Refuse Baron Rejected

As recycling kingpin Chen Guangbiao toured the neighborhood around Tribeca’s New York City Rescue Mission, he whipped out a $100 bill and tried to hand it out to a man on Canal Street.

But, like any New Yorker approached by a clueless smiling tourist, the man just put his head down and kept walking.

The snub didn’t ruin Chen’s good mood, which got a boost as he crooned the sappy goodwill anthem “We Are The World” with a hobo….

The refuse baron — who is worth $740 million, according to Forbes — wants to lavish his largesse on New York’s poor to show Americans that wealthy Chinese aren’t just greedy robber barons.

Chen Guangbiao stalks New York City, failing to give away $100 bills, and planning, today, to hold a meal for 250 poor people in Central Park, who will each walk away with a cool $300 for having attended this theater of charity.

To put this medieval charity in context:

(300*250)/740,000,000=0.0000001013513514 of his net worth.

To put this in a more human context, calculating from my salary rather than my, haha, net worth, it would be the equivalent to me donating $0.000007, or of CUNY’s new chancellor (salary: $670,000) donating $0.000067. That’s somewhat shy of a penny.

To make this perfectly clear, Mark 12:41-44  and Luke 21:1-4:

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”


1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

Jesus’s mistake, of course, is focusing on the widow’s piety rather than on what’s actually, practically needed. If this story, like so many others, aims to scour away hypocrisy and a good conscience, Jesus might have gone on to demand that the rich give it all away, or perhaps, at least, that they give up something slightly more than 0.0000001013513514 of their estate. And he might have continued, had he been as wise as he purported to be, by explaining the causal relationship between the wealth of the rich and the widow’s poverty. Then, maybe, the widow would have left the temple with something more substantial than a clean spirit.

Practically speaking, Chen Guangbiao is giving away nothing. Rather, he’s doing what he does, professionally, ensuring that the “trash” of capitalism, its refuse(d), its excess, and its outside, is caught up in the closed loop of recycling. If our trash is his profit–and, in comparison to $740,000,000, we’re all trash–then there’s no way out except, maybe, something a bit more substantial.

This point, which I borrow from from Nicole Shukin, is what I’ll leave you with:

Yet rendering convincingly poses as an ecological service that atones for carnivorous capital. It is through timagehe idea that recycling offers an antidote to the unbridled greed of industrial culture…that the even more total capitalization of nature promised by rendering evades notice….More than just mopping up after capital has made a killing, the rendering industry promises the possibility of an infinite resubjection (“return”) of nature to capital. The “industrial ecology” metaphor of the closed loop valorizes the ecological soundness of waste recovery and recycling just as the rendering industry effectively opens up a renewable resource frontier for capitalism.

The conclusion to this story is far, far stranger than even I, a prophet, could have predicted. An excerpt from the Times piece, on the whimsy of sovereignty and the sickness of charity:

The bad news had finally reached the last few tables: Their host, a Chinese millionaire, would not be handing out any cash.Only moments before, the host, Chen Guangbiao, had made a speech promising everyone $300 in cash. It was a particularly huge deal for this crowd: All the guests were homeless men and women.

There was grumbling, a few shouts of anger. But most — at least at first — were in a state of stunned despair.

“Are you serious?” said Tom Cargill, 52, staring into his dessert. “I feel so disappointed right now I’m going to throw up.” It was a pivotal moment in a bizarre event orchestrated by Mr. Chen, a 46-year-old recycling magnate who said he was seeking to help New York’s poor and inspire a culture of philanthropy around the world.