With timing I’d like to claim as atypical but is probably the opposite, we are trying to sell our house. That puts me somewhere near the bleeding edge of the rather remarkable shakeout we are now experiencing. The image that keeps coming to me is a Gargantuan dog arising from slumber, noisily shaking itself awake, sending human fleas cascading in every direction.
Gargantua and Pantagruel were two mythical giants chronicled in five 16th-century satirical novels by Rabelais. Pantagruel is remarkable for his insatiable appetite, which reminds me irresistibly of the rise in oil-company profit-taking which has led to an unprecedented increase in gasoline prices. Yesterday, the checkout clerk at the grocery store joked that she had just filled her tank for $25: “It was my lawnmower, of course.” Day after day, headlines tell us that the events predicted by peak oil activists ( click here to read what I wrote about it three years ago) are beginning to happen: SUV sales dropping fast, people choosing public rather than private transportation or vacationing at home, choosing the “new urbanism” over suburban sprawl.
I have a friend who refers to “the greed culture” as an historical category, like the Renaissance. He told me that young people today can’t be expected to understand how commonplace egalitarian values were when he and I were their age: “They don’t understand how popular the discourse was about freedom and experimentation, popular culture, a progressive politics, undoing racism, feminism, identity politics and gay liberation, the civil rights movement, all that. There was lots of support for thinking that way before the Republican revolution and the culture of greed.”
I was discussing this with another friend who said that, as with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quip on obscenity, she can’t quite define greed but she knows it when she sees it. But I think I can define it, at least for practical purposes, as that distortion of personality that persuades its victim that enough is never enough. We are in the midst of a growing plague of people whose appetite for material possessions can never be satisfied.
The local paper featured side-by-side headlines yesterday: “Home prices take new hit” and “Ranks of millionaires still swelling.” The first carried a subhead “but foreclosure sales may be distorting statistics”—you think?
The second headline was linked to the World Wealth Report 2008, which shows a 6 percent worldwide increase in millionaires—an 11 percent increase in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. The report was issued by a business consulting firm and Merrill Lynch, so it focuses on HNWI’s (High Net Worth Individuals), failing to mention the corresponding growth in poverty. Nor do average housing prices tell the whole story, as sales prices have actually risen in HNWI neighborhoods like parts of San Francisco, Marin County and Silicon Valley, even as they drop sharply in places where high-risk mortgage practices have led to an epidemic of foreclosures.
Last night at sundown, the sky was a disturbing shade of lilac. All day, thin sunlight in darkened skies kept fooling me into misjudging the time. California is on fire: they say that more than 2,000 lightning-caused fires are burning around the state, partially contained at best. I live a hundred miles from most of the fires, and when I wake up in the morning, there’s a smell like burnt rubber in the air. Even now, sitting inside my house with the windows closed, my throat hurts.
My friends who live in the country a couple of hours north of here, where I lived for a dozen years, are right in the path of a fast fire. They are conscientious stewards of the land, living off the grid, and hope that the firebreaks they’ve dug and their access to ponds (plus a water tank truck borrowed from a friend and a good supply of face masks and burlap sacks) will save the home they built with their own sweat. They are moving their animals and most critical possessions off the land, organizing brigades with their neighbors because the state doesn’t have enough firefighters and firefighting equipment to respond to even a fraction of the fires that are threatening forests, grasslands and agricultural regions. Meanwhile, timber companies and other well-financed corporations are hiring private crews and helicopters from out of state. Here too, we see what it is to have two classes of citizens, and how the difference can mean life or death.
On NPR on Sunday, I heard a very interesting interview with John Barry, a New Orleans levee commissioner, observing the same phenomenon in relation to water:
“Around the world, people laugh at the standards the U.S. uses for flood protection. In Holland, they use a 10,000-year standard. They protect against ocean floods for a one in 10,000 chance every single year. And for river floods they protect—depending on how populated the area is—from a 250-year standard minimum up to over a 1000-year standard, and roughly the same standards are used in Japan and other advanced societies. And we’re still fighting to reach a 100-year standard. Many of the levees in the Upper Midwest were less than a 100-year standard. So the level of investment in infrastructure just isn’t there.”
The question is being put to us now: common good or culture of greed? A lot of money has overfilled already fat pockets through decisions to allow predatory lending practices without regard for social well-being, obscene profit-taking without regard for the people who pay, and policies conditioned on cost-benefit analyses that leave out human costs. At the same time, we’ve seen a tremendous rise in democratic activism around the Obama campaign, the remarkable legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the fact that California and Illinois have both filed suits citing deceptive practices against Countrywide Financial, the country’s largest mortgage lender and servicer. Dissent from the policies that created our predicament is at an all-time high.
My beloved iPod died this week. (May you never see the sad iPod face appear on your little screen!) I made an appointment at the Apple store Genius Bar to hear death pronounced, and now I have had two days of errands and chores without a soundtrack, rediscovering old technologies like radio. This morning on NPR, I happened to hear a story about Hal Halvorsen, an American World War II pilot who flew in the Berlin Airlift, the Allied response to the post-war Soviet blockade of the city. He risked punishment by dropping Hershey bars and chewing gum for kids who’d never tasted sweets. The airlift supplied all the staple food and fuel needed to sustain life, up to 5,000 tons a day for nearly a year, all directed at people who had been attacked as enemies a short time before. The children learned to recognize the candy drops by the distinctive way Halvorsen wiggled the wings of his plane.
All of this is in us: the capacity to open our hearts to those who have been enemies and the desire for healing, the insatiable greed that ignores human costs. In a shakeout, a system reorganizes itself in response to new stimuli. The question is, reorganize toward what ends? Walk through one doorway and we adjust ourselves to a Gargantua and Pantagruel world, where human life is collateral damage; through the other door, a paradigm shift where we finally awaken to the choice that puts stewardship and healing first. The question is being put with unmistakable clarity. How will we answer? It’s going to take a little time to find out. Right now and urgently, the first step is drawing attention more and more forcefully to this epochal choice.