Abigail Disney, grand-daughter of Walt, has written an op-ed entitled “125 Billionaires Control Our Climate Future.” She is not a billionaire herself, but according to Google she has a net workth of $120 million, so she knows what it is like to be very wealthy. She begins by recounting a memory from her childhood when her father, Roy E. Disney, would take her to the “park”—Disneyland—and invariably would pick up a piece of trash from the street. She asked him why he did it—he was after all the CEO of the company—and he replied, “No one is too good to pick up a piece of garbage.”
Well, those were the old days, when a rich powerful person was not too proud or self-absorbed to bend down and perform an ordinary working person’s task. These days, if the headlines and websites are to be believed, the ultra-wealthy live in a stratospheric alternative reality where the ordinary rules and ethics of behavior don’t apply. And the world we live in now allows—if you have been following the headlines about Sam Bankman-Fried, until recently the king of crypto—a thirty year old whiz to amass a fortune of 30 billion in a mere 3 years, and then lose it overnight. It’s almost as though money doesn’t have its old meaning any more, it’s just–like crypto itself–another entry in a computer server farm somewhere that gives you permission to spend beyond imagining.
Perhaps this new level of abstraction is why so few of the billionaires Abby Disney is referring to are actually focused on what they can do to make the world a better place, and contribute to a future not only in which we can all thrive, but even survive. She concludes her essay by saying, “I find myself longing for some sign that my grandfather’s humble sense of the common good is inspiring others to want to craft a future in which we can all thrive. We have the power to create a society that prioritizes care of communities over the pocketbooks of fossil fuel companies. A just and equitable world is possible, and with imagination and courage, we can make it a reality.”
There are a few among the ultra-rich who seem to be doing this; Bill Gates and Warren Buffett come to mind. For the rest, I am reminded of a story I once read about a billionaire media mogul (I won’t say his name) who was asked by an interviewer, “Mr. X, you are already worth several billion dollars, you are one of the richest men in the world. Why are you still working so hard to make even more money?”
Mr. X stared at the interviewer for a long moment as though in disbelief, and then replied with a shrug, “It’s the game.”
It’s the game. There it is in a nutshell, the bizarre psychology that becomes possible when you are wealthy beyond measure. If you are the tenth richest man in the world, it’s the game to see if you can move up, and be the eighth richest or fourth richest. I have read of billionaires high up on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s richest people being furious that someone has overtaken them in rank. It seems to me rather childish, like some kind of middle school popularity contest. But that’s how it is. Abigail Disney puts it this way: “[These billionaires] help shape the future of our economy. And many of them stand by as corporations set and then fail to meet one social responsibility goal after another, primarily because of the drive to deliver value for shareholders and other investors.”
I can’t help but note that the author of this trenchant critique is a woman, and the overwhelming majority of the 125 billionaires are men. This might be indeed some kind of gender split, a “sport” that powerful men play among themselves to see who can acquire the most marbles. There are a few billionaire women, but somehow I can’t see them playing this game. I can’t speak for every religion and mythology, but to me it seems that for most of them the earth itself—the source of the air we breathe and the food we eat—is personified as a woman, not a man. In Greek mythology, Zeus wields lightning, Thor strikes with his hammer—in other words, they use weapons—while Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility, is unarmed. Yet the ancient Greeks knew that without Demeter they could not live. They took care to make offerings and perform important rituals to Demeter, source of all life. She was, in that sense, more powerful than Thor or Zeus.
The poet Robert Graves once wrote a seminal book about poetry called The White Goddess, whose central thesis is that at a certain point in human history the power of the feminine—which he identified as the source of all poetry—was overcome by the force of the masculine. Maybe that was the moment that the power of worship and awareness shifted away from the environment and the earth, and became besotted with the dreams of conquest by million man armies and ever more powerful weapons. In truth, Thor is still with us, and so is Zeus, and the weapons they wield are today unimaginably more powerful than the ancient lightning bolt and hammer. One reflection: though the war in Ukraine continues to stalk the headlines with ever more dire reports, I now understand that Ukraine produces a significant percentage of the world’s food, especially wheat. Ukraine is, in that sense, the present-day embodiment of Demeter. And weapon-wielding men are the sky gods, bombing and killing her.
Some of the billionaires about whom Disney writes want to go to Mars, or launch space stations into orbit. But what good is a migration to lifeless Mars or the orbiting of yet another space station when we are all starving?
In a near-term future when we may all be really starving—and in many places in the world today people are starving right now—it will be too late.