There was once a small town where an ordinary man suddenly became very wealthy. His neighbors noticed his good fortune, and wanted to know how he’d done it.
“I changed my shampoo,” the man told them.
Shampoo? His neighbors were shocked. But it seemed a simple enough thing to try, and one by one, they all changed their shampoo. One by one, they all became wealthier. Businesses thrived, the townspeople built new schools and concert halls, hired maids and butlers, and strode up and down the streets thinking rather well of themselves.
The townspeople funded University chairs in Shampoölogy to study the wealth-producing qualities of Shampoo. In due time, papers were published, academic prizes were awarded, and soon all the towns throughout the land began to change their shampoo as well, in the hopes of emulating the success of the first town.
Yet somehow, results were never quite the same in any two places. Some towns changed their shampoo and continued to live in poverty, or plunged into even deeper poverty. A few thrived and grew wealthy. The Shampoölogists who studied this wrote erudite papers and popular books about the complexity of their field, and how fraught with variables: hair thickness, hair length, humidity, cultural patterns in baldness and combing from right to left or from left to right. Yet it was clear that Magic Shampoo worked. How could it be doubted? Look how it had benefitted the first town, and all the many others! Why, it had brought about a Shampoo Age that had benefitted the whole world, even the towns sinking into deeper poverty: for as we all know, a rising suds lifts all hairs.
The strangest part of this story was that no one had ever asked where that first man’s wealth had actually come from.
Had they done so, they would have learned that he’d sold a huge plot of worthless land to a corporation that had used the land to build a new manufacturing plant, which in turn had employed over half the town at new jobs paying twice what they had ever earned before. The shopkeepers had seen their business double, then triple. Even the town drunk received a bumper crop in charity. Everyone in town had become wealthy simply because vast amounts of outside wealth had begun to pour into the community.
Indeed, this pattern held: wherever the corporation had built a new plant, that town thrived. Where it did not build, the town did not thrive, and sometimes even went bankrupt paying for different brands of shampoo.
“Oh, no!” the Shampoölogists cried when this was pointed out. “You have that completely backwards! Of course the plant is the means by which wealth enters the town. But it is the Shampoo which creates the environment that draws the manufacturing. Without Shampoo there can be no manufacturing. You are a fool for suggesting it could be otherwise.”
And so things continued until the corporation pouring wealth into all these towns went bankrupt.
What a silly story! Or it would be a silly story, if it weren’t a true one.
I’ve been reading a book entitled 1493, by Charles Mann, and it brings into focus a number of facts about the beginning of the sixteenth century in Europe — and China, and the Americas — that are quietly avoided in any discussion of our modern world. Those few facts paint a radically different picture of our world than anything I ever learned in school: as I recall, we skipped directly from Columbus (1492) to Plymouth (1620) to the American Revolution (1776.) That’s nearly 300 years of history marked by only three events: Discovery, Thanksgiving, and Freedom, all of which figure as key events in our national mythology of Progress.
Why is it that the United States (along with the other “First World Nations”) enjoys such a spectacularly high standard of living, while the “Third World Nations” do not seem to be able to climb out of poverty no matter how hard they try?
The politically correct answer is captured in our twin American Gods of Democracy and Capitalism. Because Democracy and Capitalism grace our nation, we are wealthy: because we as US Americans do both Democracy and Capitalism better than everyone else, we are the wealthiest.
This is Magic Shampoo.
The real answer is much simpler. We’re wealthy because we’ve been sitting on top of a figurative mountain of gold, which we’ve been mining as fast as we can for that past five centuries. Not literally gold, though the Aztec and Inca gold kicked off the feeding frenzy in a big way. Far more important was the silver, the guano, the maize, and potatoes. Our current craze for oil is only a final echo of a five-century exploitation-run on every resource the Americas — and the rest of the world — had to offer.
In the late 1400’s, Europe was starving. It had largely recovered from the labor shortages caused by the plague deaths of the 1300’s, but the nitrogen-depleted European soils, combined with the so-called Little Ice Age, were not producing enough food for all the mouths that needed to be fed. Europe was reaching its Malthusian limits to growth.
With the European discovery, colonization, and exploitation of the Americas came both maize and potatoes, two crops formerly unknown in Europe. Potatoes, together with milk, provide enough nutrition to sustain the human body without suffering any of the effects malnutrition — something not true of any of the cereal crops grown in Europe at that time. Combined with the vast deposits of bird guano shipped from South America by the ton — the beginnings of industrial-scale fertilization of crops — food production in Europe exploded and ended the Malthusian collapse they were careening toward.
Gold was important, of course, but far more important was silver, most of which funded trade with China via the Pacific route. China, as it turns out, was mad for silver — decades of economic mismanagement and coinage change had rendered nearly all Chinese currency unreliable or worthless, and silver became the de facto Chinese coin of trade. But China had nowhere near enough silver to facilitate its trade. Spanish silver from mines in South America provided the silver that China needed, brought a huge flux of Chinese goods — particularly silk — into Europe, and supplied a labor pool of desperate poor for the silver and guano mines of South America.
The discovery and exploitation of the Americas was the “corporation” that began to funnel vast external wealth into Europe. The three-century pattern of conquest and exploitation from 1500 to 1800 is what continued to fuel the following two centuries of US experiments in democracy, capitalism, technology, and eventually global military superpower status.
There was no Magic Shampoo. There was simply vast income.
The problem with exploitation is that the good stuff eventually runs out, and then you are right back where you started — only worse, because in five centuries you’ve birthed a huge number of descendants who have all grown up expecting homes in the suburbs with electric garage door openers and iPads and advanced medical care. In terms of the opening story, the “corporation” — the one running all the manufacturing plants that everyone has completely forgotten about amidst the wonders of our Age of Shampoo — eventually goes bankrupt and closes its doors.
Once that happens, we can scrub ourselves bald with every possible brand of Magic Shampoo — Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism, Technology, Information, God-Fearing Righteousness, Rational Enlightenment, Globalization, Localization, Recycling — and it won’t help a bit.
None of these will grow a potato in drought-stricken, exhausted soil.
I realize this is a downer for the Christmas season. Then again, maybe it’s a good time for it. Christmas has long been a Last Harvest for our retail world, and a bellwether for the coming year. This year, it seems to have slid sideways. I know that Christmas was unofficially over here last weekend: I needed another line of tree lights last Sunday — December 16 — and the stores had already sold out their stock of lights and were clearly anxious to start moving in the grills and patio furniture for spring.
We had our Mayan Apocalypse party on Friday night: “Drink Like There’s No Tomorrow (But Not Like You Want to Spend Your Last Night On Earth Hugging a Toilet.)” I woke up yesterday morning a little hung over, and I spotted a few like-afflicted zombies on the streets: restaurants were offering cures in the form of mix-your-own Bloody Mary bars, which I passed over in favor of a big breakfast burrito. Zombified or not, we were clearly all still here. And I haven’t noticed any sudden knack for mental telepathy, nor any overwhelming urge to run out and hug everyone in the world in an orgy of Peace and Light.
The Mayan Apocalypse — according to modern-day mystics-in-print — was supposed to be about a “shift of consciousness,” not asteroid strikes or superpowers or zombies. Maybe that’s what I’m seeing in this sideways-slip of the commercial Christmas that has reigned for as long as I’ve been alive. A shift of consciousness.
If so, my hope is that it shifts in the direction of reality. Not toward more confused, wishful thinking about Magic Shampoo.