Tag Archives: economics

The Upside Down World

by Jeff Tangel

The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.    –Voltaire

 . . . and the working, and middle classes.   –Tangel

In the comic hit movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard character—who, as you might expect is always hungry—turns to Mini-me and demands, in his bellowing mock-Scottish bravado, “I’m bigger than you—and higher up the food chain.  Get in my belly!”  And then licks his chops while singing, “I want my baby back . . . baby back, baby back . . . ribs.”

Perhaps this is a telling example of being utterly absorbed in, and deeply confused by one’s worldview.  Mini-me simply scoots away of course, ironically into the loving arms of Dr. Evil, leaving Fat Bastard un-sated, yet nevertheless deliriously full of himself.

Despite appearances—and our hubris—we humans “on the top of the food chain” are actually the most dependent beings in existence—we rely on everyone and everything “below” us.   Author Michael Pollan’s lengthy and eye-opening essay for the NYT Magazine, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” reveals to us that we humans are, in reality, a mere 10% ourselves. The other 90% is actually an ongoing project of other beings, primarily bacteria and microorganisms going about their business.[1]

But for them we’d be nearly-nothing.

So what sense does it make to imagine ourselves at the top of anything?  Don’t we ordinarily think of dependent beings at some sort of bottom?  The child and the invalid are dependent on their caretakers.  So too are we humans dependent on the entire structure of ecology—which, as we are just beginning to understand, includes not just the flora and fauna all around us, but other people too.  Perhaps we can understand Max Ehrmann’s line from the Desiderata in a new way.

“You are a child of the universe . . . ” indeed.

And wealth works similarly, reflecting in parallel the imagined hierarchy we impose on Nature.  The wealthy hallucinate, seeing themselves as independent, as above everyone else.  But in reality, the wealthy are wholly dependent on all of the people “below” them, from their own workers to the teachers who educated those workers, to the people who maintain and operate buildings, the means of transportation, systems of exchange, and so on, and on and on . . .


The wealthy are utterly dependent on the entire infrastructure of nature/culture—they are dependents—more so than any other economic strata.  Think about this. Please.

The wealthy are not inter-reliant; the wealthy are held aloft by the compliance and work and servitude of others—some of whom they pay, or exploit, or from whom they simply receive unacknowledged and unearned benefits.  Yet many strut about the world, full of themselves, like Fat Bastard(s), as if they fashioned it all from their own hands.

Thus, shouldn’t we think of the wealthy as residing at the bottom of our society? And therefore, shouldn’t they be treated just like many of them treat the poor?

Reality bites! 

Of course I’m just having fun.  We certainly can’t cure dystopia with the “technologies” that created it.  We need to treat the rich the way most of us try to treat the poor: we help them because we feel for them.  I know, I’m asking a lot. But most of us are chock-full of empathy—plenty to go around—even if it doesn’t show that often.  For me, the older I get—the more I’ve seen—the more I cry, as if the world has been waiting for me to notice.

We need to dismantle the illusory hierarchy that encourages destructive arrogance, leaving the wealthy empathically poor and all of us poorer, so we can welcome them into human inter-dependency.  As Thict Nhat Hanh might say, such a generous and compassionate act could bring multiple benefits, to those helping as well as to those helped.  Who knows how far that wind may blow?

How do we help the wealthy and ourselves at the same time? We refuse to participate in their charade. We drop out of their hierarchically structured economy-world and build a new world that acknowledges our relational dependence on each other and all others; the whole nature/culture shebang. To start, this may take the form of public banking, co-ops and so on, but we can’t limit ourselves to economics. We need a new way to live, one that recognizes our inter-relational dependence.



Fortunately, the world is a rich place for ideas. But to unlock real creativity and enable a critical and kinetic mass, first we have to be unchained from the hegemony of imagined hierarchy. We have to begin to see more clearly. Start with this:

Humans are the most dependent beings, and the wealthy are the most dependent humans.

The older I get the more I come to understand that reality is the opposite of the proffered convention—because the profferers of convention have a vested interest in keeping the world structured just so.  The poor suffer a lack of justice, which is what Voltaire meant when he said: The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.

But willful poverty—call it minimalism if you like—as both a personal and political act, is something to be achieved. Or better, it is something to be created, with others, as one might make art from detritus.  Finding satiety for yourself, and providing satiety for others, is a means and ends united; the wholeness of the individual secure in the inter-reliance of the community of beings. Think of this as an emancipating intervention, a reclaiming of justice by refusing to aid and abet the accumulators—the wealthy—and heal them, and us, at the same time.

Free from the servitude that feeds Fat Bastard, the willful poor weaken him and are empowered to seek authentic concert with the world—real relationships with each other and the ecosystem—and thereby change the world.

This won’t be easy.  Begin with the dismantling of illusory hierarchy that is itself a direct cause of suffering and planetary degradation.

Jeff Tangel
is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, an Associate of  DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture, and a regular contributor to Environmental Critique.  His individual blog is The Tecumseh Project.  E-mail tangel@sxu.edu

[1] Some of My Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NYT Magazine May 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed June 13, 2013


Image Sources:

  1. New York Times: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/voting-in-and-out-monopoly-games-faux-riche/?_r=0
  2. Richelle Gribble, Intertwined-4: http://richelle-gribble.com/interdependent/
  3. David Friedman, The Holy Palace: http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com/holy-palace



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By Chicago 350


The Chicago City Council, led by the Progressive Caucus in partnership with a local grassroots chapter of 350.org, will consider full divestment of City funds from fossil fuel holdings. A resolution for divestment, co-sponsored by 39 aldermen, will be on the Committee on Finance’s agenda some time in February or March.  ***PLEASE NOTE: The hearing scheduled for February 21st was recently postponed.***

The resolution, which “require(s) divestment from stocks and bonds of Fossil Fuel Companies over the next 5 years and prohibit(s) investment in stock or bonds of Fossil Fuel Companies thereafter,” is the result of efforts by the Council’s Progressive Caucus and local grassroots organizations to take action on climate change. 350.org has led the divestment movement, which is the fastest growing divestment movement in history with 696 institutions divested (totaling an approximate value of $5.44 trillion dollars) in just 5 years.  Over a dozen local organizations have signed letters of endorsement for the resolution, including The Sierra Club, Chicago Recycling Coalition, Blacks in Green, 8th Day Center for Justice, and Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action.

While the City Council and organizers recognize divestment as only one part of successful climate change mitigation, divestment supporters aim to protect City finances against the projected declining value of fossil fuel stocks and bonds. As modern energy technologies displace fossil fuels in utilities and transportation, stocks tied to the previous century’s energy portfolio are expected to drop in value. Since the City of Chicago requires stable, long-term investments for its financial health, divestment supporters say, the City’s holdings must shift away from aging portfolios based on outdated energy sources.

“Climate change means deadly heat waves, such as the one that killed 739 vulnerable Chicagoans in the summer of 1995, a polluted Lake Michigan and dirty air. We cannot stand for this as representatives of the people and as stewards of their future,” said Alderman John Arena (45th Ward), a co-sponsor on the resolution and member of the Progressive Reform Caucus. “We must divest pensions from fossil fuels, and invest in clean energy.”

The full resolution is available at the Office of the City Clerk and online (https://chicago.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2908429&GUID=85803769-1BDB-4A93-A569-F9CA140C2216). Questions regarding local support for divestment should be directed to <350chicago350@gmail.com>. See facebook.com/Chicago350.org for more information regarding grassroots efforts towards divestment in Chicago.


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Rex Tillerson’s Maverick Oil Diplomacy

As the largest oil company in the world not owned by a state, Exxon has had to work in “underexplored regions with higher risk, but higher reward potential,” as Mr. Tillerson, 64, said at a shareholder meeting last year.

After Mr. Tillerson’s nomination was floated by Mr. Trump, Reince Priebus, who will be the White House chief of staff, echoed a saying coined in a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney: “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States.”


In 2011, Mr. Tillerson engineered a multibillion dollar joint venture with the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. Exxon received the right to look for oil in the Black and Kara Seas alongside Rosneft, in return for giving the Russian company minority stakes in Exxon projects in Texas, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Read more here.

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Conscious Decoupling

by Meg Holden (from Center for Humans & Nature)

The means to stave off ecological disaster from an unstable climate with much more energy in it, without utter shock, hysteria, and abdication of our North American ways of life, is to decouple economic prosperity from resource use. Crazed, desperately inventive scientists, cloistered away in parts of the world like Snowmass, Colorado, and Wuppertal, Germany, have come up with equations to help us achieve this decoupling. Double the efficiency of the resources you use, cut overall resource use in half, and then swap out 50 percent of the remainder of energy used, for renewable sources.

Continue reading here.

See the City Creatures blog here.

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Filed under Climate Change, economics

What are the Connetions Between Culture and Conscience?

Upcoming New York and radio event sponsored by The Center for Humans & Nature:

“Explore the relationship between culture and morality: How do humans discern between right and wrong? How do these decisions shape our communities and cultures? How does culture influence our values? Melvin Konner and Jonathan Haidt kick off the conversation, with new voices added weekly.

Join us in New York City on October 26 for a live event with Jonathan Haidt, Melvin Konner, and Krista Tippett. This conversation on culture and conscience is a partnership with the On Being radio and podcast.”

See original post here.

Note from C. Skolnik: These issues may be somewhat tangential to Environmental Critique, but they are central to conversations of the blog’s sponsoring organization, the DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture.


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Filed under Affect and Ecology, brain science, Climate Change, commons, corporations, ecologies, economicss, Environmental Ethics, environmental justice, Equity, Humanities and Ecology, Nature, Social Justice

Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I


In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?

I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.

Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.

In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.[1]


Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.

Image Sources:

MarineBio http://marinebio.org/oceans/conservation/biodiversity/

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time


[1] Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.


Filed under Affect and Ecology, Art, economicss, Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology

Of Black Holes and Alternative Universes: A Requiem for the Commons?


By Jeff Tangel

In his 1968 Tragedy of the Commons, [1] biologist Garrett Hardin famously   conflated people with simple machines: self-interested rational economic actors.  Using the example of grazing rights for ranchers he showed that land held in common must eventually be destroyed since it made “economic sense” for each of the ranchers to use as much as possible.  Conservatives cleaved to this work to proffer private property with all the fervency of religious salvation.  We cannot survive the collectivity of the commons, it was said; people only take care of what is theirs, directly.  Sadly, Hardin (and many others besides) was blinded to both the complexity of people and the complexity of their relations.   Although Hardin later qualified his thesis criticizing “the unmanaged commons,” we have yet to recover our ability to see clearly.

Within mainstream economics there was a glimmer of hope in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom won the Noble prize in economics by showing that people do, in fact work together to preserve a common source of their welfare. [2]  Ostrom was the first woman to win a Noble Prize in economic and, interestingly, she is political scientist to boot—although she might better be described as simply broadly curious and able, and perhaps, humble.

Ostrom found numerous cases in which a public commons served the many and did so reliably, resiliently, and sustainably over the long term.  “Economic sense” was not the sine qua non that so many believed.  Importantly she found that self interest and property rights were in fact narrow and restrictive lenses through which to view people and their relations.  Turns out people are more complicated—naturally richer, if you will.  “My motto,” says Ostrom, “is to build enough diversity [into institutions] to cope with the diversity of the world and allow multi-tiered systems at multiple scale so you don’t try to have a uniform top-down panacea that’s predicted to cure everything, but instead of curing it, kills it.”[3] In fact, she found, some have forced others into a simple and restrictive frame with terrible results.  Part of the western colonization of Africa, she offers, was to replace local agricultural custom with a nationalized scheme which resulted in supplanting relative sustainability with ecological decline. [4]  This of course was done to maximize productivity in order to maximize the collection of resources globally and concentrate the derived wealth in the coffers of the rich and powerful.  Hardin and others (she mentions the work of the economist Scott Gordon on maximum sustainable yield[5]) had created “a powerful allegory”, but their mistake, she says, was to think that there is only one way to go about things—in other words, employing one specific system universally.  And perhaps worst of all, “The presumption underlying this theory was that humans couldn’t figure this out themselves” to manage a commons. [6]

Enter Walmart, one of the world’s largest corporations and this country’s largest employer, who didn’t get that way by thinking collectively about anything.  They’re the biggest rancher on the plains.  They got that way by colonizing and creating the market—an act of creation via penetration, all of which is a calculus that denudes people and their commons.  Walmart notoriously pays its employees very little—so little in fact that nearly half of them rely on aid from state and federal governments to make ends meet in the form of food stamps and Medicaid.  Perhaps you’ve seen news reports and opinion pieces about this issue, many of which rightly accuse Walmart (and other large corps/ranchers who do the same, e.g. McDonald’s) of being welfare recipients themselves.[7]  After all their profitability depends on their workers, and so if their workers depend on taxpayer funded programs just to live, then Walmart depends on taxpayer funded programs.  In other words, Walmart is taking from the rest of us.  Never mind the obvious hypocrisy of right-wing thinking—that has become so ubiquitous that something has to make it rare again for it to become interesting.   Let’s focus on understanding this in a broader context: a denuded and debased commons and the creation of an alternative universe.

Walmart’s existence is a takings from the commons—that is what they do—and not with just a snide nose-thumbing at all the other ranchers about.  They are the most highly evolved dominant invader rancher species on the planet, able to draw resources from around the world—human and natural—and pile it all up in their little corner of the world.   Walmart not only sets its employees wages—they force similar wage structures throughout the domestic economy and the world.[8]  How has Walmart become so evolved?  Because instead of matching the complexity of our institutions with the complexity of nature, we have placed unmitigated and undying faith in an “impartial manager” of the commons: Capital. [9]  Walmart is both a simple machine and an intentional being that creates its environment and thrives in it by following the simple and powerful telos of this manager: unlimited reproduction, and the faster the better.  Critically, the process requires the externalization of as many costs as possible.  Thus relying on government support of their workers is built into its structure.  Walmart is not slowed by this contradiction.  Instead it is empowered by it.

Capital obliterates history—congenially referred to as “creative destruction”—and devalues the present in favor of an increasingly profitable future.  As all capitalist firms must.  No “then”, no “now”; only “what’s next.” In such a world there is nothing to be maintained, least of all a commons.  And people need not be consulted for their natural richness of ideas.  This singular system is working just fine.  Sorry Elinor.

Walmart, et al, are Black Holes, the progeny of Capital-as-manager thinking.  Aligning and adapting themselves to that universal, these entities have become vortexes of power that draw in the world’s common resources to create an alternative universe of unimaginable and massively concentrated wealth [10] and, importantly, freedom from responsibility.  The process kills other competitors leaving a moonscape for the struggling survivors, while it recreates itself by legitimizing and proffering a low-wage world in which people can only afford to shop at Walmart, et al.  Yes, it is symbiotic.  And yes, anyone who thinks this through understands that it must end badly: the commons will be history, if it is not already.

This is, of course, exactly what a dominant invader species would do to any ecosystem (though many manifold greater): take and reproduce freely, without limit until it replaces the diversity it had found.  Any species not killed in the process must adapt to this predator and in so doing live an impoverished life.  Live an impoverished life or die—just like Walmart workers.

Until, of course, the whole shebang loses its resiliency and collapses.

And I didn’t even mention the moral abomination that is Walmart.  I’m thinking now that’s where I should have started.  Maybe that’s where we all should start.


Here’s a link to Ostrom’s paper, Governing a Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective


And here’s a bullet outline of her thinking…


 [3] Ostrom, Elinor Sustainable development and the tragedy of commons, Stockholm Resilience Centre TV, in which she outlines the problem and rethinks the commons in 8 minutes. A somewhat cumbersome motto, but a good one! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc

[4] Ibid.  See also, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983) for an account of the colonization of Native Americans and ecological change.

[6] Ostrom, Sustainable development and the tragedy of the commons.   Stockholm Resilience CentreTV. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc

[7] Meyerson, Harold.  D.C. Council stands for fair wages and against Wal-Mart, Washington Post. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-16/opinions/40610714_1_wal-mart-s-food-stamps-wages  ;  Bucheit, Paul. Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s: Who’s the Biggest Wage Stiffer?, AlterNet.  http://www.alternet.org/labor/apple-walmart-mcdonalds-whos-biggest-wage-stiffer

[8] Ibid.  And see news reports about suppliers’ factory fires, industrial accidents and working conditions, in ultra low-wage and low-regulation countries like Bangladesh, India, and China and so on.  For a solid explication of negative economic impact of “big-box” development, also a product of privileging Capital, see Economic and Fiscal Impact Analysis of the Proposed Lowe’s Home Center in South Dennis,   http://notolowes.com/PDF_Files/Economic_Impacts_of_Lowes.pdf  cited in a terrific Grist story, Here’s one smart way to fight big-box stores, http://grist.org/cities/heres-one-smart-way-to-fight-big-box-stores/

[9] Importantly, this is a perversion of any reasonable—read “human”—notion of property rights.  By making property near solely fungible via the common denominator of money, we have effectively handed the right to property over to those with the wherewithal to buy it, exclusively.  This is a far cry from John Locke’s more sensible view of owning what one can use and leaving well enough for another.

[10] Hsu, Tiffany.  Wal-Mart heirs worth as much as bottom 41.5% of American families.  LA Times, July 18, 2012

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/18/business/la-fi-mo-walmart-heirs-20120718  accessed August 7, 2013

Image Source:  Rose Timperley — Group Two http://rosetimperleygrouptwo.blogspot.com/

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