endowed by nature or society, by skill or energy or relentless egotism or mere good fortune, without inquiring whether there is any principle by which their exercise should be limited. It assumes the social organization which determines the opportunities which different classes shall in fact possess, and concentrates attention upon the right of those who possess or can acquire power to make the fullest use of it for their own self-advancement. By fixing men’s minds, not upon the discharge of social obligations, which restricts their energy, because it defines the goal to which it should be directed, but upon the exercise of the right to pursue their own self-interest, it offers unlimited scope for the acquisition of riches, and therefore gives free play to one of the most powerful of human instincts. To the strong it promises unfettered freedom for the exercise of their strength; to the weak the hope that they too one day may be strong. Before the eyes of both it suspends a golden prize, which not all can attain, but for which each may strive, the enchanting vision of infinite expansion. It assures men that there are no ends other than their ends, no law other than their desires, no limit other than that which they think advisable. Thus it makes the individual the center of his own universe, and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediences. And it immensely simplifies the problems of social life in complex communities. For it relieves them of the necessity of discriminating between different types of economic activity and different sources of wealth, between enterprise and avarice, energy and unscrupulous greed, property which is legitimate and property which is theft, the just enjoyment of the fruits of labor and the idle parasitism of birth or fortune, because it treats all economic activities as standing upon the same level, and suggests that excess or defect, waste or superfluity, require no conscious effort of the social will to avert them, but are corrected almost automatically by the mechanical play of economic forces.

      Under the impulse of such ideas men do not become religious or wise or artistic; for religion and wisdom and art imply the acceptance of limitations. But they become powerful and rich. They inherit the earth and change the face of nature, if they do not possess their own souls; and they have that appearance of freedom which consists in the absence of obstacles between opportunities for self-advancement and those whom birth or wealth or talent or good fortune has placed in a position to seize them. It is not difficult either for individuals or for societies to achieve their object, if that object be sufficiently limited and immediate, and if they are not distracted from its pursuit by other considerations.

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