An un­com­monly com­mon prob­lem

We all like to own things but Mur­ray ar­gues it’s shar­ing things that will help us be sus­tain­able long-term.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - The Goodlife - By Rem­brandt is con­sid­ered price­less, but only if you have all the other re­sources you need.

We could say that once upon a time, no in­di­vid­ual owned any­thing and that ev­ery­body owned ev­ery­thing. But we’d be wrong.

I’d never thought about com­mon own­er­ship or ‘the com­mons’ un­til I in­ter­viewed poet Brian Turner and artist Gra­hame Sydney back in 2010. They were fight­ing a wind farm pro­posal, ar­gu­ing that vis­ual amenity was a ‘com­mon’ which we all own, and that the wind farm pro­po­nents were ef­fec­tively pri­vatis­ing it.

Since then I’ve given it a lot of thought. Where did the trend of own­ing what was pre­vi­ously ‘the com­mons’ start? Where is it headed? What are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions?

As soon as life got more com­plex than al­gae, there have been fights for rights to the com­mons. Per­haps it was even hap­pen­ing by then, one piece of lichen cov­er­ing a par­tic­u­lar rock no other lichen could un­less that other lichen wiped it out first. Many an­i­mals com­pete for phys­i­cal ter­ri­tory, some for eco­log­i­cal ter­ri­tory; all com­pete for food. Early man, re­cently out of Africa and colonis­ing along the banks of the Danube, had only farm­ing tools. Later gen­er­a­tions had weapons, a clear in­di­ca­tion that they’d come to the point where too many wanted too lit­tle. That was the point where there were not enough com­mons left and clearly the price had gone up.

His­tory gives us a myr­iad of ex­am­ples. Some folk tend to hang on to own­er­ship, par­tic­u­larly of ter­ri­tory, at the ex­pense of oth­ers (the term ‘real es­tate’ comes from ‘royal es­tate’). In­deed, we all do it when we ex­clude oth­ers from our patch by call­ing it ‘pri­vate’.

Un­til re­cently, scarcity of both ter­ri­tory and re­sources could be eas­ily off­set by just go­ing fur­ther afield, fur­ther away – as far away as the other side of the planet in the case of Euro­pean set­tlers to NZ – or deeper down, fur­ther up, some­where else or, as a last re­sort re­source-wise, by sub­sti­tu­tion.

At an ever-quick­en­ing rate, we mapped ev­ery­where, divvied it all up, and started hag­gling. When there were too many of us in one small area we built up­ward. Don­ald Trump was an early dealer in the yet-to-be pri­va­tised com­mon that is el­e­vated air space.

Our ap­par­ently in­sa­tiable de­mand for self-im­prove­ment via ac­qui­si­tion, cou­pled with our ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to con­trol pop­u­la­tion in a so­cially ac­cept­able man­ner has seen us run­ning into the lim­its of what is avail­able in a phys­i­cal sense. If we want more ur­ban land, it has to be at the ex­pense of sur­round­ing (ex­ist­ing) farm­land. If we then want more farm­land to re­place what was lost to the ur­ban in­cur­sion and to feed the ex­tra mouths be­ing housed, it has to be at the ex­pense of some­thing else like forests, con­ser­va­tion land, aquifer draw-down or what­ever. A clas­sic ex­am­ple would be Auck­land sprawl­ing out­wards. Fol­low it through and the pres­sure to pro­duce food from the re­main­ing land has re­sulted in the im­por­ta­tion of palm ker­nel from other land which un­til re­cently sup­ported im­por­tant rain forests.

The phys­i­cal com­mons are lim­ited, and in many cases head­ing for ex­haus­tion at an ex­po­nen­tially-in­creas­ing pace. This has led to in­creased quest­ing for non-phys­i­cal ‘com­mons’ to ‘own’ like in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, vis­ual amenity, artis­tic merit. All in­tan­gi­bles, all wish­ful po­ten­tial profit-mak­ers.

I sug­gest that if we trace it all back, the own­er­ship of non-phys­i­cal items is a great game we can play un­til we ac­tu­ally want some­thing phys­i­cal. It gets more con­fus­ing when we are con­tem­plat­ing some­thing es­sen­tially phys­i­cal but which has a non-phys­i­cal at­tri­bu­tion, like a paint­ing where we are bid­ding up the ‘price’ of some dried oil on a piece of can­vas. The value of a Rem­brandt can go from tens to hun­dreds to thou­sands to mil­lions to bil­lions, but the mo­ment the owner is into their third day with­out food, it’s worth a meal. Maybe – if the sup­plier of that meal is in search of a spade or an axe – not even that.

Non-phys­i­cal com­mons have no ap­par­ent lim­its. You can pre­sum­ably imag­ine some­thing, give it a name, con­vince just one other per­son it is worth some­thing, and flog it off. This poses two in­ter­est­ing ques­tions: how will the fu­ture own­er­ship of fi­nite stuff play out, and what hap­pens if we keep pump­ing money into the sys­tem when there is a re­duc­tion in

the amount of real stuff avail­able? For ex­am­ple, not the smart phones you see on a re­tailer’s shelf, but the cop­per, gold and rare earths needed to make them.

It has to be ob­vi­ous that if you dou­ble your pop­u­la­tion, you halve the pos­si­ble acreage-per-head, halve the amount of cop­per avail­able per head, in­deed halve ev­ery­thing per-head. Can some­one please ex­plain then, how hav­ing more peo­ple makes us richer? No? Clearly hav­ing more peo­ple means less chance for an in­di­vid­ual to own any­thing, in a phys­i­cal sense.

Some of the ways we ob­tain ac­cess to the com­mons are a lit­tle un­com­fort­able to deal with. The US’S mil­i­tary power has a lot to do with what we get, how we get it, and at what price and we seem to pre­fer not to have that dis­cus­sion. The fact is that there is not enough left in the way of plan­e­tary re­sources for the Third World to raise its con­sump­tion level to ours but we seem to avoid that one by think­ing in terms of rais­ing them out of poverty while stu­diously avoid­ing the point that piles of money are noth­ing real and guar­an­tee ac­cess to pre­cisely noth­ing.

Mean­time, there are a few – there’s only room for a few – who are at­tempt­ing to mop-up the re­main­ing re­sources and op­por­tu­ni­ties. In a man­ner some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the Hitch­hik­ers Guide to the Galaxy, the TPPA is quite anal­o­gous to the de­mo­li­tion of Earth be­ing posted on a base­ment no­tice­board four light years away for all to see. In the TPPA case, it’s an over­seas court sit­u­a­tion with no le­gal aid or Friend of the Court ser­vice avail­able for small play­ers. The only place that process ends is with a small num­ber of peo­ple or cor­po­ra­tions own­ing ev­ery­thing. In some places, cor­po­ra­tions al­ready own the rain which falls on peo­ple’s pri­vate prop­erty. Pay up or die of thirst; poor­est lose first. Some game.

We seem in­ca­pable as a so­ci­ety of hav­ing that de­bate and seem to need to avoid it at all costs. I see war(s) ahead, in­creas­ing in des­per­a­tion with time. How else have we ever divvied up too-lit­tle into too-many? The ‘loaves and fishes’ para­ble might sound warm and fuzzy, but loaves are in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and – glob­ally at least – fish­ing has shot its smolt. Both con­sume fos­sil oils by the bar­rel too and

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