Reflection 105: Shareholder Consciousness

May 20, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

As I have pointed out in previous posts, by various routes, all wealth flows from the Earth. Some routes are more obvious than others. Farmers till the soil, anglers catch fish, hunters kill game, papermakers cut trees to make pulp. My father’s father was born on the family farm in Berlin, Vermont (now the Barre-Montpelier Airport), and wrote this poem in 1882 about an incident in his childhood:

 

The Motto

 

We stood on the old veranda,

My father dear and I,

Of a lovely springtime morning

Such as makes the earth and sky

 

And all which lies within them

Look so beautiful and grand

The beholder truly worships,

If ever, his Maker’s hand.

 

We stood there looking before us

At the landscape flushed with light—

When, far on a furrowed hillside

Was seen a shining, bright!

 

“Look, see yonder plowshare gleaming!”

Said my father, viewing the sight.

“And now,” said he, “take a motto:

E’er keep your plowshare bright.

 

Live, act, and be idle never,

For inaction doth corrode,

But a life by deeds is brightened,

As the plowshare, plowing the sod.”

 

Years have gone by since that morning,

The use of the old plow long been told,

But the words that my father then gave me

Live on, more precious than gold.

 

Living on a farm stirs up an earthy sort of consciousness featuring immediate sensory images born of the soil itself. I remember visiting the ancestral farm with my father in the late 1930s and lurching across furrowed ground to speak with my great-great uncle who, in his 90s, spoke to us briefly with his fingers gripping the handles of his plow and reins of his horse.

 

When you’re on the scene like that—at the interface where Earth’s bounty becomes a commodity—you are fully conscious of depleted or eroding soils; applications of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides; irrigation and increasing salinization; and other impacts from your activities on the Earth. Such awareness provides opportunities for contour plowing, crop rotation, permaculture, letting fields lie fallow, and other practices promoting stewardship and sustainability.

 

But these days, many of us live at a great physical or conscious remove from Earth itself. With over half of all humanity living in cities, we often have to travel some distance to see productive forests, fields, or bays. Many of us work in offices or cubicles, hunkered over computers that present a world exclusively connected to other human minds instead of productive ecosystems. Even much of our food is processed and packaged as if had never come in contact with ecosystems at all. It takes some effort and imagination to trace the many routes that still bind us to the living Earth.

 

Most of our job descriptions make no reference to the Earth, even though everything we do is based on the assumption that Earth is out there doing its thing while we are busy doing ours. It never crosses our minds that if Earth took a vacation, we’d lose our jobs. The entire Internet, for instance, depends on electricity largely produced by burning fossil fuels, supplemented by hydroelectric, nuclear, and a few kilowatts from alternative sources of energy. All of it outsourced to that planet we live on . . . you know . . . Whatsitsname.

 

Somali pirates are much in the news these days. Even their livelihoods depend on the Earth. They hijack other people’s wealth, which in every instance—from weaponry to emergency food supplies—is derived from the Earth. Or they demand ransom for the crew, money backed by assets harvested, mined, or otherwise taken from the Earth. Gamblers think coins issue from slot machines, but that’s only the end of the journey. In the beginning, their value can be traced back to patterns of matter and energy drawn from Earth’s own soil, water, air, or living resources. Investing is a variant of gambling, with much the same story. Like the Internet, those three sources of gain—piracy, gambling, and investing—seem to exist in realms wholly distinct from nature, yet in every case the value they deliver is based on planetary energy stored in an organized and redeemable form. Being unconscious of the fact doesn’t make it untrue.

 

Stockholders own certificates entitling them to share in the wealth of businesses and corporations. That wealth is a kind of territory, a claim on the biosphere or an ecosystem somewhere, a mine, a well, a farm, a forest, a factory dependent on raw materials, human labor, and energy. The certificate makes no mention of any such claim. It speaks only of the number of shares owned, not the source of their value. Stock transactions, like Japanese screens, hide deep secrets behind thin sheets of paper.

 

Taking the world of investment at face value, our whole culture and its economy seem none the wiser about the devastating impact profits have on the natural environment. Where does profit—ill-gotten or earned—come from, anyway? The answer is always the same. It is wrenched from the Earth, usually not prettily. Think strip-mining; slaughterhouses; toxic sludge; air pollution; airborne mercury settling on every stream, leaf, and amphibian. Think of an assay of mother’s milk providing a fair sample of modern industrial pollution. Stock certificates fail to mention such facts, but Earth never forgets.

 

Stockholder consciousness is like pirate consciousness or gambler consciousness—a dreamy world where the drink in hand seems more real than the plunder being dressed as free-flowing wealth. Rather than keeping our plowshares bright by knowing exactly what we are doing because we are on the scene when it happens, we prefer not to know by shielding every aspect of the investment world from the truth. We weren’t there at the time, so we never knew. That’s known as the stockholder defense.

 

We complain about our wealth being taxed, but are perfectly happy to tax the Earth in our stead when we should be paying fair rent in kind for the use we make of the territory we claim as ours. We expect Earth to support us, no matter how many we are or how extravagant our desires. Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do. He was talking about us—humanity—apologizing for our acting so deliberately and cruelly when not fully conscious. That state is our identifying characteristic: Man the half-conscious. Equally true of gamblers, pirates, investors, among others.

 

Money is the screen we use to shield our eyes from the full effect of our actions. The more money, the better the shield, the more illusory the view from where we stand. That is what our economy does for us; that is why we set it up the way it is to protect our self-interest. And precisely what we must undo in striving for transparency if the blindfold is ever to fall from our eyes.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

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