Book cover: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, copyright 2007.
history reading

“Nobility is expensive, nonproductive, and parasitic”

I checked my first book out of our new-to-us public library a couple of months ago. It was “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, a very good book, whose title accurately describes its contents (what would happen to nature and the human-built environment if humans were suddenly gone), but it took me foooooorever to read. I’ve been too busy moving stuff into the household and painting and such. Truth be told, I’ve also gotten into the habit of constantly reading short items on my phone, which takes time away from reading books.

Book cover: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, copyright 2007.
Book cover: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, copyright 2007.

Thank goodness the library kept automatically renewing the book until I was done with it. One of the most striking sentences came near the end of the book. Weisman quotes Arthur Demarest, an archaeologist of Mayan civilization, regarding the sudden collapse of Mayan society after about 1,600 years of relatively peaceful existence. (pg. 285-287)

“Society had evolved too many elites, all demanding exotic baubles.” (pg. 290)

I’m going to keep going with the rest of the paragraph, which ends in the statement that so caught my attention.

“He [Demarest] describes a culture wobbling under the weight of an excess of nobles, all needing quetzal feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, custom polychrome, fancy corbeled roofs, and animal furs. Nobility is expensive, nonproductive, and parasitic, siphoning away too much of society’s energy to satisfy its frivolous cravings.” (pg. 290, emphasis mine)

What struck me is how much this describes what we are seeing in current day United States civilization and in other countries around the world, with monopolies, duopolies, and wealthy autocrats demanding more and more resources and power from the majority of citizens and from the earth itself. They won’t be satisfied until they crush democracy, ruin the lives of the impoverished (which is most of us), and turn Earth into an ashen hellscape. Which is why some of them, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are trying to figure out how to leave this planet and find new places to conquer.

Rather than appreciate and preserve what we have right here, they are engaging in expensive, marginally productive, and parasitic activities to satisfy their own frivolous cravings. What if they put their money (money scavenged off the productivity of others) toward solving climate change? Granted, Musk is the head of Tesla, where his employees build electric cars, but he could have used the $44 billion he spent on dismantling Twitter for something far more productive.

In confirming how much Musk spent to buy Twitter, I found an item on National Public Radio that indicates other people are paying for a chunk of that purchase, thus illustrating the parasitic aspect of nobility. []

The heartening point of the book, though maybe not heartening from the perspective of the Mayan people or any other civilization that has disappeared, is that Earth tends to rebound pretty quickly once an area is cleared of humans, making no distinction between the noble and the humble.

If only we could figure out how not to let the desire to become nobility take hold in our society, where it inevitably becomes a force of destruction.

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