Philanthropy usually isn’t given much consideration by radicals. As far as they’re concerned, the rich basically are the problem. They say things like “They’re the enemy. They’re not reachable. Trying to change them is a waste of time. They’ll never do anything to help take down a system that’s benefitted them so greatly.” And, unfortunately, that’s pretty true. I really can’t say that I totally disagree. The rich certainly aren’t innocent, and until the damage gets bad enough to affect them personally, they don’t have much incentive to stop what they’re doing. The vast majority of them are clearly not on our side. However, there are some rich people out there who realize that the economy can’t continue to function when wealth is so polarized. Some are okay with being a little less rich for this reason. There are even some who truly understand that their lifestyles and the economy itself are problems and who therefore may be willing to help support more radical alternatives.
So far philanthropy hasn’t been too helpful. For the most part, it’s been used more as a ploy to win fans, gain support for companies or sell books. The Rockefellers called this “efficiency in philanthropy,” using donations to further skew things in their own favor. Their donations acted more like investments than handouts. All of the robber barons did this. That’s why names like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan are so ubiquitous on buildings and monuments. But I’d still like to include options for every potential activist. The rare breed of rich person who sees the flaws of their ways can make a much bigger difference than hundreds of the poor who come to the same conclusions. Remember, each dollar you spend is a vote for something. Therefore, the rich have tremendous influence on the direction things go. If each dollar is a de facto ballot then the rich basically are a de facto oligarchy. It’s worth it to try to reach some of these people, even if only one in a thousand.
So there’s all these celebrities, actors, news anchors, musicians, artists, athletes, models, politicians, businessmen and writers with a ton of money. What’s wrong with that? Didn’t they earn it? Doesn’t wealth trickle down from the top to reach us all anyway? Don’t people in high positions need more to protect themselves? A lot of people seem to think so. Many feel that the upper class isn’t to blame for the problems in the world because it’s really just government policies that have led to such obscene levels of inequality. They say “Of course the rich take advantage of these policies. Who wouldn’t?” Obviously that idea totally ignores the role that their lobbying has played in creating those policies and in keeping them how they are. And I really don’t understand how anyone can still believe that trickle-down economics works when we can so clearly see that the poor have gotten poorer as the rich have gotten richer. At this point, the rich are the richest they’ve ever been. If things are supposed to improve for everyone when things improve for them, then why isn’t life spectacular for all of us already? It’s just such an undeniably stupid idea.
The way things are now, it’s at least sort of true that the rich need a little more than average to protect themselves (ignoring the fact that “the way things are” isn’t the way things need to be). Gated houses keep the psychotic fans (or indignant victims) out. Security guards, agents, lawyers, and masses of capital can all be real necessities for the upper class in the modern world, just as a lot of us normal folk can get away with calling computers and cell phones necessities these days. Over and over again, what start as luxuries become necessary just to keep earning a living. Modern capitalism also can’t function without some being able to take big financial risks. Can this argument justify things like $5,000 remote controlled toilets, private jets, personal collections of sports cars and 50,000 square foot mansions though? To spend a quarter million dollars on your daughter’s wedding gown is the same as deciding that a dress she’ll wear for one day is more important than a year’s supply of food for a hundred starving kids. That’s not a decision anyone should be able to make. It may be true that such wasteful spending technically does create new businesses since it creates demand for things that people never “needed” before, which also creates more pointless work for the lower classes to do, but with the effect this has on the environment and on society, such businesses shouldn’t be supported and such work shouldn’t be done. It also hurts other businesses that have more of a right to exist. By spending more of the world’s wealth on luxuries, the upper class leaves less for the lower classes to spend on necessities.
You can almost make a case for spending $500,000 on a sports car or $500 on a t-shirt when you consider the fact that a Ferrari doesn’t use much more material than a typical car, maybe 2-3 times more, yet costs 25 times more. Environmentally, you could argue that using the same amount of money to buy 25 cars, say by spreading that wealth into the middle class, would actually cause something like 10 times more damage. Socially, you could say that, by spending so much on things that don’t have any good reason to be so expensive, the rich are practically just attaching donations to the price tags of inexpensive products. The idea that a large middle class is bad for the environment is true, which is why I’m not a fan of redistribution proposals that don’t include a critique of growth. And the social argument isn’t entirely wrong, technically. However, it falls apart when you consider that people who sell $500 t-shirts are about as wealthy as their clientele, meaning that most of the money “donated” never finds its way out of these rich enclaves. There really is no good argument to justify such lavish lifestyles and such extreme inequality, not even from a capitalist perspective. You really can’t justify wasting money on luxuries when it can be spent on more important things. Frankly, not a single Ferrari should even exist, especially when half of the food being produced is thrown out because poor people can't afford to buy it and when houses are left empty even though there's enough homeless to fill them. The increased consumption that comes from giving malnourished families more money to feed their kids and to pay their rent on time doesn’t impact the world the same way that increased consumption from giving the rich enough to gild their cheeseburgers with gold leaf and install elevators in their homes does. Even though increased consumption is generally considered a bad thing from an environmentalist point of view, and even though the poor would spend a lot more of the money they’re given than the rich since the rich already have way more than they know what to do with, eating food that would otherwise be thrown out and taking care of houses that would otherwise fall apart really doesn’t hurt anything.
What about the idea that the rich deserve what they have? Let’s talk about the difference between earning something and deserving it. Somehow large portions of the lower class, mostly conservatives, still believe that the rich deserve what they have and the poor what they don’t, as if they could all reach the same level of prosperity if everyone just worked harder, like one planet is capable of providing so much and as if those who’ve acquired thousands of times more money have actually worked thousands of times harder. To earn something is to accept payment, or some other form of reward, for providing some type of service. Somebody wants something done and has the capital to entice someone else to make it happen for them. If the laborer completes the task and isn’t given the previously agreed compensation, he can justifiably say “Hey, we had a deal! I earned it!” However, to say “Hey, I deserve it” wouldn’t necessarily be true.
People do all sorts of horrendous things for money, things that make prostitution look admirable by comparison. In fact, one definition of prostitution is “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.” That sounds like a pretty good description for how most of us spend our days. We’re basically pandering to the base desires of addicts, even exploiting their addictions when we can. And that’s more of a middle class work description. The upper class are the real pimps, profiting from the labor of their whores while keeping them dependent by forcibly injecting heroine into their arms or dumbing them down or threatening them or any other technique for keeping them on their corners. To deserve something is to say that you’ve shown to be someone who will use it (whatever it is) responsibly, for the best of society. And unlike earning, there are limits to what can be deserved. Frankly, there’s no invention, medical breakthrough or cherished piece of artwork that can make anyone worthy of living in Oprah’s $85 million mansion, or even one of her spare mansions. The world only has so much to go around. She can brag all she wants about giving away millions of dollars but it doesn’t change the fact that she lives as if her luxury is more important than thousands of the world’s poor simply being able to survive. If she gave away literally 99% of her wealth she’d still have more than most of us can imagine ($29,000,000 by my calculation) and yet by giving away something like 10% of her earnings she’s built herself a reputation as one of the world’s most generous, caring human beings. Give me a break. The average middle class American gives away a comparable percentage to charity (7.6%) despite the fact that their wealth (I’m estimating between $30,000 and $60,000) is literally only 1/100,000th to 1/50,000th the amount of Oprah’s! That means that she can give away $50,000 to $100,000 as easily as a middle class American can give someone a dollar for a drink from a vending machine. Actually, even that is easier for her because she wouldn’t put herself into the same precarious situation that they’re in until giving away enough to lower her bank account to their level, which would take nearly 29,000 donations of $100,000. Plus, even though one of her mansions is actually on a farm, she’s converted so much more of the world into flamboyant energy-guzzling structures, lawn grass, decorative plants and private beaches that are now off limits to people who would actually swim there more than one weekend per year. To take so much then give to charities that were set up to deal with the problems that your lifestyle has caused is like breaking into someone’s house, stealing all they have and taking them out for a beer afterward. So much for being the paragon of generosity and compassion.
If, when given the opportunity to build a new house, you’d put no thought at all into energy saving designs or non-toxic materials, even now that the effects of climate change, pollution and over consumption are so dire, then you don’t deserve that opportunity. If given the opportunity to decide how a parcel of land is used, now that we all know the problems of habitat loss, large-scale farming and long distance transportation, you’d convert it to lawn grass, non-edible decorative plants, pavement and chlorinated water, then you don’t fucking deserve that opportunity! I still can’t believe how many people make these same stupid decisions. Building something with south-facing windows, more natural materials, composting toilets, edible landscaping and fish ponds is more beautiful, less expensive and not necessarily even much of a change in lifestyle to a typical house with septic system, lawn (which requires the same amount of work as maintaining perennial crops and is nowhere near as interesting), decorative yew trees (as if these are better looking than fruit or nut trees) and a plastic pool. It just shows how unqualified these people are to make these decisions. How much money you have and how hard you’ve worked aren’t even factors. Actually, the way things are set up now, how backwards the rewards of our economic system are, the more you’ve earned the least you probably deserve. That’s generalizing though.
I’ve had wealthy friends and some of them seemed as caring and generous as anybody else. For a while I was of the opinion that it’s impossible for good people to acquire so much but there are people out there who just kind of get handed these fortunes and don’t know what to do with them. And there are celebrities that I think are a little more sincere than Oprah. While people like Oprah, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Richard Branson and Bill O’Reilly all fit into the “efficiency in philanthropy” model, where they donate in conspicuous ways that help them win fans, sell books, and promote their own business interests, there are others who seem to just realize they have way more than they know what to do with and that don’t really feel they deserve so much. While they don’t necessarily deserve to be glorified (I’ll point out the hypocrisies as I go) they at least show that there is some potential for the rich to help with real solutions.
First, let me say how much I abhor celebrity gossip and how irritating this little bit of research was for me. Hopefully it helps me make my case. Anyway, Beyoncé makes the poignant video for her heartfelt song “I was here”, expressing concern for the footprint she leaves on the world. I guess that explains her enormous walk-in shoe closets. There’s really nothing crazier than worrying about leaving your mark on the world right now. With plastic and nuclear pollution, dammed rivers, hidden sewage infrastructure under otherwise fertile land, the future will know we were here, that we lived like greedy assholes and loved every second of it, and they’re going to fucking hate us for it. She also caused controversy with her Black Panthers tribute during a Super bowl halftime show, which was pretty strange considering the Panthers’ views on the upper class and stupid media spectacles. Even crazier is that she’s hailed as a feminist symbol of female empowerment for basically making a career out of exploiting the hormones of teenagers. Moving on, Harrison Ford and Tom Friedman work to spread information about ecocide with the show Years of Living Dangerously, then go back home to their $12.6 million and $9 million mansions. Brad Pitt plays the role of Tyler Durden, a character that opened up a lot of people to anarcho-primitivist ideas, narrates eco-themed shows on Link TV and gets a $20 million heart-shaped island from Angelina Jolie (another supposed philanthropist) as a birthday present. James Cameron makes the movie Avatar, which is probably the best environmental propaganda film to ever come out of Hollywood, and is even alleged to have said that he supports eco-terrorism. Yet he owns 3 mansions with a combined square footage of over 24,000 square feet and is holding onto an estimated $1.79 billion worth of personal wealth. Leonardo DiCaprio narrates for environmental documentaries like the 11th Hour and Thom Hartmann’s film Last Hours, calls for respecting the indigenous people of the world when receiving an award for The Revenant and even speaks at the United Nations pleading for more effort to prevent climate change. For some reason he still doesn’t see anything wrong with having $217 million and several mansions. Woody Harrelson narrates the Zeitgeist Movie rip-off, Ethos, labeling wasteful lifestyles as a problem, even though he’s worth $65 million. Robert Redford narrates the Link TV show The New Environmentalists, makes environmental themed movies like A Walk in the Woods and The Company You Keep, but keeps $170 million for himself.
A little less hypocritical might be Ellen Page. She takes a permaculture design course, spends a month living in an eco-village (maybe just for research before filming The East?) and even uses the word “permaculture” on TV. Yet she hasn’t quit living in a mansion. Rosanne Barr decided to take the simple living a little further, starting a 50 acre farm in Hawaii specializing in macadamia nuts but hosting a large variety of other crops as well. And obviously she came out with some great criticisms of the U.S. government during her presidential run, which was pretty interesting. Although being a little more down to earth than most people with $80 million, she still fits in pretty well with her celebrity friends. Joe Rogan has come out against the drug war, interviewed tons of people on his podcast, and spread awareness for a bunch of important issues. I think he’s probably sincere and on the right track but a little confused with his analysis of things. He seems a little too firmly ensconced in the upper class to really get it, like saying that the prices of medical marijuana are fine and that taxing the hell out of it isn’t a problem. I’m sure millionaires aren’t that concerned with having to pay thousands of dollars per year for cannabis oil if they get sick but if it can be produced anywhere for practically nothing then I don’t see why anyone else should be okay with that. On a more positive note, he also keeps his own chickens. Then there’s Keannu Reeves. After cashing in on one of the Matrix movies, he decided to give a million dollars to each member of the special f/x team. Unfortunately, this just created more rich people who will buy more stuff and build bigger houses. Danny Glover is a great example of a celebrity-activist, being the only one that I can recall ever publicly challenging the concept of economic growth. So why does he live in a 6,000 square foot house? And just to mention one more, Tim McIlrath. He writes amazing songs for his band Rise Against, spreads awareness, makes millions of dollars and still lives like a relatively normal middle class American. I don’t really have any dirt on him besides the whole being a millionaire thing.
So there’s all these people, they say they care about the problems of the world and, unlike most of us, they actually have a shitload of money to do something about it. What would have more benefit than simply helping the poor buy more stuff? Why not actually empower the poor by funding the transformation of destructive farms into self-sufficient eco-villages? Take away the need for consumption for as many people as possible. Take away their dependence on destructive industries and reverse the toxifying, carbon-emitting effects of modern agriculture. Force the government to put more consideration into steady-state and degrowth economic models and cause irreparable damage to companies like Monsanto and Cargill. Help make simple living the new thing. Money can make accomplishing those things a whole lot easier.
Farmers around the world are under serious pressure to keep the same stupid business model going. Being indebted to big agri-biz companies makes them unable to make changes even when they want to. The best thing that rich people can do is save that land by paying off farmers’ debt, something any celebrity could easily afford (at least one farm per celebrity anyway). With a little more funding, they can help start the transition to organic perennial polycultures, hiring more help to dig swales, plant trees, graze animals outside and harvest crops by hand. That alone would be huge. There’s currently something like 90 million acres of corn monoculture in the U.S., the majority of which being GMO, and 80 million acres of soy, being 90% GMO. Those 2 crops alone account for 170 million acres (approximately the size of Texas) of degrading land, enormous quantities of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and depleting aquifers. That land is a blank slate as far as I’m concerned. If we can prevent it from becoming desert (and a new carcinogen-laced dust bowl), we can design it to be ideal habitat for human beings.
Imagine that a farmer with a thousand acres of corn is given all he needs to turn it into a thousand acre food forest. Why wouldn’t he do it? He knows the land is degrading, that he’s contributing to pollution and climate change and that his own family’s health is being compromised every day that they live this way. He hates the corporations that put him in debt and doesn’t want to keep contributing to their profits. The first step of the process is a no brainer. And that first step alone already makes at least as big a difference as any other existing charity. Convincing farmers to let people live on their land and people in cities to adapt that lifestyle is a bigger challenge. That next stage decreases the need for mechanized harvesting and transporting, as well as the need for hundreds of people, potentially a thousand for a thousand acre farm, to produce or sell worthless crap for a living. That would be enormous. If the idea spreads to thousands of acres more, hopefully all farmland, it could show the world that we still deserve to exist as a species.
Getting farmers to share their land will take some serious salesmanship, especially those of the staunch Republican ilk, but I don’t think any bullshitting is necessary. No matter how you look at it, it really is in their best interest. Even if they don’t agree that there’s no future for humanity if they don’t sequester carbon, it’s hard to deny that there’s no future for the current industrial farming model if they don’t save their soil, or even just if oil prices go up. Even if they don’t agree that the concept of business is inherently problematic, large-scale agriculture isn’t as profitable per acre as small-scale. Breaking one 1,000 acre farm into 200 separate 5 acre plots could increase profits. Corn makes at most a few hundred dollars profit per acre after expenses while a diversity of specialty organic crops, given more attention and harvested by hand, can make a few thousand dollars per acre. Taking 10% of the harvest from each plot, still leaving them enough to sustain themselves, would yield the same return while requiring much less work for that farmer. Obviously, all farmland can’t be used to grow expensive specialty crops but the first batch of eco-villages could definitely be sold that way. It would take a real revolution in our economy for the majority of farmland to be self-sufficient communities anyway.
That idea may bear a scary resemblance to feudalism, as I mentioned in the previous chapter, but I’m open to it, at least as a transition stage, and others will be more interested in such living arrangements as things continue to break down in the not too distant future. Already with unemployment so high, the lack of confidence in the economy recovering and more people turning to the black market for their livelihoods, more and more people are gaining an interest in going back to the land. With the huge surge in survivalist shows on TV, filming the project and turning it into its own reality TV show or documentary could cut back on expenses too. That may even have added benefits like keeping corporate intimidation at bay, basically using cameras like scarecrows, or spreading public interest. I’d hope that it doesn’t come to that but more ridiculous things have been done. Worst case scenario though, just buy the farm. Pay the guy off and hire some permaculture designers to take over. Considering that the cost of farmland in the United States averages a few thousand dollars per acre, a few million dollars could get things started on 1,000 acres. It’s not like the philanthropists need to cover the entire cost. The idea is to give people a boost to help them reach self-reliance, not make them dependent on a weekly allowance for the rest of their lives.
So there clearly are better ways to use this money than just help people buy more shit from Walmart and Best Buy, or make more of these expensive, high-tech and violent environmentalist propaganda films, like Avatar. I mean, as helpful as they may be at tricking people who just want to see shit get blown up into caring about the environment, even a lot of the good messages are questionable. When the humanoid creatures are basically born with car keys growing out of their hair and the ungulates are born with key holes, is that a metaphor for symbiotic relationships in nature or just a romanticized depiction of domination? Do people leave the theaters appreciating the complex interdependencies of ecosystems or do they just want to find some large creature to ride on?
Other options for philanthropists would be to support groups who are working to save what’s left of the environment, influence the media and politicians to counter the propaganda of the Koch brothers and other right-wing psychopaths, and help fund the production and distribution of documentaries on topics like degrowth economics, indigenous cultures, permaculture, and simple living. These ideas shouldn’t need much explanation though. They could also give large contributions to environmentalist writers who give away their work for free. Just thought I’d throw that one out there.
Most of the rich obviously still don’t think they owe society anything. In their minds they just have more because they’re the best. They think of themselves as the hardest working, smartest and most deserving. But there’s a fine line between productive and destructive, diligent and obsessed, devoted and fanatical, clever and dishonorable, brave and foolish, nationalistic and racist, what we pride ourselves in and what we should be ashamed of. And let’s not forget that, in most cases, luck has played more of a role in their success than they’d like to admit. Those who have accepted the rewards of the modern world should keep that in mind when deciding what they should give back and how. Frankly, if you have the means to help turn things around then you really owe it to the world to do it.