“There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The words are those of Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, speaking to Edward R. Murrow in 1955, as quoted recently in an essay by Paul Buchheit on Common Dreams. What was he thinking? Six decades later, the words have such a counter-resonance with prevailing thought. They exude an old-fashioned humility and innocence, like . . . striking it rich isn’t necessarily the ultimate point of life?
I read these words and sense so much spilled wisdom in them, so much wasted hope. The world we’ve created is governed these days by two unquestioned principles: commodify and dominate. And it’s chewing up the resources that used to belong to every occupant of the planet.
“Eighty people hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, according to an analysis just released from Oxfam,” Mona Chalabi wrote in January at FiveThirtyEight.com. “The report from the global anti-poverty organization finds that since 2009, the wealth of those 80 richest has doubled in nominal terms — while the wealth of the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population has fallen.”
The winners keep winning and everyone loses.
Thus there is an “urgent need to tackle the vested interests of the 1 percent,” writes Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. Wealth is a wedge to maintain wealth and widen the gap between those who have and those who don’t. Wealth seeks to privatize the world and shut most people out.
“Wealth is used to entrench inequality, not to trickle down and solve it. . . .” she writes. “Across the world, we see that great money doesn’t only buy a nice car or a better education or healthcare. It can buy power: impunity from justice; an election; a pliant media; favourable laws. With the privatisation of our universities it can even buy the world of ideas.”
It’s the opposite of the philosophy implicit in Salk’s comment: that what we do as individuals we do for the good of the whole, and, indeed, there is no separation between the individual and the whole. As Lewis Mumford once wrote, as quoted by Charles Eisenstein in his book Sacred Economics: “A patent is a device that enables one man to claim special financial rewards for being the last link in the complicated social process that produced the invention.”
The point I’m reaching for is not about being nice or charitable but about how we need to notch up our sense of what it means to be realistic. We are not alone in this world. We are intricately and complexly connected to it, and we need a system of being – political, social, cultural and economic – fully and enthusiastically cognizant of this fact. We need to reorganize humanity around this awareness, especially economically, because the current system blinds us to this crucial reality.
“I believe we can build a human economy where people are the bottom line,” Byanyima writes, to which I would add: not just people but the whole planet. And it begins with a change in awareness: that wealth and money are not interchangeable concepts and, indeed, that wealth can be experienced but not, in fact, “held.” And the 80 billionaires who control the same amount of capital as the world’s 3.6 billion most impoverished residents may have corralled an astonishing amount of power over others but have wealth equal only to their level of spiritual awareness, which is an awareness that begins, perhaps, with a surrender of the self to the larger context in which we are alive.
You might call this context evolution. When we live our lives to the fullest, we contribute to the greater whole and this is the basis of spiritual fulfillment. It can’t be hoarded; it can’t be gamed; it’s not a zero-sum process, in which more spiritual fulfillment for me means less for you.
“What was once sacred to us . . . is becoming no longer sacred,” Eisenstein said in an interview with Jonathan Talat Phillips. “For example, just a couple generations ago, we revered growth: the expansion of the human realm, the conquest of nature, etc. Today our values are changing, and we want to protect and heal nature. But money is still rooted in the old values. So, what I mean by ‘sacred economics’ is the realigning of money with those things that are becoming sacred to us today, those things that we deeply value.”
So this is our dilemma: Money is still rooted in the old values. Civilization had a 6,000-year growth spurt propelled by domination and conquest of the planet and one another. We’re at the end of this spurt; we’re running out of what we can conquer, but we’re still enthralled to an economic system that insists that the conquests continue. We have to keep exploiting and privatizing the planet – “the commons,” as Eisenstein calls it – chopping it up and selling it back to one another. This is an economic system that insists on proclaiming winners (very few) and losers (the many). It’s an economic system that will sacrifice the public good when it’s time to do so, and that time has come.
In the spirit of resistance to this force, I celebrate Jonas Salk and his refusal to patent the polio vaccine. In doing so, I feel flooded with a sense of wealth.