On Greed

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

As I read through the notes I took for this post over the past two weeks, this is what I noticed. There is a lot about the current state of the world, capitalism, economic systems, theory, change. Nothing about myself. Lust evoked shame – greed, abstraction and righteousness.

I could write pages about the systemic greed of our society. Capitalism, consumer culture, negative externalities. Reagan, Thatcher, Trump. Boomers in McMansions, SUVs and cruise-ships, burning away gas, oil and coal, destroying ecosystems for their immediate enjoyment. No fair go for future generations. I could write about the people who produced and promoted single-use plastic bags and forks and cups – disposable pens, razors, printers – and the piles of waste that their fortune was built on. I could mention the start-up world, where success begins at 9 zeros. The slave merchants of past centuries. Colonists over the globe, destroying cultures and land everywhere. All this unpunished, for greed.

I could write about this conversation, last year, on a Facebook thread with a guy contending that ‘everyone’ should put aside four million dollars for retirement: that’s how much you need to secure adequate returns, and you couldn’t possibly start eating up your capital, because what if you lived up to 100? I could reflect on greed as a sin of old age, often based in fear. Then I could look for causal chains, how individualism, consumerism and the loss of intergenerational solidarity nurtures greed. If all incentives are for each of us to look after themselves, the result is irrational collective behaviour, Tragedy of the Commons, and its pending catastrophe.

I could write more about all of this, but would I understand anything about greed as a sin? What if, instead, I wrote about myself. How I live a very comfortable life in a very wealthy country, yet hardly give anything to charity, and only part with money for my own future self through super – and even then, with difficulty. How I know very well that animal farming and large-scale fishing are wrecking our environment, yet struggle to wean myself off meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. How I pass by homeless people every day, yet would rather spend my dollars on cakes and coffee for myself than share it with them.

I do try to moderate my appetite – because I know greed to be dangerous, and because I see the connection between simpler needs and more freedom. But as soon as I got a larger income, a few years back, I started upgrading. The better jam, the better yoghurt, the better peanut butter. The box of fresh vegetables and fruit delivered once a week. The regular coffee outside. The books bought online, rather than borrowed from the library. And when I needed to travel, ubers and taxis, my own airBNB, and the better airline. Because I was working hard, and therefore should be compensated with greater comfort.

Greed is about refusing death, greed is about infinite growth, greed is about placing the self above others. But greed is also that insidious voice in our head, whispering ‘you’re worth it’, and hoarding objects in our cupboards, cash in our bank accounts, consumable experiences in our memories – and piles of waste all over the place.


On categories

When I lived in Paris, I had a friend who worked in auction houses. He taught me this: “There’s a collector for everything. My art is to place an object in the category most appealing to collectors.” Is this chest of drawers an heirloom from a Belgian celebrity baron, or a rare piece of Art Nouveau furniture? Is this a letter about the first World War, or a rare autograph from a famous pacifist?

We carry categories in our heads, by which we make decisions. Breakfast food, lunch food, snack food. Person I could work with, person I could sleep with. There’s a collector in all of us. Some are simply more overt about it, or their collections are more immediately visible. What is yours? Dates, shirts, food photographs, or vintage teddy bears?

Our world is a complex web of relationships and comparisons: things, people, we rarely let them ‘be’: we sort and filter Or if we do let someone or something ‘exist’, it’s only because we decided that they should belong to that category, ‘things that are unique’.

As these networks intersect, constant struggles occur, to debate where things and people fit, and how they relate. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, useful, useless, familiar, foreign. It is a rhetorical battlefield with clear practical stakes, where strategies differ. Confrontation is one: my things are better than yours; another one is stealth: the things I want, let’s hide their true value from others; seduction is a third: the things you want are things I have.