Friday, November 18, 2022

The Witch King’s Forest Reserve

Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire CEO of the Patagonia company, must be feeling his mortality. A few months back, he announced that he was transferring ownership of his three billion dollar company to a trust, so that the capital and profits can be used to preserve wild spaces and fight climate change. He is not the first person to do this. About a decade ago, Gilded Age heiress Cordelia Scaife May gave her estate to a trust, which attracted notoriety when New York Times reporters revealed that for every dollar the trust gave to bird sanctuaries, more than twice as much was given to white supremacist groups.

Mr Choulnard’s politics and beliefs appear to be very different to Ms May’s, and what criticism I’ve read of his decision seems to be fairly mild, so I’m going to look at this from more of a structural angle. But because finance bores the teeth out of me, I will use metaphor. And since Stranger Things has made D&D cool again*, I will use that terminology.

In D&D, there are all kinds of monsters. But one of the most feared types are ancient witch kings and sorcerers whose magic is so powerful that it has allowed them to continue to roam the earth long after their bodies have died. These liches (or demi-liches, if they are so ancient their bodies have crumbled into a cloud of bone dust and a skull preserved by hate and enchantments) continue to exist and trouble the world long after their time has past, haunting the people and society of the game with their malice and cunning. And that, essentially, is what a trust is.

With a trust, the money is invested, usually in some sort of growth fund, and part of the returns are spent by a board of directors, who basically channel the spirit of the deceased to augur their long dead wishes. It basically gives the dead the power to reach out of the past and use their money to impact the living. And while it is no surprise that monsters like Scaife May would transform themselves in this way, the idea of a “good lich,” of Yvon the friendly neighbourhood witch king, seems a little bit odd.

Ideally, the future should belong to future generations, and the dead should not be able to rise from their crypts with seed money and bribes. At the same time, there is a role for conservation. After all, if the future generations wish to inherit anything other than a wasteland, then some sort of rules will be needed to preserve some of the Earth’s natural wonder for them. But at the same time, with wealth inequality only growing, and with these trusts and institutes compounding investment returns faster than they can give the money away, it makes me wonder. Does their existence doom the future generations to be serfs in a necrocracy, paying rent to long dead landlords who preserve their planet not for their sake, but according to the whims of a long dead plutocrat?

·      *   For the first time since the Cryogenean ice melted.