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Allow me to get rich and I will save the world
Three quotes from Dune that dismantle capitalism
Can you imagine the wealth? I need to see it in your eyes!
—Gurney Halleck, Dune
To get rich, you have to overreach
What do capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen have in common?
Empire, whether British, Viking, Roman or otherwise, is, by definition, overreach. And colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy share a common, perverse philosophy: limits on some humans’ freedom of action are seen as an affront to the principle of freedom itself.
—Ben Rawlence, The Treeline
What does it mean to overreach?
In his book The Treeline, Ben Rawlence defines overreach as the act of applying force to acquire resources elsewhere after exceeding the limits of what the own environment can sustain.
Rome was built on timber. After depleting the woodlands surrounding Rome and the Apennine Mountains, the Roman Empire reached as far as northern Britain in search of natural resources, principally timber. The Roman Empire was built on long-distance timber trading and the Romans used timber mainly for construction, shipbuilding and firewood. They were also the ones who separated the trees from the woods and brought trees into the courtyard of Roman houses as pets. Rome was built on plundering wildwood, and, as far as the British Islands are concerned, the Roman invasion was the beginning of the end for their Celtic forests. Those Roman baths needed their water hot.
The British Empire was built on fossil fuels. The unification with Scotland, coal and sea power allowed the UK to, at one point, rule a quarter of the world. The Brits cut down the rest of their forests to build their signature trading oak ships and mined all their coal to fuel their industrialized manufacturing empire. The coal was used at home and exported overseas with British manufactured goods suitable for industrialization, thus projecting their power elsewhere. By 1900, 85% of all internationally traded coal came from Britain. The industrial manufacturing business powered by fossil fuel pushed the British Empire to look overseas in search of natural resources. Perhaps one of the most infamous episodes in the empire’s overreach is the Anglo-Persian Oil Company established in 1909 that gave the Brits, as the main shareholders, exclusive rights to drill and sell the oil. Winston Churchill was very pleased:
Fortune brought us a prize from a fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.
—Winston Churchill, The Geography of Power
The book Dune by Frank Herbert is an allegory of the West’s exploitation of oil and people in the Middle East.
American capitalism was built on slavery. While the British Empire fought to keep manufacturing jobs at home—for example, by passing a law in 1815 that ‘placed tight restrictions on Indian ships and sailors,’ a law that was ‘more devastating to the economy of Indian shipping than all the competitive technological innovations of the last 300 years put together’ as writer Amitav Ghosh notes in his book The Great Derangement—America built their capitalist empire first on free and then on cheap labor. Next to raw materials and a large market, cheap labor is the backbone of capitalism. It is not enough to plunder Earth’s resources; you must do it at the lowest price possible to maximize profits. With slavery abolished, the next best thing is machines. AI anyone?
The Romans gave us the Roman baths, the Brits the steam engine, the USA Hollywood and the Marshall Plan. But the wealthy capitalists are going to save the world.
No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.
—Frank Herbert, Dune
Allow me to get rich, and I will save the world
A while ago, my husband worked for a young and ambitious start-up owner:
I’m planning my life 25 years ahead. I work hard now because, by my mid-40s, I want to stop working and become a full-time philanthropist.
—Young start-up owner, Real life
Today, the entire landmass of the Earth, excluding Antarctica, is divided among 193 sovereign states recognized by the United Nations, with democracy as the dominant form of government. However, the relative stability and personal freedom granted by democracy in a sovereign state don’t create a fertile ground for today’s economic engine: growth. Enter capitalism, an economic and political system in which private owners control a country’s trade and industry for profit.
Unlike the Roman Empire, the USA or China cannot march to the ‘Lithium Triangle’ of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold about 60% of the world’s lithium reserves and start digging. But their companies can.
Thanks to capitalism and globalization, companies worldwide have seen enormous growth over the last decades and enjoy profits greater than the GDPs of whole countries. But for this, they need access to cheap resources.
The ‘Lithium Triangle’ is situated in the high Andean arid plateau, which contains wetland basins in its desert matrix. These wetlands are essential resources for human activity, and the astonishing biodiversity is ‘highly adapted to extreme temperatures, altitudes, and salinity gradients’ in one of the driest places on Earth. But in Chile, foreign mining companies use 65% of the local water in lithium extraction, pollute the local rivers and water beds, and leave the indigenous people’s farmlands covered in a blanket of salt. Around the world, the locals pay the price whenever poor communities from regions rich in natural resources come in contact with ‘foreign exploitation’.
But the rich and powerful don’t only exploit natural resources, use legislative loopholes to minimize taxation, move their production facilities overseas to benefit from a low-paid workforce, and lobby politicians to maintain monopoly. Lately, more and more of the world’s wealthiest have become philanthropists.
The modern-day hero, the philanthropist, is an archetype many young men and women aspire to. Like the heroes we encounter in Hollywood movies, the philanthropist’s ultimate goal is to save the world. And, like Neo from The Matrix needs to train in the Sparring Program to defeat Agent Smith, the philanthropist hero needs to accumulate wealth before they can give it away. The philanthropist is a modern-day Robin Hood: they take away from the rich and give to the poor without stealing a dime (in the eyes of the law).
Bill Gates, one of the most active philanthropists, is not only busy spending his Microsoft fortune on noble causes, but he also became America’s leading farmland owner because he wants to teach everyone sustainable farming while owning the food supply.
Elon Musk, an up-and-coming philanthropist, pledged to give away at least half of his wealth in his lifetime. In the meantime, he’s busy looking for lithium and other raw materials for Tesla’s batteries. Elon’s thirst for natural resources is so high that he wants to occupy Mars.
Younger entrepreneurs like Sam Bankman-Fried start their businesses with effective altruism in mind. I am sure that SBF, one of the wealthiest people in crypto by age 30, would have saved the world after buying the Bahamas had he not gone bankrupt.
Ultimately, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that we can’t be trusted to manage a common resource sensibly. So perhaps we do need these wealthy heroes to save us from ourselves. But will they?
Uncle, how did we let this happen? How can the Emperor take everything we’ve built and give it to that Duke?
—Beast Rabban Harkonnen, Dune
The Tragedy of the Commons, a modern myth
Remember the Romans getting rich by cutting timber in Britain? Back in the day, Britain was known as Caledonia or ‘wooded heights,’ a name the Romans gave to the lands covered shore to shore in pine forests. But the British landscape of wildwood didn’t come into being naturally.
Once every 100,000 years, our planet tilts a fraction away from the sun, and we have an ice age, a phenomenon known as the Milankovich cycle. Being so close to the North Pole, the lands known as Britain, Caledonia, Pretani or Albion as the Celts used to call them, are influenced by the ice age cycles. As the ice advances and retreats, the flora, fauna and people of these lands migrate south or north.
DNA analysis showed that the pines that survived the roman’s thirst for timber in the West of Scotland came from the Iberian peninsula, what is today Spain and Portugal, while the pines surviving in the East of Scotland came from a refugium, a place where species survived the last ice age, near Moscow around 9000-8000 BC. According to the scientists, both types of pine migrated to Scotland much faster than through natural succession, the ecological process by which the mix of species and habitat in an area changes over time.
So who planted the trees that the Romans cut in such haste? Ben Rawlence writes that ‘the most likely vehicle for such rapid migration was humans’, in this case the Celts who respected the woods through their traditional custom and practice.
Indigenous use of the forest is often the most reliable form of conservation.
—Ben Rawlence, The Treeline
In today’s world, we feel a high sense of accomplishment at our technological prowess and a deep sense of shame at the mass destruction of our natural habitat. Some see humans as a plague on this Earth. It’s beautiful to learn that, once, humans were the stewards of the forests, re-greening the planet after an ice age.
But forests aren’t our only natural wealth inherited from our ancestors.
In the mid-1990s, Frito Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo selling processed snack foods, sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Native Seeds/SEARCH, ‘an organization which saves seeds native to the southwest’ warning them to stop using the trademarked wording ‘corn nuts’ when selling, well, corn nuts.
The corn kernels used by Native Seeds/SEARCH for the corn nuts come from Santa Ana Pueblo, home to a federally recognized Hopi tribe that, together with other indigenous American tribes, cultivated and preserved the genetic pool of the corn used for corn nuts for thousands of years. The genes of the corn used by Frito Lay for its trademarked ‘corn nuts’ come from these tribes.
In his book Seeds of Resistance, from which I took the above example, Mark Shapiro presents us with a fundamental question: ‘Who controls our seeds?’
American and European seed companies have been buccaneering their way through the world’s seeds, picking and choosing the ones to patent and out into mass production. This means they have retained exclusive rights to resources that have been in the public domain for millennia.
—Mark Shapiro, Seeds of Resistance
When the Roman Empire introduced the idea of property rights over land, the Greeks and Celts resisted because they believed humans could not own nature, only use it. As Ben Rawlence writes, ‘forests ceased to be seen as sacred places of wonder, mystery and sustenance and instead became a standing crop with a value expressed in pounds, shillings and pence calculated by the acre and the ton.’
The commoners of the past left us a natural wealth generated by a social system that regarded Earth’s resources as a common good to use and protect. The rich of today give us philanthropism while plundering Earth’s natural resources for self-profit. I think it’s clear in which world we want to live.
Now who will tell the Harkonnens that we’re taking away their Dune?