Years ago I went to see an exhibit from Russia called "The Jewels of the Romanoffs." It was a collection of jewelry created for the former rulers of Russia in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. One piece in particular sticks in my mind. Sapphire droplets hung from sapphire studded gold tracery, forming fountains. Each sapphire was a perfect blue, reminiscent of the bluest sky imaginable or of clear, inviting ocean water. Each was the exact same color and same shape. Each was flawless and perfect. The total value of those gems must have approached a million dollars.
As I gazed at this glorious piece, entranced, the museum guide talked about the value of the gems in the terms of their time. I can no longer remember their exact value, but I do recall that it was equal to something like the value of ten thousand horses. At the time these jewels were created, Russia was an agrarian country and a horse would have made the difference between life and death to a peasant family. So this spoiled, utterly useless Romanoff daughter wore the life and death of ten thousand Russian families in her ears. I can't imagine what kind of justification she used to herself, but I am certain that she absolutely believed that she was entitled to such luxury. When the peasants finally came for her and her sisters, it must have been a tremendous shock. Even then, the foolish princesses took their jewels with them into imprisonment, sewed into their bodices, entitled to the end.
It would be easy to dismiss the entitlement of the Romanoffs if it was just them, or just royalty. Unfortunately, entitlement at the expense of others is a characteristic of people in every society on earth. Entire mythologies of entitlement often spring up, and, as is so often the case, the more grotesque the evil of the society, the more romantic and noble the mythology. Gentlemen of the south spoke of their honor, compared themselves to the cavaliers of old England and danced with elegantly gowned ladies at balls before going to the slave cabins to rape the helpless women who toiled all day to sew the lovely gowns and prepare the refreshments. If children were born of these liaisons, they were sold to the profit of the slaveholder, often while they were still too young to be away from their mothers. Even now, many white southerners remember those days with misty fondness, forgetting the horrible misery that supported the whole elegant society, not to mention the absence of antibiotics. I suppose black southerners do not generally feel the same.
What of us? What price do our lives extract from the world? We consume more than any other nation on earth, which is spoiled of us, but far more than spoiled. No one likes to hear about how products are made by children or slave labor, but we buy anyway. We heard in college that we are mining the world's fresh water by using more than can be replenished by natural systems, but we went on to buy a house and put in a pool and a spa and a fountain. We've read that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is heating the earth, but we deny it and buy an SUV. We know that animal habitat is being lost to human encroachment, but we get angry if anyone suggests that we should have fewer children. Like a nation of locusts we eat the planet, to the detriment of other, less powerful nations, and of our own children and grandchildren. We could easily stop conscienceless corporations from exploitative, corrupt and polluting behavior by not buying their stocks or their products. We can contribute in a thousand ways to slowing the degradation of the planet, not least by having no more than two children, and preferably one or none. We could, but we won't. We're too entitled.