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.



6 responses to “The Profligacy of Wealth”

  1. davidm58 says :

    This reminds me of the current series of blog posts by Erik Lindberg: Selective Anti-Modernism and the Shape of Society; The Closed World and the Infinite Universe: The Metaphysics of Freedom; The Geo-Physis of Freedom; and To Paris and Beyond; Climate and Freedom.

    As the world grows smaller in terms of available material resources and environmental sinks, we begin to realize that our freedom to consume and expand increasingly affects others, and at some point must be curtailed.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Freedom is, one might say, a divine impulse in man that gets badly mauled as it passes through the prism of the ego-consciousness. As Reason is debased into rationalism, and thereby becomes its contradiction, so liberty is debased into libertinism, and becomes freedom’s contradiction.

      This, patently, has something to do with McGilchrist’s neurodynamics. However, McGilchrist describes it in terms of dialectic, whereas it looks clearly like enantiodromia rather. There is meaning in the old statement that “Satan is the ape of God” if one looks at it in terms of enantiodromia and neurodynamics.

      The same may be said of our notions of “Heaven” and “Hell” or nirvana and samsara, as Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered. These have something to do with neurodynamics as well and with enantiodromia, which is the heart of the paradoxical.

      You know how a prism works — it takes the one light and refracts it into many colours. McGilchrist is saying that the brain actually works in much the same way — like a prism, each hemisphere akin to the two different facets of the prism, one side receptive to the whole while the other side perceives only the discrete bands of the spectrum, the refracted or “reflected”.

      The metaphor of the brain as “prism” in this respect is probably the best way to think of it. The brain itself is an organ of perception.

      And I think McGilchrist has actually provided the best evidence for enantiodromia that we could ever, ever wish for.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    How ironic and strange that a country the size of Canada – with so much land – and relatively little population, should suffer from a housing crisis! Reality, many a times, is stranger than fiction; methinks.

    • Scott Preston says :

      It’s just that Vancouver has become overbuilt, in some ways, although there’s a combination of factors, including the influx of foreign money that is driving up real estate prices — but also the fact that Vancouver has run out of room for expansion, and is already building high into the mountains on the North Shore.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “…….there’s a combination of factors, including the influx of foreign money that is driving up real estate prices……”

        Aha, that’s the same thing Californians did to Washingtonians here in the United States decades ago, as they went up in droves and started buying properties left and right in cash.

        It seems to me that’s a bubble in Vancouver that will someday burst and prices will become more normal again.

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