Our Attitude Towards Wealth Played a Crucial Role in Brexit. We Need a Rethink
The decision to leave the EU was disappointing. But now we’re outside the union, we need to be honest about the part that money plays in our society
Our Attitude Towards Wealth Played a Crucial Role in Brexit. We Need a Rethink
Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck
By Stephen Hawking / theguardian.com

Does money matter? Does wealth make us rich any more? These might seem like odd questions for a physicist to try to answer, but Britain’s referendum decision is a reminder that everything is connected and that if we wish to understand the fundamental nature of the universe, we’d be very foolish to ignore the role that wealth does and doesn’t play in our society.

I argued during the referendum campaign that it would be a mistake for Britain to leave the European Union. I’m sad about the result, but if I’ve learned one lesson in my life it is to make the best of the hand you are dealt. Now we must learn to live outside the EU, but in order to manage that successfully we need to understand why British people made the choice that they did. I believe that wealth, the way we understand it and the way we share it, played a crucial role in their decision. As the prime minister, Theresa May, said in her first week in office: “We need to reform the economy to allow more people to share in the country’s prosperity.”

We all know that money is important. One of the reasons I believed it would be wrong to leave the EU was related to grants. British science needs all the money it can get, and one important source of such funding has for many years been the European commission. Without these grants, much important work would not and could not have happened. There is already some evidence of British scientists being frozen out of European projects, and we need the government to tackle this issue as soon possible.

Money is also important because it is liberating for individuals. I have spoken in the past about my concern that government spending cuts in the UK will diminish support for disabled students, support that helped me during my career. In my case, of course, money has helped not only make my career possible but has also literally kept me alive.

On one occasion while in Switzerland early on in my career, I developed pneumonia, and my college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, arranged to have me flown back to the UK for treatment. Without their money I might not have survived to do all the thinking that I’ve managed since then. Cash can set individuals free, just as poverty can certainly trap them and limit their potential, to their own detriment and that of the human race.

So I would be the last person to decry the significance of money. However, although wealth has played an important practical role in my life, I have of course had a different relationship with it to most people. Paying for my care as a severely disabled man, and my work, is crucial; the acquisition of possessions is not. I don’t know what I would do with a racehorse, or indeed a Ferrari, even if I could afford one. So I have come to see money as a facilitator, as a means to an end – whether it is for ideas, or health, or security – but never as an end in itself.

Interestingly this attitude, for a long time seen as the predictable eccentricity of a Cambridge academic, is now more widely shared. People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?

These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some groundbreaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth. These ideas are started by one generation with the hope a future generation will take up these challenges.

I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious – climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.

If we fail then the forces that contributed to Brexit, the envy and isolationism not just in the UK but around the world that spring from not sharing, of cultures driven by a narrow definition of wealth and a failure to divide it more fairly, both within nations and across national borders, will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the long-term outlook for our species.

But we can and will succeed. Humans are endlessly resourceful, optimistic and adaptable. We must broaden our definition of wealth to include knowledge, natural resources, and human capacity, and at the same time learn to share each of those more fairly. If we do this, then there is no limit to what humans can achieve together.

Stephen Hawking recently launched www.unlimited.world

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 12,629 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,455 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 2,713 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 1,851 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,832 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,352 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 1,300 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 879 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 828 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 756 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 640 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 629 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 552 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 403 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 390 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 346 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 287 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 287 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
World's Low-Cost Economy Built on the Backs of 46 Million Modern Day Slaves
Deirdre Fulton · 265 views today · 'Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible.'
Life in Occupied Palestine (2009)
59 min · 231 views today · Anna Baltzer, a Jewish American, gives her eyewitness perspectives on average citizens living in occupied Palestine. Baltzer spent 5 months in the West Bank working with the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Our Attitude Towards Wealth Played a Crucial Role in Brexit. We Need a Rethink