We started off discussing the value of consumerism to even the most devout naturalists with In Praise Of Consumerism - It Appeals To The Thoreau In You and then discussed the materialistic greed of nature herself in In Praise Of Consumerism - Bees, Bacteria And The Value Of Wasted Time. Now now we're going to wrap things up by suggesting that consumerism is not the root of all evil. In fact, we’re going to propose the opposite.
Consumerism is responsible for some of the most important events in Western civilization. Consumerism has produced empowerments that have radically upgraded the lives of even the poorest people on the planet. And consumerism has even advanced the grand ambition of biomassto kidnap, seduce, and dragoon as many iinanimate atoms as possible into the 3.85-billion-year-old enterprise of life.
We left off last time with a not-so-simple question; what does consumerism do for human beings? To answer that, let me show you how spirit spun into material goods lifts other spirits down the line.
The traders of Venice in 1270 AD were motivated by sheer consumerist lust. They were driven by the hunger of Europe’s rich to do what bower birds and stags do - show off luxuries rarer than those of their neighbors.
The son of a wealthy trading family, a family powered by consumer lust, would change history and our vision of nearly everything we see. He was financed and set into motion by the luxury consumer goods industry. But he left behind a seed of spirit that, like Jack’s magic bean turned to a giant stalk, would put the Western World on a heady climb.
What he planted in the Western mind would uplift the spiritual ruminations of Thoreau and his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, plus your spiritual aspirations and mine.
In the mid-13th Century the Mongols took nearly all of Asia and united it in the largest empire — and the largest free-trade zone - the world had ever known.
Marco Polo - the consumerism that would inspire a planet
Marco Polo set off in 1271 on a voyage meant to slake the hunger of Europe’s rich for things so rare and expensive that their wealthy friends and neighbors, their wealthy show-off competitors, couldn’t match.
Let’s call that lust the root of the discovery impulse, because that’s what it really is. It motivates human societies to stretch their scope and trade with civilizations, towns, or tribal villages thousands of miles away. In fact, it’s been doing that for roughly 120,000 years. But that’s another story.
Marco Polo’s dad and uncle had just come back from their first trip to China. They’d gone off in search of trade goods — consumer luxuries and status symbols - they could sell for outrageous prices back in Europe. They were after things only the Chinese knew how to make; silk and porcelain. Instead they’d caught the eye of the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai Khan.
The Great Khan distrusted the Chinese people his grandfather had conquered at the cost of roughly 25 million lives. He preferred to hire foreigners, like the Polos, to handle his affairs of state. So he reportedly tapped the Polos for their knowledge of siege machinery — the catapults called mangonels. And he sent them back home to set up a new long-distance exploratory tendril, an ambassadorial connection with the Pope.
So the Polos trudged home and stopped in Jerusalem and Rome. The Pope gave the Polo brothers a handful of letters and a vial of sacred oil from the lamp that burned at the Sacred Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All these items were consigned by the pontiff to the Polo brothers for delivery to the Great Khan in Shangdu — the place that Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Xanadu when he wrote a poem triggered by Marco Polo’s legacy. That poem was one of the spiritual fruits of materialist zeal. A spiritual fruit of the Polo family’s greed. It read:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Talk about consumerist bowers The Khan had one of the greatest, his stately pleasure dome.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Marco, his father, and his uncles set off on the dangerous, three-year trip from Venice back to China to deliver the Pope’s presents (minus the hundred wise men that Kublai-the-Curious had asked for). When the Polos reached Shangdu, Kublai took a liking to young Marco and gave him a series of assignments.
The emperor sent the 20-plus Italian on a series of fact-finding missions. He reportedly gave the young whippersnapper the task of ruling the city of Yangzhou for three years. He delegated Polo as an inspector of salt and a tax collector. He had Polo settle disputes, and finally, after 20 years, he assigned Polo the task of accompanying a Mongol princess across many a land to the Persian cousin with whom Kublai had arranged a marriage that would sustain the Empire’s peace and he had the chance to return home.
It wasn’t the merchandise with which Polo returned home to Italy in 1295 that really set us free - it was the story of their acquisition, and even that required some bad luck on Polo's part.
Polo had barely settled in to his old digs in Venice again, when his patriotism got the better of him. Venice was at war with a rival trading town, Genoa. Polo joined the navy. In a clash between battle galleys, Polo’s ship lost. He was taken prisoner and jailed by the Genoese.
The printing press would not be invented for another 200 years, but the publishing industry was already going into high gear. Rooms of scribes worked feverishly to mass produce the best-sellers of the day. Polo’s prison roommate was a professional of a new kind; a free-lance writer. When Polo told his story, the writer - a now-forgotten author named Rustichello - was wowed. So the two collaborated in jail and wrote down the tales of Marco Polo’s adventures in Asia and in China.
The events of the next 300 years would show that the most important thing you can leave to others, your most important capital, is often not what you’ve tried to do but the story of how you attempted it. Your most important legacy, should you choose to live heroically, just may be the story of your life.
Marco Polo's tale of consumerism would inflame the entire western world and would motivate untold people for generations to come. It would provide a new strut in the infrastructure of fantasy.
The consumerist method in Portugese exploration
Let’s do a quick segue to 200 years later and yet another country, Portugal in roughly 1420, where a new cultural status symbol, a new sort of NASA, a new human bower, was about to be built.
The Indies were rich in consumer goods, rich in spices, rich in cottons, and rich in silk. These were things that Europeans, filled with novelty-lust and status-symbol hunger, wanted badly. And by 1420 some could afford these luxuries thanks to the growth of long-distance productivity teams, thanks to the growth of commerce, thanks to the growth of trade.
The gifts of rarity and treasure did more than titillate kings, queens, and aristocrats. Those who couldn’t scrape together the cash to buy such things were gifted anyway. Don’t laugh. This is far more important than it seems. Even the poor had new substances and new furnishings to dream about. What they couldn’t possess in reality enriched something more important in the evolution of economies and cultures. It enriched the scope of a culture-engine, an economy driver, an insight-maker, and a history-changer. What people couldn’t afforded lifted the level of the infrastructure of fantasy.
Those without large sums of money acquired new riches for the princes and princesses in their fairy tales. Don’t laugh. This is far more important than it seems. Even the poor had new substances and new furnishings to dream about. What they couldn’t possess in reality enriched something more important in the evolution of economies and cultures. It enriched the scope of a culture-engine, an economy driver, an insight-maker, and a history-changer. What people couldn’t afforded lifted the level of the infrastructure of fantasy.
The post-Polo obsessions gave huge gifts to the life of one royal dreamerand through him to the life of generrations down the line, including you and me. One of the readers tweaked by Marco Polo’s stories of the riches of the east was Prince Henry of Portugal.
Prince Henry set his sights on something new. Asian goods were making their way into Europe at prices beyond belief. Why? Because the world of Islam stood between the East and Europe. Henry had killed many an Islamic citizen in his personal crusade to take and subjugate the rich North African trading city of Ceuta. No wonder Christians were not welcome in the Islamic world. If they were caught in Moslem territory, they could expect a not-so-painless death.
But only the Venetians had been able to work out a deal with the Arabs of the Levant. In essence it went like this. We Arabs will send our three-masted sailing ships our dhows - to India, China, and the spice islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. We’ll bring the riches of these lands back to Oman and ship them across the desert in camel caravans of the sort Mohammed organized before he saw the light and was prophetized: We’ll sell them to you Venetians. And you Venetians will then be able to sell them to your fellow Europeans at a price that will delight you.
Sounds very much like the deal between flowers and bees we discussed in In Praise Of Consumerism - Bees, Bacteria And The Value Of Wasted Time.
Henry, the prince of Portugal, dreamed of a way of getting around the Venetians, their Arab partners, and their damned monopoly. His dreams were so inflamed with Marco Polo fever that he invented a new form of ocean-going ship, the caravel. He also created a new way of using ships and sailors. It was called “exploration.”
Henry sent his sailors out on a 50-year-long NASA-style mission. First his expeditions mapped the Northeastern shores of Africa. Then, when Africa took a sharp turn to the left and seemed to disappear, Henry sent his ships further out on the waters of the mid-Atlantic than any European had ever gone—searching for a current of wind that would carry the ships across the gulf under the zagging African coast. Henry’s ships next probed the terrible reality below the belly of the earth, below the earth’s equator. Beyond that line scholars and superstition said you might fall off the planet’s face. Or, if you were more fortunate, you might find yourself sailing upside down. Who knew? It was even possible that you might vaporize instantaneously. The expeditions Henry launched were told to map and probe and each year go just 50 miles farther into the unknown.
Finally, after Prince Henry The Navigator, a name he earned the hard way, died, his mission paid off big-time. One of Henry’s explorers, Vasco de Gama, found that Africa had a tip. Sail around it and you could head back north, all the way to India. The sailing was a breeze, quite literally, thanks to the Arab Sinbads who had discovered how to harness a disaster, the monsoon winds. The riches of the East were now ablaze with possibility. Their price would soon plunge and their availability to the common man and woman would begin its rise.
Marco Polo’s grubby battle against foot-sores, fleas, and local disease - his adventures - had inflamed Prince Henry’s dreams. Henry had turned his dreams into realities…new ships, new material things, new human empowerments opening new possibilities. And what Henry achieved, in turn, became the source of yet new human fantasies.
Economics is a flow of emotion
The most important capital is passion. Capital (as in capitalism) starts as fantasy. So do consumer goods and material things. Whole new ways of living would soon come to be based on the words of Marco Polo’s book, based on Polo’s nearly-suicidal travels and on Prince Henry the Navigator’s Marco Polo obsession.
In Genoa in roughly 1461, a kid prone to dreaming grew up with the visions of Polo’s adventures dancing in his head. He read Polo’s book with a determination that probably drove his parents crazy. Reading, adults thought, was ruining the brains of kids—preventing them from learning how to memorize the classics. Columbus didn’t care about destroying his memory. He scribbled notes in the margins, and thought of Polo so obsessively that he came up with a wild scheme for a shortcut to Polo’s Chinese wonder-cities, an instant-express sea-lane that would make Prince Henry The Navigator’s still-incomplete new route seem silly. But dreaming it was possible only because of the ships Prince Henry had invented.
Following childhood passions is one key to a vivid life — and to a life that upgrades the fates of others. Childhood passions are inflamed by the goods, the services, and the iconic stories left by other human beings. The Genoese lad’s Polo-fandom and caravel-obsession was so strong that he did the unthinkable. He traveled Europe from one country to another for fifteen years, wangling introductions to kings and queens. Think of how impossible that would be if you or I tried it!
Though his background was lowly, Columbus had the advantage of a truly commanding presence. He was 6’5’. Finally he found someone with the guts to back his scheme — not one of Europe’s ballsy male leaders, but a queen.
Columbus’ calculations of the size of the globe were a bit off — he figured the earth was only 18,000 miles around. Queen Isabella commissioned a panel of experts to double and triple-check Columbus’ scheme. They turned thumbs down on the project. Why? Because they reckoned the earth’s circumference was 28,000 miles, not just 18.
This was a difference the width of the entire Eurasian continent. In those days a ship could only stay afloat so long. Wood-eating worms, Teredos Navalis, could chew the hull of your ship apart if you tried to go without maintenance for more than about three years. If the geographers were right, and the ocean stretched 8,000 miles or more between Barcelona and Guangzhou, Columbus’ had mapped out a suicide scheme. And, in truth, the geographers were closer to the real circumference of the earth — 25,000 miles - than our Italian dreamer.
But Christopher Columbus found land anyway. Yes, it was land that had been found before. But the previous discoverers, the Vikings, hadn’t sold it, they hadn’t promoted it, and they hadn’t publicized it. They hadn’t turned it into a consumerist commodity.
The Genoese lunatic did. When he returned to Europe, he took advantage of a new invention — the printing press. He pioneered the use of a new mass-communications tool — the pamphlet … a new consumer luxury. He flooded Europe with leaflets about his new discovery and set the imagination (and the greed) of millions of Europeans ablaze. His pamphlets made adventuring and exploration permanent parts of the Western Way of Life. They sparked a revolution in the way that we in the Western System would see nearly everything around us, from the place of man in the universe to the nature of the human soul.
No, Columbus hadn’t found his way to China … and he didn’t know it. But it didn’t matter. The world changed when Christopher Columbus promoted, sold, persuaded, and mentally upgraded not just our ancestors, but you and me. It changed when Columbus danced his ass off like an explorer bee. It changed when he added a new beam and column to the infrastructure of fantasy.
Did the commercialization of Marco Polo’s book make any difference? Is the lust for consumer goods self-destructive and predatory, or does it contribute to human uplift, to human powers, and to human history? Does the creation of new material realities like Prince Henry the Navigator’s ships contribute to our spiritual horizons? Does it expand our sense of the universe we become one with when we meditate or cerebrate, when we go into mystic bliss or when we philosophize? Do new material goods uplift the level of dreams? And does a new infrastructure of fantasy, in turn, upshift the level of humanity’s material powers?
I’ve given you some clues. Now the answer’s up to you.