Sunday, August 05, 2018

Eternity, nature, society and the absurd fantasies of the rich

Professor and author Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote about a group of wealthy individuals who paid him to answer questions about how to manage their lives after what they believe will be the collapse of society. He only knew at the time he was engaged that the group wanted to talk about the future of technology.

Rushkoff afterwards explained that the group assumed they would need armed guards after this collapse to defend themselves. But they rightly wondered in a collapsed society how they could even control such guards. What would they pay those guards with when the normal forms of payment ceased to mean anything? Would the guards organize against them?

Rushkoff provides a compelling analysis of a group of frightened wealthy men trying to escape the troubles of this world while alive and wishing to leave a decaying body behind when the time comes and transfer their consciousness digitally into a computer. (I've written about consciousness and computers previously.)

Here I want to focus on what I see as the failure of these people to understand the single most salient fact about their situations: Their wealth and their identities are social constructs that depend on thousands if not millions of people who are employees; customers; employees of vendors; government workers who maintain and run the law courts, the police force, the public physical infrastructure, legislative bodies, the administrative agencies and the educational institutions—and who thereby maintain public order, public health and public support for our current systems.

Those wealthy men aren't taking all this with them when they die. And, while they are alive, their identities will shift radically if the intellectual, social, economic and governmental infrastructure degrades to the point where their safety is no longer guaranteed by at least minimal well-being among others in society. If the hunt for diminishing food and other resources comes to their doors, no army of guards will ultimately protect them against the masses who want to survive just as badly but lack the means.

One would think that pondering this, the rich who are capable of pondering it would have an epiphany: Since their security and well-being ultimately hinges on the security and well-being of all, they ought to get started helping to create a society that provides that in the face of the immense challenges we face such as climate change, resource depletion, possible epidemics, growing inequality and other devils waiting in the wings of the modern world. (In fairness, some do understand this.)

At least one reason for the failure of this epiphany to occur is described by author and student of risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb describes how the lives of the rich become increasingly detached from the rest of society as arbiters of taste for the wealthy convince them that this detachment is the reward of wealth. The rich visit restaurants that include only people like themselves. They purchase larger and larger homes with fewer and fewer people in them until they can spend whole days without seeing another person. For the wealthiest, neighbors are a nuisance. Better to surround oneself with a depopulated forest than people next door.

The rich are convinced by this experience that they are lone heroes and at the same time lone victims, pilloried by the media as out of touch and heartless. These self-proclaimed victims may give to the Cato Institute to reinforce the idea that the individual can go it alone and should. They themselves have done it (or at least think they have). Why can't everyone else?

The wealthier they are, the more their fear and paranoia mounts that others not so wealthy will try to take their wealth; or that impersonal forces in the marketplace will destroy it or at least diminish it significantly; or that government will be taken over by the mob and expropriate their wealth through high taxes or outright seizure. And, of course, there are the natural disasters of uncontrolled climate change and plague, just to name two.

It's no wonder some of the super rich are buying luxury bunkers to ride out the apocalypse. These bunkers come with an array of amenities  that include a cinema, indoor pool and spa, medical first aid center, bar, rock climbing wall, gym, and library. High-speed internet is included though one wonders how it will work after the apocalypse.

But strangely, even in these luxury bunkers built in former missile silos, dependence on and trust in others cannot be avoided. The units are actually condominiums. And while they contain supplies and ammunition said to be enough for five years, it will be incumbent on the owners, whether they like it not, to become intimately acquainted with their neighbors in order to coordinate a defense of the compound should that need arise.

The irony, of course, is that this is precisely the kind of communal entanglement which their wealth is supposed to allow them to avoid. Society, it seems, is everywhere you go. You cannot avoid it even when eternity is advancing on your door. And, you cannot escape with your consciousness into a computer (assuming that will one day be possible) if there's no stable technical society to tend to computer maintenance and no power to keep the computer on.

It turns out that we are here for a limited time and that trusting and reciprocal relationships with others are ultimately the most important possessions we have—unless we are too rich or too frightened to realize it.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

The Patriotic Millionaires group that you referenced is committed to a more just and egalitarian society, but judging from their website, they are unaware that modern civilization is at risk of collapse.

Where are the very wealthy who are using their financial resources to create social groups that have the land, tools and knowledge to thrive without remaining dependent on civilization? If more 'lifeboat' communities are established, the better the chance that humanity will gracefully survive the end of civilization. What better philanthropic effort could there be?

Jane Brundage said...

All indications are, it seems to me, that it is the indigenous communities scattered all over the Planet who will have the flexibility and resilience to adapt to whatever comes post-collapse. Their identity with place and with each other -- always in the context of their role and responsibility to care for the Earth that future generations might have what they need -- these are most likely to be the Planet's most viable 'lifeboat' communities.

Joe said...

Ahoha Jane,

You're absolutely right about there being many lifeboat communities around the world, especially in less modernized countries. Some remote populations won't even notice the collapse of civilization; they will just carry on living the way they always have.

But what about those of us who live in the rich world? Perhaps it will be poetic justice that we will fare the worst after contributing so much to the destruction of the environment, but I would like to think that at least some people in developed regions could also be saved. One would also think that at least a few wealthy people would be carefully considering the best way to facilitate the saving.

Ugo Bardi said...

Kurt, you may be interested in this post of mine where I discuss the behavior of ancient and modern elites.

Yvan Roy said...

Joe, there certainly are some wealthy people who are thinking of these issues. After all, money is just a tool. You can use it for whatever you want, and it may sound funny but not all wealthy people are materialistic.

sv koho said...

Kurt's blog is usually very good, sometimes excellent and this one is a good one to keep.
By accident I happen to live in what not long ago was a self sufficient ranching "LIEBOAT" community(jackson hole) and is now a haven of the super rich who fly here in their gulfstreams and buy gated estates with good fields of fire and motion and proximity cameras, dogs and the like. They are a long way from the teeming urban hordes and feel safe here. Some have true bunkers I have heard as plan B. Of course they fail to realize that all their plans are moot if diesel/jet fuel runs out or electrical power fails or the weather supervenes. Ugo Bardi and Kurt Cobb are well acquainted with historical perspective and their opinions merit attention. The mainstream largely corporate media has little to nothing to offer and is best ignored.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that people both envy and despise the 1%. The other half of my family is 1% wealthy. They take long exclusive cruises in suites with private butlers. They dine in an intimate special dining room for the elites. Many in their mid 80's are indeed detached from the world the other 99% live in. Even on their cruises, it is clear from their description that they rarely encounter fellow passengers who are merely rich.

I learned as a kid that great wealth often creates a high profile, and celebrity becomes a trap to avoid because the most important possession you cede with celebrity is anonymity. You become a prisoner of your wealth and position. People call it elite as if it is something special rather than something annoying. I think the reason I have any wealthy friends is because we became friends before I knew they had money. They could trust that our relationship was not predatory nor transactional.

People who wish for great wealth while standing in line to buy a lottery ticket at the 7-11 might buy a candy bar in stead if they understood what this article so nicely describes.