Wealth and Well-being: Income and Indifference


“Woe to them that are rich”–you churched few may remember the camel and the needle’s eye and all that. This warning to folks on top of the heap, wealth-and power-wise, is nothing new.

But the surging measures of richness of the rich and the eco-indifference of those (individuals, corporations, nations) who own and control the most has reached the point where it has become a deadly and ultimately grave disease–for both people and planet. And this is by design.

Becoming rich is a creed and mission for our very economic and political way of life.

Pope Francis has labeled as tyranny the “unfettered capitalism” whose rapacious reach brings injustice and suffering to the many and unparalleled power and opulence to the few.

Dominic Barton quotes this fact in WSJ this week: “In 2012, the top 1% of earners in the US collected 19.3% of the country’s total household income—an all-time high… The disparity is growing rapidly as well. Incomes of the top 1% grew by 31.4% from 2009 to 2012, compared to just 0.4% for the remaining 99%.”

Unfettered, indeed. And the so-what from this corporate juggernaut? Crumbs trickling down from the tables of the rich to the starving poor below? Not exactly. Instead, find pervasive indifference to and apathy for the faceless masses and natural habitats outside our first-world padded, air-conditioned comfort-bubble of the 1%–and those of us who would aspire to be one of them or fawn at their feet.

America ranks dead last among 17 nations whose citizens have been part of National Geographic’s “Greendex” survey that assesses consumption and sustainability attitudes. The graph above shows the correlation (not a statement necessarily of cause-and-effect) between income/lifestyle/consumption and guilt/concern for the EcoBioSphere and future.

You can read the 204-page report at NatGeo to reach your own conclusions to the validity of the relationship between income and footprint, et cetera.  And note that there is a difference between what citizens do and what they want (as in the case of China, for instance) and what their governments are doing environmentally.

There is a lot of unpacking to do here. I’ll just peek under the veil at some of the questions I see.

What is the relationship between wealth and happiness, contentment, security, justice and treating the world’s people and biosphere fairly? Is it true that it is impossible to serve both mammon (wealth) and God? Has the 1% become a kind of idolatrous priesthood of American worship?

Does income measured in dollars pace step by step with increased wellbeing? Or does it matter how and where those dollars are made? David Korten talks about the difference between “true wealth and phantom wealth.”

A dollar can be made from hard work in the fields to produce a crop of potatoes for local consumption or from teaching or nursing or…. It can be made on the other side of the globe turning rain forest into profit from palm oil plantations. Which dollar represents real wealth when people and planet–and your community–are considered?

Makes me want to go back and read books like “Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Really Mattered” from the 70s. Again, this is not a new issue, just one whose consequences threaten to be our undoing.

The Pope (and so many others) I think are on the right track. We need a new story.

That story will feature an economy that puts the welfare of people and planet in there with profit-welfare of shareholders. To tell the same failed story of tyranny and income inequality and capitalist ecocide is not a viable option.

So: can capitalism be “fettered” or would some other form of household management work better for an uncivilized civilization living beyond its means?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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