Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Ownership" and the tragedy of the commons

I was lying awake in bed last night when my thoughts turned to peak oil and growing food. This thought then sequed into the enclosing of space, private property, and the meaning of "ownership."

You see, when peak oil hits we will need to start growing our own food because it won't be shipped in from the far flung corners of the earth anymore--the cost of oil and gasoline will make it impossible to transport anything affordably. So, the need to start growing food locally will become paramount and the local people will have to plant, tend, and harvest the crops because the farmers won't be able to use their tractors for the same reason trucks can't bring food--the gas is too expensive. This means the local farmers will have to share their land with the local towns people so that everyone will keep from starving to death. This is just plain reality in the days to come.

But then my thought turned to how the notion of "private property" enclosed the land once used as a commons for agricultural purposes. Then, with this notion of private property came the idea that people can do anything they want with their land, including polluting the air, water, and land they "own." But the air doesn't just stay inside the invisible property lines, it moves into the space enclosed by another person's invisible property lines. The same is true of any stream, creek, or river that runs across the property. And the ground water underneath the land is equally shared by everyone who pumps from that aquifer. So, the whole idea that private property means you get to do anything you want on your land is not only selfish, it is also stupid because eventually what you do will fill your own lungs or be in the water you drink or in the food you eat.

This is not to say you can't do anything at all because having a home, a garden, planting flowers and trees, and generally making it a nice place to hang out are good things. The problem is the mentality that gives permission to destroy or maim what nature or God has created. No one may pollute the air, water, or land to the detriment of other people or other living things and yet things are done everyday, some by ordinary people overfertilizing their lawns or using pesticides, and some, like corporations, who do it deliberately with no thought of the ultimate consequences beyond reaping a hefty profit.

This aspect of "ownership" is not the one touted by the administration in regards to social security. They have in mind the kind where people act responsibly to ensure a secure future for their retirement and to pass on an improved legacy to their children in the same way people ought to treat a park to keep it clean and undamaged so that it will remain enjoyable by all for generations to come.

Unfortunately, the example set by the government and the profit seekers in society show nothing of this kind of responsibility. They think nothing of trashing the environment, polluting the air, water, land, and food, poisoning and killing people with medicine--something that is supposed to save lives not take lives, of placing people and their newborns in indentured servitude in perpetuity, or of treating people like mushrooms where they are kept in the dark and fed bullshit to keep them from learning what is really being done to them. Then, they absolve themselves of having ruined our commonwealth, our common heritage, our livelihoods, our lives, our children's and grandchildren's futures, and then have the gall to say they have no responsibility to promote and protect the public good because that is the responsibility of each person in this new "ownership" society where only the profit margin matters.

So, like children who learn from their parents the kind of values they should have, governmental policies and business practices set the tone of society and create a culture where nothing is valued except a number. This is the kind of "ownership" the administration is actually promoting. In such a society, the tragedy is not only the devastaion of the commons upon which all our lives depend, but of every life enslaved by it. To have the totality of life reduced to a profit margin and the whole of one's own existence focused on this one thing is to perpetrate the greatest delusion in the history of humankind. Money, in and of itself will not feed, house, or clothe you though it might be good for starting a fire for warmth.

In the days to come, what will matter most is life itself. Without which, there is no existence. We need to remember the preciousness of life, to protect the commonwealth that feeds and supports us all, and turn to the greatest source of all wealth: the shelter of each other.