The Profligacy of Wealth
I lived in Vancouver for some time. I know the city fairly well. Vancouver is also in the midst of a housing crisis — a crisis of affordability, but one which has many aspects to it. One of the very well-to-do areas of Vancouver is the Shaughnessy neighbourhood. So it caught my attention when the Canadian press reported that some residents of Shaughnessy had taken to the streets to protest against the controversial redevelopment of a property in the neighbourhood.
The new owners of the property, a relatively new mansion barely 20 years old and currently valued at $7 million, (and recently renovated at a cost of $350,000), now want to demolish the perfectly good house and build another on the site more amenable to their tastes. The proposal has aroused the wrath of some of the residents, who, it seems, are viscerally shocked by the “waste” of the proposal to redevelop the property, and have struggled to articulate that sense of shock. Others, however, don’t know what all the hubbub is about, expressing their opinion that the new owners should have every right to do with their property what they will without public interference.
But my sense is, that there is more to this episode than just a transient incident in a well-to-do neighbourhood faraway, but is one which reflects, more broadly, a restructuration or re-orientation of the political struggle suggested by Thomas Berry in The Great Work — one which pits the ecologically-minded against the “developers”. In that sense, this particular confrontation is highly symbolic of a much bigger issue.
The protesters have described the redevelopment proposal as a “waste”, and as a violation of the city’s green plan. It is all that, of course, but it is also something of a statement about the contemporary profligacy of wealth in the context of an era of “austerity”. It is indeed shockingly wasteful, but it is also testimony to the arrogance and insularity of wealth and private property in current social conditions where everyone is enjoined to practice “belt-tightening”.
So, there’s a bigger issue involved than simply the fate of one house in a remote suburb of Vancouver. The broader socio-political issue is the great disparity in wealth and the apparent wasteful arrogance of wealth in a context of social want — the housing shortage.
What it first brought to my mind was the story of the Emperor Nero and the Great Fire of Rome, and the accusations at that time that Nero’s agents had deliberately started the fire so that Nero (who, like Hitler, also had ambitions to be an artist on a grand scale) could rebuild Rome more to his tastes. Some historians are divided on whether Nero deliberately set the fire which was then blamed on the Christians (leading to the first persecutions), but I think the theory that Nero started the fires is quite consistent with Nero’s personal ambitions and attitude.
The comparison is not, I think, too exaggerated. The same arrogant and “imperial” attitude is involved, whether it is a city like Rome or a property in an old neighbourhood, and it points to the same symptoms of degeneracy and decadence.
The controversy over the redevelopment of the property does, I also think, reflect the existential dichotomy that Jean Gebser likewise identified in his Ever-Present Origin — that between Being and Having, and, by extension, the conflict between the two “modes of attention” of the divided brain described by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary. It strikes me that this is the essential political character, too, of the new social political tension that Berry sees in “ecologists” versus “developers”.
So, I don’t see the protest as an incident as much as I see it as a symptom — or a symbolic performance — of a much bigger, even global issue surrounding the now extreme maldistribution of wealth and even moreso a conflict between “being-in-a-world” or “having-a-world”, for the latter is the present problem of acquisitive individualism.