Weal is an old word. It goes way back, to the days when a bunch of European tribes were squabbling over Great Britain: Roman invaders building walls to keep wild Celts and Picts from the civilized environs of their empire, Germanic and Scandinavian and Norman French invaders crashing onto the shores of an island where immigrants weren’t necessarily welcome, mixing up their genes and their languages and their culture. Whatever the disagreements of these groups as they contested over the British Isles, words akin to weal are found across large swaths of northern Europe, all related to a single concept: collective well-being. This is the word that gives us “well,” “wealth,” and “welfare,” as well as “Commonwealth,” a political entity that foregrounds the idea of shared responsibility and shared prosperity. Words with similar meanings are found throughout the world, so this is hardly an exclusively European concept; something in the human psyche acknowledges that we are, at our core, a social species responsible for our fellow creatures.
Today we understand wealth as relating to capital, material goods, and private property, but at one time wealth inhered in this shared investment in one’s community. When Puritans overthrew the corrupt monarchy of England in 1649 and decapitated Charles I – a man whose inflated self-opinion and dictatorial policies eventually became untenable to the British public – the nation’s briefly monarch-free government was referred to as a Commonwealth (This is about the time that the first use of the word “wolverine” is recorded in the English language, in customs forms related to fur imports). When those same English Puritans landed on the shores of North America in the 17th century, bringing with them all the good of their anti-monarchial ideals and all the ills of their colonial and religiously intolerant agenda, the land that they colonized eventually became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. And if there has always been a struggle between oligarchy and democracy in this country, if there has always been a tension between Enlightenment ideals and terrible colonial realities, the country’s values are nevertheless rooted in an understanding that we come to our community, and to its governance, in a spirit of both individualism and shared investment in the well-being of our fellow citizens.
What does this have to do with wolverines?
Wolverines, like all wildlife, are a public good. They don’t belong to any single person or interest group in the US, which means that we are collectively responsible for them. They are part of the weal of this country, part of the wealth we share. When we discuss what we know about wolverines, when we discuss management of wolverines, we’re talking about how to negotiate within a common-interest space for common-interest outcomes. This process is essential to democracy as well as to conservation of wildlife and the preservation of other environmental values that involve shared resources.
This reality rests uneasily next to a narrative that has gained increasing power over the past few decades, however: the narrative of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal narrative is a study in the privileging of special interests over the well-being of the collective of citizens known as society. It’s a deliberate turning of our backs on the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the world in which that individual lives and makes a living. Neolilberalism privatizes all profit, while socializing the risks and costs of profit-making. It consolidates capital among those who already have it, and denies the idea of the common weal by allowing those with capital to horde it without giving back and without taking responsibility for the ways in which they impose on the public good. It puts a price tag on everything, and dismisses things that cannot be assigned monetary value. How much is a wild wolverine population worth to the public? This is hard to quantify. Easier to quantify is the value of profit made by oil industry executives and shareholders. The oil industry, in a world that extolls the neoliberal narrative, wins out over public interest. Neoliberalism is a powerfully destructive ideology, insidious and pervasive, and it is this basic set of values that will end up driving wolverines – and other climate sensitive wildlife – to extinction. Unless, of course, we have a massive society-wide awakening, immediately.
To that end, for those of you who are wolverine fans, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on your values. What are your priorities? How do these priorities potentially have an impact on society? What do you expect or feel entitled to in life, and what do you consider to be your obligations to the wider world? How do you define that wider world, and do you think are there limits to your obligations? If so, where are these limits? Likewise, if you feel like you are entitled to certain things, where are the limits on those entitlements, and do you extend the same set of entitlements to others? If so, which others?
These may seem like large and abstract questions, but I suspect that most people who are concerned with the persistence of wildlife fall within certain parameters when these questions are considered on a spectrum. There’s a lot of work out there in the social sciences on values orientation, the psychology of concern for in-groups vs. out-groups, and where environmental folks tend to fall out on these tests. For now, I’ll provide a couple of graphics and a set of questions to help you situate yourself within this conversation, because this issue of common interest vs. special interest will feature in upcoming posts and you’ll probably find yourself having gut-level reactions to some of what I write. You should know where those reactions are coming from.
Wolverine Quiz: What’s your in-group?
First, let’s look at in-groups and out-groups. There’s a theory that people subconsciously define other people and entities as being relatively closer or relatively farther from themselves, and care about those people or entities to a degree that is dictated by that distance.
Beings that are closer to the self get more care. Beings that are further get less. There are entities that are seen as being definitively outside of the scope of care; those beings are the out-group.
In a very restricted or self-centered worldview, the in-group and out-group might look something like this:
In a very generous worldview, everything might be part of the in-group:
Note that these graphics should actually contain another dimension, which is time – for example, I consider living and non-living future generations, up to a certain point, as part of my ‘in-group,’ but I don’t really think about non-living past generations as part of my responsibility since – unless we really take it to a science fiction level – my actions can’t affect them. These are very basic graphics and very general explanations, but you probably get the idea.
Most people will fall somewhere in between the restricted and generous versions of the in-group/out-group dynamics above. Where do you fall? Who or what is in your in-group? If wolverines are in your in-group, why? (If they aren’t, what brings you to this blog?)
That question of why certain entities are included or excluded from our circle of concern leads us back to values. And that will be the topic of an upcoming post.