Less Than Revolutionary Finance

I’ve gotten some good natured pushback on the idea of buying oneself out of corporate servitude.  The objection seems to come in two general forms.

  1. Contingency of Financial Autonomy: Deriving financial autonomy from investments in corporations whose operations are fundamentally destructive creates a morally corrosive dependency — your interests end up being aligned with theirs, because your autonomy depends on them remaining profitable.
  2. Opportunity Costs: Even if investing in corporations doesn’t actually give them financial support, there’s an opportunity cost: the same money could be used to invest in small local businesses or social enterprises.  Wouldn’t that be more powerful and potentially transformational?

The Contingency of Tit-for-Tat

There’s a simple kind of contingency that I think clearly isn’t a problem here.  If you’re (just for the sake of argument) a major environmental NGO or a prominent Democratic politician and you’re taking large tax-deductible donations from (for instance) the natural gas industry, then your financial support can be withdrawn as punishment for actions that threaten your benefactors.  In the case of investing, the financial support can’t be withdrawn just because they don’t like what you’re doing.  You’d have to significantly damage their profitability to feel the financial pain yourself, which comes much later in the game than their withdrawal of voluntary support would.  Like a carbon price that’s used to pay for renewables and energy efficiency, this is actually an elegant arrangement, since as they go down in flames you no longer need their financial support to fight against them.


A fun analogy: Imagine you are a terrorist freedom fighter who is receiving armaments and other support from a major world power with an interest in the outcome of your local struggle.  When that world power suddenly realizes that you are actually batshit crazy and bent on destabilizing the region, they can stop giving you shoulder mounted surface to air missiles.  On the other hand, if you’re using weapons captured from your opponent despite their best efforts, you don’t have to worry about losing your supply of weapons until you start winning, and drive the invading army out of your territory. At which point you’re probably just fine with the outcome.

So it is with the oil companies.  I would like nothing better than to see them go bankrupt.  Until they do, I’m happy to use my ExxonMobil dividends to support myself while I advocate for bike infrastructure, higher gas taxes, public transportation, tolls on freeways, paid parking, and vibrant human-scale cities.  And they can’t refuse to pay my dividends because I’m advocating against their business interests.

The Contingency of Aligned Interests

However, there’s a more subtle potential dependency — not a tit-for-tat support, but an alignment of interests.  If all my investments were in fossil fuels, then I might not want to be too successful on this whole climate thing.

Not all my investments are in fossil fuels.

The kind of investing I’m encouraging involves buying into the global market as a whole, using index funds that own slices of thousands of companies from all over the world.  It’s a mind-numbingly boring  generic bet on the continued existence of a global economy that grows and can be invested in.  It is agnostic with respect to individual firms, industries, and countries.

I’m okay making this bet, because I believe that economic growth is possible without growth in material resource consumption.  Though obviously that isn’t the way things have gone down historically.  I believe that continued economic growth is possible because I think much historic economic growth has resulted from our increasingly subtle understanding of the world around us, rather than from an increase in the rate at which we extract and consume resources.  Extraction has certainly resulted in economic “growth” too, but it’s a dishonest kind of growth — a liquidation Paul Hawken has poetically (and I think accurately) described as wealth that we steal from the future, sell in the present, and call GDP.  We need to stop this kind of “growth.”

We can happily bankrupt the industries that depend on increasing material resource consumption, replace them with new and different industries that don’t, and in the end be much better off for it — obviously in an ecological sense, but also I think in a pretty traditional “economic” sense.

In fact, we’ve already bankrupted almost the entire US stock market at least once.  The only company from the original Dow Jones Industrial Average that has survived to the present day is General Electric.  Meanwhile the businesses of Intel, Microsoft and Cisco would be completely unintelligible to an investor from 120 years ago.  Obsolete companies die, and new ones take their place.  Ideally this would happen on a continuous basis, in little bite size chunks, and not in catastrophic collapses when giant monopolistic incumbent industries are finally so obviously useless that no amount of political machination can save their sorry asses.

But, oh well.  It will be messy in the meantime. And the longer we wait, the messier.  In the end I think we’re very adaptable.

Such a Thing as Enough

At the same time, I agree with what Vaclav Smil said in the video at the end of that last post — there are plenty of people in the world who simply need more access to resources — energy, food, clean water, etc.  How can they get what they need without increasing resource consumption?  I believe there’s such a thing as enough when it comes to material wealth.  So while they may need more, they don’t need an infinite amount more.  And then it also turns out  there are plenty of people (that would be us) who have accumulated much more than we need.  Am I talking about wealth redistribution?  Maybe so!  But even more I’m talking about wealth redefinition, which makes wealth redistribution much less frightening. I’d like to think it’s ridiculous to worry that believing there’s any such thing as having enough individual material wealth and consumption could be seen as a radical position.

In the same way that I don’t think of the wealth of an individual in terms of their absolute income or the size of their pile of money, I don’t think of the wealth of our civilization in terms of its resource burn rate or the size of the pile of garbage we’ve accumulated.  If you can live off a small fraction of your income, or the stream of dividends that your accumulated wealth throws off, you’re rich in a meaningful way — even if that means you’re living on $6,000 a year while biking around South America.

If we humans can cut our material consumption down to the point where it is well within the regenerative capacity of the Earth, if we can approach a zero waste economy where our materials cycle endlessly, if we can use no more energy than the renewable flux that we have unending access to, then we’ll be truly wealthy, because we’ll be living well within our planetary means.  Within that system, we’ll still have the opportunity to increase quality of life, quantity of leisure time, and the overall complexity, efficiency, robustness and intricacy of our civilization, because we will continue to learn about how the world around us works.  We’ll be able to do more with the same amount of resources as time goes on.

There are all kinds of things we might choose to do with that spare capacity.  We could restore and re-wild huge swaths of our homeworld, and share it more equitably with the other Earthlings.  We could choose to explore and bring to life other now dead worlds in our solar system and beyond.  We could give birth to beings of greater wisdom and intelligence and capacity for joy and caring than ourselves.  Or we might just choose to endlessly increase the human population while staying just barely within sustainable bounds which would be super lame.  I hope we get the chance to make these choices.

Still a Pain in the Ass

Will making this change in how we think about wealth be easy?  No way!  Can we restructure our economies to stop devouring resources and focus on the other ways to grow? Hell if I know! It’s sure not the plan of record right now.  But it sounds easier and more enjoyable and more interesting to me a stagnant steady-state world, or an inevitable decline, reverting to an agrarian pre-industrial state, or a hunter gatherer.  Or adapting to 6°C of global warming, by the way.  We need to focus on getting much better at providing a high quality of life, autonomy and opportunity to as large a fraction of the human population as possible, using a fixed pool of material resources, even if that means that the richest among us end up with less material wealth. Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist depends on what direction you’ve come at the question from.  Utopia and Dystopia are relative.

Which reminds me of a not entirely appropriate quote from an interview with William Gibson:

I certainly don’t think of myself as being a utopian writer, but I’ve been surprised over the course of my career at the number of people who automatically assume I’m some kind of Dystopian. […] Some of us read Neuromancer, my first novel, and look at the state of North America in that and go, that’s Dystopian, that’s a terrible situation. There’s no middle class, there’s just a lot of incredibly rich people and even more utterly poor people willing to do anything to survive. […] But there are millions of people all over the world living in situations, […] that are so much more dire than anything I’ve ever written about.

We care much more about our relative than absolute wealth. Envy triumphs over greed.  There are lots of different ways to feel rich.  Oligarch-takes-all isn’t the only option. And there are much more interesting and fulfilling things to chase after than giant houses and giant cars and giant TVs and 5 day 4 night all expenses paid vacations in the Caribbean.

Things like love, adventure, joy, knowledge, community, and wonder.

And they’re cheap.

And they’re light on the land.

And I’m clearly not going to get to the second objection tonight.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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