“Billionaire” isn’t a qualification. It’s the description of a person who is hoarding more resources than they could use in 100 lifetimes while other people are starving. It’s the name for a human dragon sleeping on its pile of rubies and gold.
When I was a teenager, a friend of mine had two very distinct posters inside his bedroom, placed on either side of the window overlooking the back yard of his home. They were both Gary Larson illustrations from his famous Far Side collection, which I had been introduced to several years prior thanks to the Comics section in the Globe and Mail newspaper that we had delivered daily in the mornings to our family front door.
The first colourized poster size cutout featured a number of awkwardly placed chickens, appearing horribly disfigured and immobile, strewn over a farmer’s field with a sign that quirkily announced; BONELESS CHICKEN RANCH. The second illustration, which was my self declared favourite of the two, contained a trio of dangerous looking dinosaurs puffing away on cigarettes, pterosaur flying in the background. The caption read: THE REAL REASON DINOSAURS WENT EXTINCT.
The punch line was of course, like all quintessential, delightfully morbid Larsons, tongue firmly planted in cheek. In 1980, a father and son scientific team presented a theory that seemed to finally close a 65 million year old cold case. An asteroid was responsible for the demise of this planet’s then seemingly omnipotent rulers. That is, until a recent article in The Atlantic quashed any pre-conceived notions of that mystery having been resolved, at least it did, for me. A rogue scientist has apparently defied the odds and built a career challenging this seemingly rock solid theory (pun intended) and presented one of her own. Rather than an interplanetary asteroid from afar, it was our very own volcanoes that done it. The equivalent of the butler, rather than a rude, unannounced visitor could well have been the actual culprit of our planetary scale version of Clue.
Of course, the irony here is that by all accounts, we’ve already arrived within our very own mass extinction era. A fact that gets confirmed by a depressing new study with statistics to back up that claim, almost every week. This week, it concerns the swath of insects that have been swatted to extinction. We’re not even sure what killed off 75% of the planet the last time, and we’re already in the middle of another slow moving train wreck of our own.
A few years after I first took in those Larson objets d’art, I was leaving my own parent’s nest, finding my own way. For all intents and purposes, like most twenty something year olds, I was basically a shaved monkey swinging from tree to tree having a grand ol’ time. Nobody really knows what they’re doing. You’re getting drunk, having sex and paying rent with little care for the future, at least, that’s what I was up to.
Once you get to your thirties, people start thinking a bit more longterm. They start getting married. Many even decide to propagate the species and fire out some mini replicas of themselves. You meet them at parties and they will say, not without a small amount of pride that might well seem like gloating, yes, married. Two kids. And while they might well envy my bon vivant sense of freedom at the time, the pair of pants that I was pretty excited about purchasing on sale the previous day might have lost some of it’s lustre at that moment.
Have you heard from Dick?
No, I haven’t.
He’s doing really well. Moved into management recently.
This is what happens in your forties. You get to hear about the houses people bought. How great their careers are going. And by great, of course, what people really mean is how much money they are earning. Money, in case you haven’t heard, equates to respect. We respect people who earn more. We envy them, at least, we’re supposed to. And of course; the people that earn more are happier. Being rich really should be everyone’s dream.
Or should it?
I grew up in Toronto, which in mass media terms basically means I grew up in the United States. While I enjoyed free health care and a largely gun free existence, I also enjoyed the music and film that was beamed in thanks to radio waves, MTV and local cinema. Growing up middle class, I never really thought much about money. Lucky for me, there was a roof over my head and food on my table. If I needed something, say a bag of chips or later when I got a little older, money to go out with friends, I did chores.
My point here is that, I never really wanted a lot of money. If anything, I avoided money.
I always felt like a freak of nature for it. Almost everyone I know fetishizes money. Once you get to your thirties you need a house. Then you need a car. Maybe two. Then it’s time for a second home. More, more, more. More money is always better. Because money gets you stuff. And the more stuff you have, the happier you are. You are happy because that money gives you power, which people respect you for. Ergo, the more money you have, the more respected you are. It is no longer enough to strive to be a millionaire. That won’t even get you a decent house these days. Now we gotta be billionaires, to command any semblance of respect.
In the 2013 movie Old School, Snoop Dogg is enlisted to perform for a largely all white college crowd. After dishing out a serving of Eric B and Rakim’s cult classic Paid in Full, flanked by his hype man dressed like a pimp bedazzled in the colour of money, he belts out “make money money make money money money”, and the crowd chants back, “make money money make money money money”, not unlike a preacher commanding a response in prayer form, from his own hypnotized flock. The scene could not be more prophetic. It is the primary goal of everyone to make money, particular to college age kids. Not to protest. Not to fight. Not to discover. Not to innovate. Not to love. But to make money.
“There are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume… We cannot drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour 12 roasts of beef at one meal.”
– Alan Watts, author of “Does It Matter“
The tide might be changing now, at least in some circles. Lots of millennials aren’t buying cars because they don’t need them; at least, the ones that live in cities with access to public transportation and an increasingly popular ride share based economy. However, a disturbing trend shows the ones that do end up buying vehicles are having trouble paying for them. They’re not buying houses either. No one can afford to, anymore. So without those two incentives, what will new generations work for? Many, it should be said, might not be working at all. There are theories that hypothesize that large chunks of the populace will lose their jobs to robotics. Will we all, finally live in a Star Trek age where one works not for a pay cheque, (thanks to a universal basic income) but because they actually want to be doing what they are good at, instead of slogging away for peanuts? The question is an intriguing one.
In the recent Netflix Fyre festival documentary, a film about bikini clad, manufactured excess gloriously gone wrong, an interviewee cites a company in Russia that offers photoshoots inside private jets for would-be Instagram influencers. Any contemporary, mainstream Hip Hop video still seems to glorify the culture of excess in the form of private jets and bottles of Cristal, at least on a fictionalized level.
However, recent news stories further highlight a tidal change. It seems that billionaires, once admired for having much more fun than us, are now being scrutinized a little more and with probably good cause. The same week that brought news of insect plummeting, it was also revealed that Amazon, a company that raked in a staggering 11.2 billion dollars in profits paid exactly 0 dollars in taxes last year. Netflix made 845 million and paid the same amount. Actually, they got a 22 million rebate. How the heck does that even happen? I’m not suggesting a return to communism here. But perhaps we are heading for a period where we finally collectively seek harmony through the common good, instead of individual wealth, not simply as a wealth experiment, but out of sheer necessity. Our survival as a species might depend on radical shifts, such as the green new deal, which many have scoffed at as being unrealistic.
Perhaps only centuries from now, when some otherworldly species sifts through the sand, dust and rubble left behind on our once pale blue dot, they might well find a bone or a fossil that tells our tale, or at least some small part from it. Perhaps something mechanical gets preserved, like our dear friend Rover that we’ve abandoned on the red planet. They might theorize, hypothesize and argue what led to our demise as we once did when it came to our own discovery of the dinosaurs. Was it climate change? Acidity in the ocean? Disease? Something more exotic, like an asteroid? The real answer of course, will not be so scientific. It will be greed that does us in, as it was greed that got us into this mess in the first place.
While it is tempting to put a more positive spin on it, it will require much more than technology to get us back on track. It will take new socio-economic strategies, both brave and bold. As Lieutenant Spock once remarked to Captain Kirk in the 1982 film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Dinosaur watercolour graphics by Colm Hogan.