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How Inequality Is Killing the Dinosaurs

Research & Commentary
March 08, 2013

by Salvatore Babones

Rising inequality is killing the dinosaurs – or at least what’s left of them. Paleontologists report a boom in illicit dinosaur excavation and smuggling. The most recent case to hit the news was the theft of a large raptor from Mongolia.

In many cases dinosaur excavation for profit is not even illegal, though from a scientific standpoint it is extraordinarily damaging. One collector’s trophy is the world’s collective loss as fossils are collected haphazardly with no scientific record-keeping.

The result is that the few bits and pieces that remain of the “terrible lizards” that once ruled the Earth are increasingly subject to plunder, damage and vandalism at the hands of opportunistic for-profit fossil hunters. Large, intact skeletons can sell at auction for a million dollars or more.

The terrible irony is that collectors can legally and morally buy high-quality casts of the kind actually displayed in museums for a fraction of the cost of acquiring real bones-from-dirt fossils.

Collectors argue that as long as they break no laws they should be free to collect what they want, be it art, coins, fossils. But let’s be serious: Who really wants a 40-foot long tyrannosaurus for the living room? Even if you’re allowed to buy one, who would?

According to CBS News legal correspondent John Miller, the buyers are “wealthy people who want something really interesting for their friends to talk about put under their key light in their basement for their 70 dinner guests.”

Personally, I’ve never held a dinner for 70 guests, and if I could afford to hold a dinner for 70 guests (and if I had 70 guests to invite), I could afford to rent out the dinosaur room at the local museum of natural history for the occasion.

Hanging a real dinosaur skeleton in your dining room is the stuff of James Bond villains. Real people don’t do this. Except they do.

[pullquote]Hanging a real dinosaur skeleton in your dining room is the stuff of James Bond villains.[/pullquote]

Levels of income inequality have now reached such epic proportions that literally tens of thousands of real-life James Bond villains are equipping their fantastical lairs with action-mounted fighting dinosaur skeletons, second-rate $100 million Picassos, and Galileo first editions stolen from a library in Naples. For the truly discerning collector, Damien Hurst’s diamond-encrusted skull is reportedly still on the market.

They have the money. Forbes counts at least 1,153 billionaires in the world, and there are literally millions of millionaires. When money is no object, good morals and even good taste fall by the wayside. You want it, you get it.

We’ve seen this all before. The great public collections of the world have their origins in the Victorian era of the mid-1800s. When the world became more unequal in the run-up to 1900, private collections displaced public ones.

Then, after World War II, the world became more equal again. The private collections of the 1900s robber barons became the public collections of the 1950s museums. If you wanted to take your kid to see a dinosaur, you went to the museum of natural history.

Today’s wealthy opt instead to just buy their kid a dinosaur.

That’s why inequality is killing the dinosaurs. We don’t know why they died the first time around. Meteor, global warming, smoking, who knows? But this time we do know the culprit. Economic inequality is killing what little is left of the dinosaurs. We should stop the slaughter before it is too late.

Originally published in Truthout. Copyright, Truthout. Used with permission.

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